Hope in captivity: How kidnapped journalists coped
PARIS — Snatched suddenly into captivity, Western journalists kidnapped in the Middle East and elsewhere often develop survival techniques ranging fromprayer tocalisthenics, say some who have been released. It is likely, they add, that Jill Carroll has found her own way of braving her ordeal.
"You force yourself to remain positive, calm, and focused," says Micah Garen, a freelance American filmmaker held in Iraq by a Shiite Muslim group for 10 days in 2004. "Most people who go through something like this are surprised they can find the courage and dignity to cope."
There has been no news of Ms. Carroll's whereabouts since her kidnappers released a video 10 days ago showing her looking tired but unhurt. Her captors accompanied the video with a message implying they would kill her unless all female Iraqi prisoners in US custody were released within 72 hours. A reporter on assignment for the Monitor, Carroll was seized by unknown gunmen on Jan. 7. Her interpreter, Allan Enwiyah, was killed.
Each hostage's experience is personal and unique, so it's hard to deduce from their stories the conditions under which Carroll is being held.
But reporters who have undergone varying periods of captivity - in conditions ranging from thatched huts in jungle clearings where they were allowed to wander to cramped, dark cellars where they were kept chained and blindfolded - say they overcame bouts of fear and desperation by deliberate effort.
"I was always trying to be combative, to stand up to them [her kidnappers], not to be submissive but to be strong," recalls Giuliana Sgrena, an Italian journalist held hostage in Baghdad for a month in 2005.
Ms. Sgrena said her goal was "to keep my dignity. I was thinking of people who had resisted bad situations before me, people like Nelson Mandela," in prison for 27 years. "When he left he had a lot of dignity."
Comparing his situation with those even less fortunate also helped Roger Auque, a French reporter held in Lebanon by Hizbullah for a year in 1987. "I thought a lot about the people who were deported during World War II," he says. "It helped me be stronger, knowing others had suffered more than I."
Others say that they simply accepted their situation and clung to the hope that they would be freed. "I had no stratagems, no tricks," explains Florence Aubenas, a French reporter who was released in June 2005 after nearly six months in captivity. "You are simply obliged to put up with it, you have no choice."
Ms. Aubenas says she was fortified by a clear sense of why she had gone to Baghdad despite the risk of being kidnapped.
"I wasn't there for the glory, or more money, or because I had to be there," she says. "I went because dangerous places are the last places journalists should shut the door on.
"Baghdad is at the heart of the major issues of our time. For a foreign correspondent it is a dream to be there," explains Aubenas.
Some hostages have been fortunate enough to have books to read: Mr. Auque's Hizbullah guards gave him a copy of the Bible in English, and in the course of reading it over a year "I traveled a spiritual path and became a believer," Auque recalls.
Others found the enforced idleness difficult. "A lot of it is simply sitting there or lying on your back," Mr. Garen points out.
To cope, he counted the insects that crawled into the outdoor cage where he was held, and tried to remember details about his friends' faces. "You don't want to let your mind go soft," he cautions.
Roland Madura, a sound engineer with French TV who was captured, along with two colleagues, on the Philippine island of Jolo in 2000, says he too played memory games. "We tried to think of five towns beginning with 'A,' or five famous people beginning with 'B.' When you're under stress it's not as easy as you'd think." Simpler, he adds, was his half-hour of morning exercise.
Garen says the two most important qualities during his captivity were endurance and compassion.
"You keep extending the amount of time you think you can endure," he says. "On the first day I didn't think I could handle two days of this. After four days I thought I could manage a month. The hardest part for me was the first day."
Compassion, he adds, was important because "all you can do is try to reach out to the people who have taken you, explain who you are, and try to create some kind of bond with them."
That has been possible to different degrees for different hostages. Some guards have simply delivered food in silence to their prisoners, and accompanied them to the lavatory. Others made conversation.
"They were curious to know me, and I was curious to know them," says Ms. Sgrena of her captors. "We tried to discuss many things" in broken English, Arabic, and French.
At different times, the former hostages say, they found reasons for hope. Aubenas, "optimistic by nature," says "I was convinced that I would get out, that the public, my newspaper, and my government would not abandon me ... I was sure of a happy ending." Sgrena also drew hope from her certainty that "people outside would be mobilizing for my freedom," and Garen says his spirits were lifted when one of his guards said he had seen Garen's sister appealing for his life on Al Jazeera TV.
Carroll's parents have also made appeals on Arabic TV channels, including Al Jazeera, as part of a campaign to win her freedom.
Though "the worst thing about being a hostage is not knowing" what the next moment might bring, says Garen, hostages learn to cope with that uncertainty adds Madura. "It's in difficult situations like that that you discover you actually can hold on."