Joy came to France this morning as the last two journalists held hostage under war conditions arrived home after 547 days in Taliban captivity. They said the ordeal raised their awareness of other hostages held “everywhere in the world.”
Hervé Ghesquierè and Stéphane Taponier of France 3 television started reporting in Afghanistan while embedded with a French military unit and were abducted in 2009 in the Kapisa Valley after visiting a town without the protection of troops, in order to get an authentic take on the area.
Today the two landed at a military air base outside Paris amid throngs of French journalists and hugged each other and family, answering questions in an ebullient moment. "We're doing really, really, really well," said Mr. Taponier, a cameraman who has worked in Gaza and Lebanon. “We stayed optimistic.”
When French Prime Minister Francois Fillon announced yesterday the release of the two at the National Assembly, that body erupted in a standing ovation. France has a famed tradition of patriotic emotion on the return home of captives. The release of a French-Colombian celebrity politician, Ingrid Betancourt, after six years held in the jungle brought a day of celebration two years ago.
The two France 3 journalists today described their ordeal as grueling due to poor conditions, lack of food, and uncertainty, but said they were not treated badly by their Taliban captors. Their translator, an Afghan national named Reza Din, was also released.
“We were never threatened, never beaten, never tied up,” Taponier said. “But we were locked up 23 hours and 45 minutes [a day], with very little to eat, and always the same thing, ‘Afghan mountain special.’ It might sound stupid, food, but it's vital."
Mr. Ghesquierè, who worked in the Rwanda, Kosovo, and Balkan wars, said the experience has him thinking more of other unfortunates who are locked away or kidnapped. "There are many hostages in the world, I am really thinking about them,” he told colleagues today. “To be a hostage is complicated and difficult… I feel a deep emotion for them."
The two were released following a December intervention with Afghan President Hamid Karzai by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, as well as the announcement of a withdrawal of French troops this month after US President Obama’s decision to draw down US troop levels. The Paris-based Reporters San Frontiers says the two are the final professional journalists held hostage that they are aware of.
Unusually, for four months after their kidnapping the French government did not release the men’s names. The reason was to reduce pressure in negotiations, a tactic similar to that used by the New York Times in securing its reporter David Rhodes. It was the first time France had held back names of captives.
Perils of war reporting
Journalists here later criticized French officials for insinuating, once their names were known, that the men were irresponsible and perhaps culpable, since they left their embed. The issue of operating independently in Taliban areas has been a sensitive and highly subjective one among foreign reporters in Afghanistan: The calculation pits the reporter’s experience and skill with a desire to achieve a thrilling or significant story and includes the risk of doing harm to local translators, civilians or troops that may be called to rescue.
In this case, the men had war reporting backgrounds. They worked for a highly regarded series on France 3 television called “Pièces à conviction,” an in-depth report akin to “Frontline” on US public television or “Assignment” on the BBC. Their Afghan report focused on a road reconstruction project in the French military zone to the east of Kabul and was planned for three months.
After it was posited today that French military officials warned the journalists not to go to the town they were captured in, Ghesquierè offered in a slight eruption that: "No one had warned us against going there… We didn't start out climbing the North Face of Everest wearing flip-flops, far from it… We didn't go there blindly… Let me make myself clear: No one told us anything."
Ghesquierè said he looked forward to returning to a normal life and that he did not want to “play the role of an ex-hostage.”
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