10 Famous Hostages Who Lived To Tell The Tale
By Yvonne McArthur, Best Counseling Schools, 19 December 2012.
By Yvonne McArthur, Best Counseling Schools, 19 December 2012.
For most of us, kidnappings only ever happen on screen, in edge-of-your seat thrillers on television or in the movies. However, for some people, being taken hostage is an all-too-painful and traumatizing reality. Such prisoners live under constant threat, enduring cruelty, solitude and uncertainty for protracted periods of time.
Although they lived through their experiences and tasted freedom, the 10 hostage survivors on this list didn’t get out completely unscathed - after all, psychological scars run deep. Some of these individuals were rescued, others were released, and a few even managed to escape their captors. Yet whatever the case, they all showed extraordinary human resilience in extreme circumstances. And in the end, they were the lucky ones.
10. Norman Kember
In 2005, Christian pacifist Norman Kember went to Iraq as a volunteer with Christian Peacemaker Teams. On November 26, a group called The Swords of Righteousness Brigade kidnapped Kember along with three members of his team (Tom Fox, James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden). For 118 days, the men were, according to journalist Aida Edemariam, “chained side by side in an upstairs room in a suburb of Baghdad” and “handcuffed together even when they slept.”
Their captors demanded that all Iraqi prisoners be released and threatened to execute all four men if their ultimatum was not met. Yet although the deadlines they set passed several times, the group did not carry out their threats immediately - at least, not until March 9, when Tom Fox’s body was discovered.
On March 23, 2006, a multinational force under the direction of the British Special Forces carried out a raid, successfully rescuing Kember, Loney and Sooden. Kember has what has been described as “a horror of succumbing to feeling” and can’t remember anything about the first few days of the kidnapping. What’s more, while imprisoned, he contemplated suicide but couldn’t figure out “a fail-proof method.” He even asked his fellow hostages for permission to cry.
Despite the obvious trauma he endured, Kember has sought to uphold his pacifist beliefs and Christian morals and, together with Loney and Sooden, has refused to testify against his captors in a case that would likely lead to the death sentence. He’s even refused to provide military intelligence with any information on his captors. And this stance has subjected him to media attacks and hate mail.
9. Gabriele Dillmann
On October 13, 1977, a routine flight from Majorca to Frankfurt turned into a five-day ordeal for the 86 passengers and five crewmembers on board. One of those crewmembers was German stewardess Gabriele Dillmann. Thirty minutes after take-off, Dillmann was serving passengers when four Palestinian militants identifying themselves as “Commando Martyr Halime” took over the plane. The leader of the group, 23-year-old Palestinian Zohair Youssif Akache, stormed the cockpit, held a gun to the co-pilot’s head, and ordered him to join the passengers in the back.
Under Akache’s control, the plane would travel more than 6,000 miles, touching down in Rome, Cyprus, Bahrain, Dubai, Aden, and Mogadishu. Akache demanded the release of 10 Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorists and two Palestinian compatriots as well as the provision of $15 million.
Throughout the terrifying ordeal, Dillmann was a bastion of hope and support for the other people taken hostage, and she has even been called “The Angel Of Mogadishu” (Der Engel von Mogadischu) - the title of a short film made about her.
In Aden, Akache shot and killed the plane’s captain, Jürgen Schumann, leaving co-pilot Jürgen Vietor to fly on to Mogadishu. With Akache threatening to blow up the plane unless his demands were met, 30 commandos from Germany’s GSG 9 elite anti-terrorist special forces implemented Operation Feuerzauber (Fire-Magic), successfully rescuing all the remaining hostages. Dillmann’s future husband, Rüdiger von Lutzau, flew the commandos to Mogadishu.
8. Richard Morefield
Serving as consul general to Iran at the American embassy in Tehran, Richard Morefield had experience when it came to working in violent regions. However, the situation in Tehran was particularly volatile after the US granted safe passage to Iran’s former emperor Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. And on November 4, 1979, things came to a head.
Scores of Islamist students and militants overwhelmed the American embassy. Morefield and around 20 others tried to flee the compound but only made it three blocks before they were surrounded and taken hostage. Morefield was one of 52 American hostages held during the Iran Hostage Crisis, and the nightmare would last 444 days. “It was absolute terror,” says Morefield, who was dragged into a shower and mock executed. During his captivity, he endured two further mock executions as well.
Morefield spent most of his time in a cubicle so tiny that he could only take three steps in one direction and two in another. According to journalist Adam Bernstein, his captors tried “to play with his head by allowing him cards and books, only to take them away without warning.” But his son’s murder by robbers in Virginia in 1976 gave Morefield the determination to cope. And when he spoke to his wife two days after his release on January 20, 1981, he said, “Those people tried to break us. We beat them.”
7. Alan Johnston
In 2007, British journalist Alan Johnston was in Gaza working for the BBC. He was aware of the threat of kidnapping and took preventative measures, including switching cars, moving to a better-protected apartment, and making sure his movements were random and unpredictable. However, despite these efforts, a militant group called the Army of Islam kidnapped him on March 12, in a desperate effort to secure the release of Muslims imprisoned in Britain. Johnston was really the only way to strike at Britain from Gaza. As he puts it: “All that Britain had left in Gaza was the BBC. And in the BBC, there was only one British citizen, me. And the Jihadis had me, like a bird in a cage.”
Johnston was imprisoned in an empty room and had no contact with the outside world. He had no access to television, radio, paper or pencils. All he was able to do was sit or pace for 16 to 17 hours a day until he could fall asleep. The battle was psychological. Johnston stifled any negative thoughts almost before they formed and focused on how much worse things could be.
As mentioned, Johnston could move around, and he sometimes even made some of his own meals. Eventually, he got a radio and learned of the BBC’s campaign to free him. He was threatened with death several times, and he tried to prepare himself by imagining what the scenario would be like - so that he could die with dignity when the time came. Ultimately, Hamas seized complete control of Gaza and put pressure on the Army of Islam to release Johnston. He was turned over to them on July 4, 2007, after nearly four months in captivity.
6. Terry Waite
In January 1987, church envoy and hostage negotiator Terry Waite travelled to Beirut to arrange the release of hostages held by the Islamic Jihadist Organization. On January 20, Waite was given the opportunity to visit the prisoners, who were said to be ill, but as it turned out the militants took him hostage as well. He was held captive for five years - four of them in solitary confinement.
Waite says that over the years, three things kept him in good stead: no regrets, no self-pity, and no over-sentimentality. All the same, the experience was far from easy. His captors beat him on the soles of his feet with cables and mock-executed him to scare the wits out of him. He had no contact with his family, who themselves had no idea whether he was alive or dead for the first four years of his detention.
Waite was eventually given a radio and had previously tapped on a wall in code to communicate with the hostages in the next cell. One of those captives was journalist John McCarthy, who spent over five years in captivity and was Britain’s longest-held hostage in Lebanon. McCarthy was set free in August 1991, and Waite was eventually released a couple of months later, on November 18.
5. Brian Keenan
Belfast native Brian Keenan was a virtually unknown professor at the American University in Beirut when he was taken hostage by Islamic Jihad gunmen on April 11, 1986. Keenan spent four and a half years chained to the walls of tiny cells and was transported in the trunks of cars with his body wrapped up in tape. He spent several months in solitary confinement but eventually shared a cell with fellow hostage John McCarthy.
Keenan tried not to contemplate what was happening in the outside world, as he believed this and considering the future would make his situation too difficult. He says: “I remember thinking, this is where I am and I might be here for a long time - I might never get out… Other hostages survived by thinking…outside their confinement, but I didn’t.” Coping became easier for Keenan when he received imaginary visits from a blind 17th-century Irish harpist named Turlough O’Carolan, who became “very real” to him. He says: “[I had] conversations with the wall, [and] the wall was talking back.”
After he was released on August 24, 1990, Keenan spent time in Count Mayo, Ireland, recording his experiences and piecing his life back together again. He eventually married his physiotherapist and has found that raising children has been “the perfect antidote to four years of hellish captivity.” He adds: “Having kids is all about the here and now; there’s no time to focus on the past.”
4. Paul and Rachel Chandler
British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler decided to spend their retirement sailing around the world. But three years into their adventure, their dream trip took a drastic turn for the worse after they left the Seychelles for Tanzania. At around 2:30am on October 23, 2009, while the couple was sleeping, three skiffs full of Somali pirates boarded their yacht and took them hostage. Since the British government does not pay ransom money for hostages, and the Chandlers had sold their house to buy the yacht, there was no one to pay for their freedom besides their family. And with their captors demanding £4 million ($6.4 million), this was no small order.
For the following 388 days, the couple was shifted around Somalia, staying in makeshift desert camps and under the guard of gun-toting, drug-addled young men. They were severely beaten at one stage and were fed a meagre diet.
To cope with the situation, Rachel revisited childhood memories and daydreamed. Paul, on the other hand, absorbed himself in the world of the gang, trying to befriend his guards and to learn their language. Eventually, their relatives negotiated the ransom down to $440,000, money they raised between them and had dropped by plane.
However, almost five months later, the Chandlers were still captives, with the pirates holding out for more money. Ashamed of his countrymen, a Somali taxi driver in East London raised a reported $200,000 from the Somali Diaspora in Britain and delivered it to the pirates himself. This final payment secured the couple’s release. The Chandlers wrote a book about their experiences, restored their recovered yacht, and resumed their at-sea adventure in September 2012.
3. David S. Rohde
In November 2008, while he was researching a book in Afghanistan, David Rohde decided to interview a young Taliban commander. The commander had previously done interviews with European journalists, and Rohde thought it was safe - but the meeting turned out to be a trap. Rohde and two associates were taken over the border to Pakistan, where a powerful group called The Haqqani network held them. “The Taliban had complete control of the town,” says Rohde. “They taught bomb-making classes. Huge explosions went off.” Yet the Pakistani military base nearby did nothing.
Two months before his kidnapping, Rohde had married Kristen Mulvihill. But due to a media blackout, Mulvihill had to keep her husband’s predicament a secret and continued to work at her regular job.
After seven months in captivity, Rohde decided to attempt an escape because, he says, his captors “were just playing games with the negotiations and we felt that we would never be released.” Rohde used a car towrope he’d found to lower himself and one of his associates down a wall while their captors were sleeping. The pair made it to a Pakistani army base, where one of the captains let Rohde call home.
2. Íngrid Betancourt
On February 23, 2002, politician Íngrid Betancourt went into the Colombian demilitarized zone to campaign for political office. However, members of guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) took one look at Betancourt’s slogan-covered car and captured her and several members of her entourage. The government was given one year to exchange imprisoned guerrillas for their release; after that, they claimed, the hostages would be killed. As the year passed by without any negotiations, Betancourt tried to escape several times, but without success.
For over six years, Betancourt and the other hostages were marched from one camp to another, often in pouring rain. “When you lose your freedom, you are alone with your emotions and reactions,” says Betancourt. “You can see, for example, the bad reactions you have in front of others, or the ways you could be dismissive or harsh.”
According to Betancourt, there were even times when she felt like she was turning into an animal. The rebels had taken everything from her except the freedom to decide what kind of person she wanted to be, and Betancourt decided to fight back mentally.
On July 2, 2008, the Colombian army rescued Betancourt and 14 other hostages. Nevertheless, she is still affected by what happened. As she says: “Those six years of abduction were very heavy in our souls, and even today when I’m filled with joy, plentitude, satisfaction and gratitude for freedom and for being alive, I have had the sensation that the incredible joy I feel is not comparable, or doesn’t balance the years of darkness I had.”
1. Patty Hearst
American newspaper heiress Patty Hearst is described as having been “groomed for a life of leisure.” When she was 19 years old, she was living with her fiancé, Steven Weed, in Berkeley, California. On February 4, 1974, members of the leftist Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) forced their way into the couple’s apartment, beat Weed unconscious with a wine bottle, and kidnapped Hearst.
One of the SLA’s first demands to Hearst’s father was that he feed all of California’s poor. Hearst was blindfolded, forced to remain in a tiny closet for two months, and was physically and sexually abused by SLA members. Essentially, she was subjected to a typical Maoist prescription for thought control - or brainwashing.
Two months after her initial capture, Hearst announced that she was joining the rebels and that her new name was Tania. What’s more, she later participated in a bank robbery. And although Hearst spent 22 months in prison for her part in the crime, President Jimmy Carter eventually commuted her sentence in 1979. Later, in his last official act before leaving office, President Bill Clinton gave Hearst a full pardon.
Hearst’s case is considered a classic example of Stockholm syndrome. Hostages with the syndrome are sympathetic towards their captors, even to the point of defending them. And according to an online medical dictionary, “people who often feel helpless” and “are willing to do anything in order to survive” are more likely to develop the syndrome. After her release from prison, Hearst married her former bodyguard, Bernard Shaw, and has since settled in New York.
Top image: Iran hostage crisis (source)