Alan Johnston's Kidnap Ordeal

Posted Oct 25, 2007 by KJ Mullins
What goes through the mind of a person being kidnapped by militants? Alan Johnston told BBC News his story on life as a hostage. Johnston spent 114 days not knowing if each morning would be his last before one of his guards ended his life.
His kidnappers forced him to lie face down on the floor, his wrists cuffed behind his back and a black hood blocking out his view on that fateful morning in Gaza City where life changed. A car had cut him off. A pistol was pointed at his head. Johnston was a reporter. He knew what was happening after reporting on other kidnappings before this day. His turn was up, instead of reporting the events he would now be living them.
Knowing the city Johnston even blinded by the hood knew they were heading into the rougher neighbourhoods.
In the past being kidnapped although unsettling shouldn't worry a Western. They were generally freed within a week once the militant group holding them had the attention of the authorities in a minor dispute.
But that was then. Everything changed when two members from American Fox News were kidnapped. They were freed only after making a tape of their denunciation the West and converting to Islam.
This underground world of militants was now a dangerous place with Johnston in the middle of it.
He had known that something like this could happen and had thought he had prepared for it. He had already changed where he lived to a more protected apartment. He didn't film in the streets as often and switched his auto often. He didn't make predictable moves around the city.
It didn't matter. The hood on his head told him that. Sixteen days before he was due to leave the area his time had come.
That night the Jihadi leader stepped into his room informing him that his kidnap was to secure the release Muslims jailed in Britain. When the reporter tried to inform the man in a red checkered head dress that was unlikely to happen he was cut off. The British would be forced to listen was the answer. The only answer.
The Army of Islam were his captors. Johnston was their prisoner of war, a war between Muslims and non-Muslims. He would be treated humanely as Islamic codes of conduct were to be followed. He had been told his life was not in danger, that in time he would be allowed to leave. But when?
When he was moved the next morning they cuffed him and put his hood back on silently. Johnston had to deal with the thought that he could be on his way to a bullet in his head, he had no idea what was in store for him.
He was moved to his room, his cell. No diversions for the long days. A bed and two chair were all that decorated the room. His watch was removed. Time could now only be told by the five daily calls to prayer. His disposable contact lenses had to be removed. His sight was weak.
He paced. It took only five steps to cross the floor. For hours he made that journey. He remembered the stories on Westerns in the 1980's being held for years. Would he?
He was feed well for prison standards. His European stomach though couldn't handle the food or the dirty water. He made many trips to the toilet attached to his room. The one that when flushed would wash his floor with water.
He requested potato chips and boiled water which along with bread, tomatoes, fruit and in time eggs became a his two meals a day. It was a diet program as the thin man lost 22 pounds.
During this time he learned what worry was. He worried about his family.
He was given a radio and could listen to the BBC. Johnston heard as his name became the news. He had how the Palestinians condemned the kidnapping.
He heard that he had been executed.
Declared dead.
But of course, I knew that I was far from dead, and after a few minutes I could not help recalling that famous Mark Twain line: "Reports of my death are exaggerated."
He knew though that could be his fate. He started to prepare himself for the certain video taping of his death. He would not be a broken man, his family would not be subjected to weeping nor pleading.
In later days his wrists and ankles were chained together. His room was darkened. There in the dark, hot room he was told that it was being decided if he were to live or die. The method of his death would be a knife cutting his throat. So he again started to mentally prepare himself.
A day later the chains were removed. He would live for the time being.
One act of kindness that his guards gave him was to see his parents on television. Hearing his father tell him to remain "hanging in there" was a gift.
In the second hideout that Johnston was held he could leave his room and after a while cook his own meals. His guard was moody. During this time Johnston silently reflected on his life. Childhood, career, his characters, why relationships had worked or not. He had the time to think.
He fought against negative thoughts. He knew the only thing he could control during this ordeal was the state of his mind.
Soon his story became front page news. Ending his kidnapping became a priority. His kidnappers had a plan.
Entering his room his guard Khamees had a briefcase. Opening it revealed terror. A suicide bomber's vest that Johnston had to don. He read a letter in which the leader of the group told him to be afraid, that Hamas was planning an assault that would turn the hideout into "a death zone". He had to give a message via video that warned that if there was an attack he would die. The Army of Islam was preparing a showdown.
Johnston knew that the stakes were higher now. At any turn his days could be numbered. A rescue attempt could well mean his death.
One night afterwards he was taken downstairs where the hood was once more put on his head. In the darkness he was lead to a car that he was shoved into the back seat. Without knowing the destination the most terrifying ride of the reporters life began. The guards were screaming out in anger, the kidnapping although Johnston was unaware of at the time, had failed. The guards were dealing with their own fears of death. He was on his way to Hamas lines, to freedom. And yet he had no clues to that fact. Khamees struck his head and he tasted his own blood. At one checkpoint a gun was pointed at his head, the Hamas backed off.
And then the car halted.
Khamees dragged Johnston to the middle of the road filled with armed men. When two of those lead him off Johnston was afraid that he had simply been passed from one gang to another.
Turning a corner though he saw his friend Fayed Abu Shamalla stood in a garden.
He was free.
On July 7 he returned to the UK but not without the nightmares of his 114 days as a prisoner.
From his time captured though he learned to value freedom and more.
Even now, more than three months after I was freed, it can still seem faintly magical to do the simplest things, like walk down a street in the sunshine, or sit in a cafe with a newspaper.
And in my captivity in Gaza, I learnt again that oldest of lessons. That in life, all that really, really matters, are the people you love.