Thoughts on Kidnapping

Don’t let me go

When Bidoun suggested I write an article on kidnapping as a form of travel, I assumed they were joking. In addition to various colleagues, my wife has been kidnapped, along with photographer Paolo Woods, with whom I’ve worked on two books. In fact, he has been abducted several times. I do, however, think that kidnapping is well worth studying from a fresh angle. Particularly since kidnapping is treated with such sentimentality, it’s hard to be openly critical of it as a media industry phenomenon.

In the good old days, when our planet was divided between the Free World and the Evil Soviet Empire, an Eastward traveler could expect a warm welcome from a remarkable variety of individuals provided he observed certain simple rules of behavior and avoided major cultural blunders. Today’s world of the War on Terror has little in common with days of yore. From Yemen to Afghanistan, Iraq to Dagestan, old-fashioned tribes have been usurped by groups of insurgents very different in character, and the threat of kidnapping lurks around almost every corner. In some places, it’s no longer a matter of overstaying your welcome, but of sheer survival.

And the advice given to travelers has changed. If, for example, you wear contact lenses, you must be sure to pack extra solution, or, even better, a pair of eyeglasses. It’s bad enough to be locked up in the dark, but you’ll want a clear view of your captors when they bring you food, escort you to the toilet or beat you up. And if your life is threatened at the point of capture, yell, “French! Paris! Paris!” or “Journalist! Press! Press!” This will immediately jack up the ransom, and it will also lessen the likelihood of your being shot in the head.

As for journalists: we too mourn the halcyon Cold War days! Once upon a time, a few weeks spent alongside a Third World guerrillero was the spice of life. Oh what joy to slip unnoticed into a totalitarian state, to traipse across a jungle to a guerrilla camp! Some of these jungle groups were called “freedom fighters,” and they’ve disappeared for the most part. The Chiapas Zapatistas are still around, of course, but for an international journalist, a week by their side is as exciting as a stay at Club Med.

Nothing compares to getting kidnapped. Many have lived it and come out unscathed — even when it comes to the work of the infamous abductors in the Musab al-Zarqawi network — since abductors have proven far more gentle with journalists than with other types of mercenaries. A journalist’s knack for speedwriting makes a book launch six weeks after liberation a realistic possibility.

But kidnapping is not reserved exclusively for holders of a press card. For the traveler looking to experience the pleasures of abduction (the tourist, the aid worker, the businessman) I will lay out the pros and cons of three destinations, in ascending order of risk. If you allow me a sporting metaphor familiar to the downhill skiers among you, the following inventory comprises the blue, red and black runs of kidnapping.

The blue run is undoubtedly Yemen. The first point in its favor is its magnificent landscapes, which means your time will not be wasted if it takes a couple of days to be kidnapped — or if you are not kidnapped at all. The second advantage is that almost all abductions in Yemen so far turned out OK in the end. The Yemeni ancestral code of honor guarantees their abductees first class treatment.

For our Red Run, I nominate the Caucasus, particularly if you go seeking kidnappers on its southern flank (Georgia, Azerbaijan). The northern flank of this awesome mountain range (from Chechnya, North Ossetia and Kabardino to Balkaria and Dagestan) has a more daunting reputation. Take the Pankisi Valley, north of Tblisi, which is renamed “the Pankisi Gorge” by the international media every time someone is kidnapped there. Arjan Erkel was freed in April of 2004 after 607 days of captivity during which he lost eighteen kilos, and cost the Dutch government 1 million dollars. The Netherlands are now seeking reimbursement from his employer, Médecins Sans Frontières. At the time of writing, the case is before a Geneva tribunal. Here, as in the rest of the region, kidnapping is an ancient industry, well documented by the Russian romantics of the pre-revolutionary era.

It was here, in the south of the Caucasus that my wife was kidnapped a few years ago. Luckily, she was working for a humanitarian organization whose aid programs had guaranteed it a good reputation in the region, helping to bring about her release after two weeks, as did her employer’s skills in negotiating with her abductors and in mobilizing the south Caucasus government in question. In the meantime, however, she was sold from group to group. Her captors became less and less gentlemanly and, as it were, more and more Chechen. My wife, who is short sighted, is the source of the aforementioned contact lens tip.

The black run is, of course, Iraq. Iraq is in its own special league. Approximately one in two hostages are executed here, and it is appropriately a destination that I recommend to no one.

An armed escort from the airport to the center of Baghdad now costs $5000, though you are quite likely to die before you are kidnapped. Moreover, the Iraqi route makes for bad writing. Testimonials from hostages are either comedies à la Florence Aubenas, Cowboy and Indian stories like those by Aubenas’s predecessors Georges Malbrunnot and Christian Chesnot, or conspiracy theories such as Juliana Sgrena’s, the communist Italian journalist convinced that President Bush gave the order to kill her on the day she was freed.

Before I conclude, a few words on homecoming. During the Cold War, the major risk faced by returnees was diarrhea. This risk lives on, but has been compounded by another: Stockholm syndrome. Symptoms include a deep attachment and nostalgia felt for one’s erstwhile abductors. Only recently, German ex-hostage Susanne Osthoff declared her love for her Iraqi captors on Al Jazeera. Her chosen attire, a suicide bomber costume, failed to win the hearts of her German compatriots. A quite different example of attachment is that of Yvonne Ridley, a former Sunday Express reporter kidnapped by the Taliban. She became a devout Muslim upon her release.

It is of course in Yemen, where kidnappers display such excellent manners, that Stockholm syndrome is most common. But I have a word of advice for the lonely ex-hostages among you. Remember that if your feelings for your captors were mutual, they would never have let you go.