Monday, 27 July 2009

Port E, Inspirationally Twinned With Lashkar Gah

Part One.

This weekend I stayed at Wembury, the beautiful seaside house of Emma & Timmy Hanbury who hold an annual house party for the Port Eliot Literary Festival. I went to Port E imagining I might write my blog about literary folk, but as it is far less Lit port than overwhelmingly messy E Fest; I was struggling. Then, on Saturday evening, I went to listen to the documentary filmmaker Sean Langan talk about his experiences in Afghanistan and Pakistan and he inspired me to write about kidnapping…

An oddity of the word is that it takes the masculine form; a man gets kidnapped, while a woman or a child get abducted. Useful information should it ever happen to you; no longer will you have to fret about the correct way to sound the alarm.

In this country and in the States kidnapping is a rare crime due to the poor risk-to-benefit ratio - particularly the vexed question of the cash drop-off. However, there are dozens of countries where entrepreneurs snatch people rather than launch restaurants.
Holiday destinations to gently pencil a line through are Sub-Sahara, Yemen, the seas off the Horn of Africa, Somalia etc,. The place most likely to part a browsing tourist from his ticket home is Baghdad, kidnap capital of the world, snatching that title from Mexico, which in turn succeeded Colombia.
As Sean discovered, the Afghan-Pakistan border is a place where you can be forcibly made to escape the rat race.
[Refering to it as Af-pak makes it sound like a diet butter or styrofoam packaging rather than the lawless wilds it is.]

We might think that kidnapping is a foreign thing - something that happens to others, far away, and yet a form of it is operated by thousands of women every year. Women sperm-nap. They steal a man’s freedom to choose when or with whom they bear children. ‘It was an accident’ they cry - but an extremely high proportion are being disingenuous. Going the accident route with conviction usually necessitates going into a lifelong denial [you lie best when you lie to yourself] because here’s the thing: it’s very easy to avoid getting pregnant. But away from gametes and back to the multiple cells of kidnapping proper……..

Of all the ugly crimes we humans inflict upon one another, the theft of someone else’s freedom is second only to the theft of their life. In our curious, comedy world of unexpected consequences, the person who murders someone else to ‘rid themselves’ of them, in reality bind themselves to their victim forever.
Listening to Sean describe how he was held by Taliban fighters from March until July last year, it struck me that in the vile enterprise of kidnapping, the guards become as captive as their victims.
The story Sean told was a very heavy one, but he is a witty man who kept making the audience laugh about his ordeal. It reminded me of a recent, riveting programme [in Radio 4's Reunion series] when they assembled former Beirut hostages, Terry Waite, Bryan Keenan, John McCarthy along with McCarthy’s former girlfriend, Jill Morell. Between the three men, they were held prisoner for 14 years and 7 months in total. Laid end to end this was time for a boy to be born, go to 3 schools, grow to full height, have his voice break, get a girlfriend... It made me wonder how, or even if, I would cope: the fear, the time limbo, the boredom. Before winding up chained beside the other two, Terry Waite was kept in solitary confinement for 4 of the 5 years he was held.
The astonishing thing was just how much they laughed during their interview. Keenan told of waggish remarks made on meeting Waite - a giant of a man at 6’ 7’ - when their two sack-covered bodies were thrown on top of one another in the boot of a Mercedez transporting them to a new hiding place. Waite recalled the first book his
non-English speaking guard gave him to read was The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill; the second, a breastfeeding manual.

When one day he found a guard had left a gun behind in the loo, Waite left it alone, because to use it would have gone against everything he had been arguing with his captors: that violence only breeds more violence. You only have to look at the toxic clinch that the Israelis and Palestinians are in to see these Petri dishes of cyclical violence on a larger scale.

The Islamic Jihad Organisation’s foot soldiers, who spent years of their own lives ensuring the incarceration of these three intelligent men effectively screwed up their own freedom in the process in exactly the same way Colombia’s FARC militia have made themselves prisoners of the jungles that hide their victims.

Extraordinarily, sixteen years after he was freed, Waite volunteered in 2007 to travel to Iran to help negotiate for the release of British sailors seized in disputed waters. The programme ended with Waite describing how, when he was finally released, the suit they gave him didn’t fit him at all. McCarthy’s immediate suggestion that it ‘was too big’ reduced them all to helpless giggles, and as a listener you got a sense of their indomitability of spirit and that a key ingredient in the power of that spirit was levity.

Sean Langan appeared to possess this vital ingredient. He talked about how it took him four days to twig that he and his translator had been kidnapped. His approach to filming was always to ‘bed in’ with his subjects whether they were British squaddies besieged in a town, or Taliban mountain men so being taken somewhere with a hood over his head was the norm. It was only when he was told he and his translator were being held as spies that they realised that they weren’t getting out of the small stone room any time soon. ‘They didn’t allow Beaujolais, but they did offer me smack’ he said.
They were interrogated for days, subjected to mock executions, but mostly they were left alone with a radio on which they listened to the World Service. The news stories were filled with the story of how Elisabeth Fritzl had finally escaped after twenty-four years in her father’s cellar, although to his growing alarm, there was never any word of his own disappearance.
It made me think about how it never sounds right when the Foreign Office advises families of kidnap victims to stay quiet, while they do the softly, softly approach. Are they doing anything at all? It smacks of bullshit to me. Why let sleeping dogs lie?
If I was a family member I’d make a big stink like Jill Morell did. Hostage takers respond to the political not the personal, so it may have done nothing to shorten the time he was held, but at least John McCarthy knew that people were aware of his plight and cared.
It is hard to imagine the additional torment of being held and also feeling you have been forgotten and abandoned. From the tapes shown on the news, it certainly seems to be how the three surviving hostages in Baghdad are feeling. Meanwhile, back at home, the general public are neither tying yellow ribbons, nor lighting candles, nor marking the days of their internment, which currently stands at 2 years 2 months, about the time it takes a newborn baby to learn to smile, walk, talk & get a haircut. What despair they must feel.

Sean described how being locked for months in a room without a mirror was the first time he had been made to really take a proper look at himself. He forced himself to forget about the passage of time and worked to a daily routine that allowed him to escape from his captors and into his own imagination.
Sammy, his translator had a nervous, and then a physical breakdown, Sean took the roll of 'the PE instructor' for them both. He lost five teeth and three stone. The plight of Sammy, the bulletins about Elisabeth Fritzl and the photograph of his two small sons he had hidden in his sock - glimpses at which he had to strictly ration himself to avoid emotional collapse - all made him ‘acutely aware of the suffering of others’.
When he was finally on the way to being released he realised they were not freeing Sammy. Fearing they would execute him, Sean demanded to be returned until Sammy came with him. When that happened he was taken temporarily to safe house where he sat with a Mullah’s three-year old child on his lap watching a TV playing jehadi beheadings followed by Mr Bean. Hearing this highlights how just how hard it is for us to understand these people.
When he was about to dumped on a street in Islamabad, one of the Taliban asked him if he ‘might ask a personal question’, to which Sean said yes. ‘Are you sure you won’t take offense?’ Silently swearing that they could hardly be more offensive than to hold him against his will for three and a half months, he assured them no, he wouldn’t take offense; and to ask away.
‘Is it true that women in the West are free to marry animals? ’ There was a pause, ‘Even small animals?’
Sean said he yearned to say, ‘Sure, I know girls who marry blue whales and another married to a rhino – but for God’s sake! We draw the line at small ones!’ Instead, he stowed his yearning for levity and assured them that no, it was not true and inquired how they had come to think that. They explained that there was a book in wide circulation, used to learn English. It was a children’s book in which a girl marries a frog… ‘They want to kill us because they think we fuck frogs’ said Sean and concluded his interview.

Next Week.
Kidnapping, Part Two