It’s their families who suffer the most
British documentary-maker Sean Langan, 43, returned home four weeks ago after he was held captive by the Taliban for three months. Here, he describes the agony faced by hostages … and their loved ones.
When people read that a British hostage has reportedly taken his own life, their greatest mistake would be to think of hostage situations in terms of strength and weakness; that the person who survives is strong and the person who doesn’t, or who ends his own life, is weak. I don’t want to try to offer advice to the family of the hostage who, it is claimed, killed himself at the end of May. To do so would sound glib.
What I will say is that Jason and three of his fellow captives were bodyguards so they will have had professional training designed to help them cope with the terrors that come with having your life threatened almost daily. They will also have known that they weren’t, as their kidnappers have implied in a statement, forgotten on the outside, but that the British government has been doing everything it can to get the men freed – by diplomatic means or otherwise.
In accusing the government of procrastination, and blaming it for Jason’s alleged suicide, the kidnappers are using a classic tactic. They are hinting that if they kill the remaining four hostages that, too, will lie with the Government.
Alan, one of the other hostages, says in a video statement: ‘Physically, I’m not doing well. Psychologically, I’m doing a lot worse. I want to see my family again.’ It is an emotive statement, and yet it is not threatening or political. As a hostage, if you are not told exactly what to say by your captors then you want to give the most neutral statement you can, nothing confrontational.
You do whatever it takes not to get killed.
Of course we cannot yet know exactly what Jason went through while he was held hostage – indeed, he might yet prove to be alive. But my own experience gives me a window on the way a man’s mind works when he has been captured by a hostile enemy. For the first week you don’t think about your loved ones, you are simply in survival mode. You barely sleep because you are so aware of the danger around you. It’s like being in a car crash – you just deal with each second in order to survive.
My Afghan translator, who was captured with me, and I were given a radio and would tune in every hour in the hope of news of our capture, but to no avail. Later I discovered that the Taliban had threatened execution if our kidnap appeared in the news.
Then comes what’s known as the ‘drowning man experience’ where your life really does flash before you.
I could suddenly remember astonishing detail about my life – even the names of every teacher I’d ever had – and could see with absolute clarity all the things I’d done wrong. After that, you realise you have to establish a routine to cope – having worked in war zones I’ve gleaned that routine is a great coping mechanism.
I focused on washing, eating, doing 100 press-ups a day, sleeping and enduring the nightly interrogations from my captors – was I a spy and who did I work for? It’s enormously stressful because you don’t have any faith in a ‘justice’ system which ensures that spies are beheaded. Slowly, your own self starts to return and with it thoughts of loved ones – especially my two young sons back home in London. It was torment. I became acutely aware that as a father I was supposed to be provider and protector but how could I do that when I was a hostage?
I realised I’d played Russian roulette with my own life and my family’s lives, too.
Perhaps, if these latest reports are true, Jason felt a weight of guilt that he was putting his family through a kind of hell because he had chosen to go to Iraq – and the very worst-case scenario had come to pass. I know the most crushing thing for me was imagining the suffering I was causing to my family.
Kidnap victims realise that if they are executed it is the end to their own suffering, but only the beginning of a lifetime of unanswered questions for their family. You have to ration thoughts of family or you run the risk of cracking up. Once a week I allowed myself to take photos of my sons from my wallet and look at them for a few minutes. My translator was unable to be so strict with himself and such was the responsibility he felt for what his family would be going through that he suffered a breakdown.
Jason’s time as a prisoner will have been fraught with hope, fear and despair. There are the days when you are told you are close to release, only for nothing else to happen for weeks. It does terrible things to your mind, and that’s when you have to fixate on your routine to cope with what you’re going through. I had the advantage of gradually being able to befriend my captors. But the case of Jason and his fellow hostages is far more complex.
According to the British government they are being held by a highly professional Iraqi organisation, not a Taliban family as I was. Perhaps, like the Lebanese captors of Terry Waite, they change their guards constantly so that the hostages can’t bond with them and they won’t bow to pressure from anyone to release them quickly.
My greatest hope when I was being held was that my family wouldn’t spend their entire lives suffering if I was executed.
Three months in a cell felt like a lifetime to me. After a year in their own private hell, Jason and the other four hostages must have despaired of ever being released. Like all hostages they will have had to confront the difficult possibility that they might be held prisoner for years to come.
Though it must seem little comfort to Jason’s family now as they wait for confirmation of his fate, in a way those being held captive suffer less than their loved ones on the outside. As a prisoner, I was reminded of what mattered in life and felt enormous love for my friends and family. An intense feeling that was incredibly comforting to me.
But from personal experience I know that the not knowing was much worse for my loved ones back at home.
Note – This article was first published on 21st July 2008