Bowe Bergdahl release: Why the ‘handover’ can be a hostage’s tensest moment

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The Taliban have just released a video showing the moment they handed over Bowe Bergdahl, the US soldier kidnapped for five years in Afghanistan, to a group of American special forces. The clip opens with a very nervous-looking Bergdahl sitting in a Toyota 4×4 in a remote Afghan valley, surrounded by Taliban fighters. A US helicopter then lands in a cloud of dust to pick him up, while in the surrounding hills, Taliban gunmen sit on guard with rocket-propelled grenades.

Such handovers are of course fraught with the risk of ambush. And given the furore in America over the circumstances of Bergdahl’s release – he was exchanged for five Taliban commanders, despite apparently deserting from his army base in eastern Afghanistan – there will be those who will say this was yet another risk taken for someone who was the author of his own misfortune.

But as a former hostage myself – I was kidnapped by Somali pirates back in 2008 – I couldn’t help feeling a touch of sympathy while watching the video. The reason he looks nervous, I suspect, is not because of the storm of controversy he was about to head into back home, but because the handover stage of any kidnap is arguably the most nerve-racking bit of all – the final hurdle in what has already been a grim emotional marathon.

You’ve just spent years – or in my case, thankfully, weeks – in captivity, and now, after all the negotiations, freedom is finally in sight. But it’s also the moment where everything can go hideously wrong, since it involves two groups of people with very little trust in each other, and who may pull guns at any moment.

The best analogy I can draw is that it’s rather like sitting in on a major drug deal, only with you as the drugs. If you’ve ever seen the film Scarface, where one group of drug dealers chainsaws another group after a cocaine deal goes wrong, then you’ll have some idea of the kind of scenarios that run through your mind.

Like Bergdahl’s, my own handover took place in a remote mountain valley in the middle of nowhere. It felt like rather like being in a Somali version of the Checkpoint Charlie handovers in Cold War Berlin, only rather less professionally managed.

Myself and my colleague Jose Cendon after being released in Somalia.

At the foot of the valley were the “intermediaries” who had come to collect myself and my colleague – a group of Somali clan elders who were “trusted” by the kidnappers (don’t ask me why). And with us at the top of the valley were the pirates – not just the dozen-strong group who had guarded us for six weeks, but 40 of their mates too, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns.

Clearly, they feared the handover might be a police ambush, and were not feeling very relaxed. Nor, frankly, was I – especially when the pirates told us to start marching down the valley road, with them following a short distance behind, guns drawn like infantrymen. If anyone started shooting, we hostages would be directly in the cross fire.

We reached the bottom of valley and duly spent a few minutes idling anxiously while the pirates and elders nattered to each other in Somali. Luckily, it sounded reasonably amiable (indeed, I wondered whether they met like this quite often). Then, one of the intermediaries smiled, declared us free men once more, and crashed us both a cigarette.

Apart from the sheer, gut-knotting tension, the only other thing I remember was wondering what to say by way of a parting shot to the pirate leader, who had – aside from kidnapping us – treated us reasonably well in captivity. No etiquette book I knew of covered this particular situation. Did one smile politely, shake his hand, and wish him all the best with future kidnaps? Or did one tell him to f––– off? As it turned out, he was too busy watching out for his men to even look in my direction.

With that, we jumped into a pair of waiting Toyotas and headed off to freedom – only for the clan elders to begin fighting among themselves. One pulled a Kalashnikov on the other, and as they yelled in each other’s faces, I spent a few horrifying moments convinced we were in for a bloodbath after all. Either that, or it was some kind of decoy tactic by the pirates to grab us back again. Then another elder intervened, snatching the gun from the arguing pair and flashing us a grin as if to say “boys will be boys, eh?”

He had to give me several more cigarettes before I calmed down.

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