Johnston released from 4-month captivity

BBC reporter: "It was like being buried alive."

By
July 4, 2007 18:35

"It's really hard to sum up how good it feels to be standing here instead of lying in that room that I was lying in just this time yesterday," BBC correspondent Alan Johnston told reporters in Jerusalem on Wednesday. "It is unimaginably good to be free." Speaking at a press conference at the British Consulate-General, Johnston described his ordeal as "the most appalling experience, like being buried alive, removed from life." He said sometimes the ordeal was "quite terrifying, but always frightening. I just didn't know when it would end or how it would end." Johnston said he felt at one point as though all the journalists in the world were coming to his rescue. "They weren't going to let go, they weren't going to let the story die," he said, pointing out that he followed the news of his captivity on the radio. On the circumstances of his abduction, he said: "It was a drive that I'd made a thousand times in the three years before. I turned into a quiet street and suddenly there's a car lurching beside me fast. For a second I thought it was just a bit of Gaza driving but it turned out to be much more than that. "The car pulled up in front of me. There was a guy in the street with a pistol. Next thing there was a guy coming up on the passenger side with a Kalashnikov. I began to realize what was going on. I've been in Gaza three years, I've covered 27 kidnappings and I knew what it was about. I'd imagined what it would be like dozens of times and it was exactly like that. It was a faintly surreal experience." Johnston said the kidnappers forced him into the backseat and covered his head. "And there I was, before I knew it on the backseat with a hood over my head and they were pulling my money out of my pockets and laughing," he recalled. "I'd been to the bank and they had reason to laugh. They'd hit the jackpot. "Off came my watch and phones and passport and we were racing through town and I was looking up through the window and I could see the sun on the buildings and I knew we were heading east. Next thing I was bundled into this flat and forced onto my front with a hood over my head and handcuffed behind my back. I was like that for maybe an hour or two. Then they took the handcuffs off. All the time I was wondering if this was one of the more benign Gaza kidnaps, where it is a family dispute and it's over in four or five days. "What I was worried about all the time was that a Jihadi group had struck in August and I was always worried about tangling with them. And indeed, at midnight, the door swung open and a guy with a red and white gutra [headdress] wrapped around his head [came in]. It was clear it was the second type of kidnapping, and I was clearly in a lot of trouble. He said I wouldn't be killed, I wouldn't be tortured, I'd be treated with respect as a Muslim prisoner and that turned out to be true, but you don't know whether to believe a man with a red and white gutra wrapped around his head." Johnston said his captors had moved him to a second hideout a few weeks later. "At three a.m. in the morning they woke me up and put a hood over my head again and handcuffed me and took me out into the night, and of course you wonder how that might end, but in fact they were only moving me to another hideout," he said. "And actually things for the first month were good, and my treatment was good in that I was fed simple kinds of things that my stomach could cope with. I got ill first of all, then they gave me the simple things that I asked for - bread, cheese, eggs, stuff I could cope with. They moved me a couple of times and the regime actually got quite relaxed. In the second place I was even able to use a kitchen next door to my room and a bathroom and I could make eggs and bread myself. "The guard was an extraordinarily moody man, he went into rages and so on. But in this weird, dark world with all the shutters drawn, me and him stalked around and a weird, surreal week after week after week rumbled by." Johnston said his captors were very worried by the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. "When Hamas took power in Gaza suddenly the kidnappers, who seemed to be cruising along in security terms, no worries, suddenly they were worried and Hamas had them in their sights and the whole mood began to change," he said. "I was hoping against hope that maybe we were moving into some sort of end game then and indeed that proved to be the case." He said that had it not been for Hamas, he would have remained in captivity for a longer period. "Hamas is a controversial organization with a lot of problems and so on in terms of relations with the outside world, but I'm pretty sure that if Hamas hadn't come in and stuck the heat on in a big way, I'd still be in that room." Johnston also said it would likely "be a while" before he returned to the Gaza Strip. "I spent three years covering Gaza as a correspondent and I spent four months in solitary confinement there, and I feel enough already with Gaza. You know, maybe I'll go back when it's a member of the EU." Asked if he knew anything about the identity of his kidnappers, Johnston said: "I still know frustratingly little about them. I only had one conversation with the leader on that very first night. It lasted for about 15 minutes only. Unlike a multitude of other militant groups in Gaza who have a very much Palestine-Israel agenda, the Army of Islam clearly had a Jihadi agenda. They described me as a prisoner in the war between Muslims and non-Muslims, a phrase that saddened me really. I guess I'm a non-Muslim, but I'm not at war with anybody."


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