Family ties that set us free

A family history of physical and spiritual endurance lies behind the Chechen hostages' survival. By Jack O'Sullivan

Anyone seeking to understand the liberation of the Chechen hostages, Camilla Carr and Jon James, needs to know about Camilla's extraordinary family. If you go back a century or so, you find her ancestor, an Indian princess from Udaipur, who married Thomas Cobbe, a British army officer. When the couple sailed for Ireland, Cobbe died on the journey. He left her with 10 children in a land not familiar with Indian princesses. She thrived.

It was a long time ago, but vestiges of that experience have survived. In the names of Camilla's brother, Raj, a social worker, and of her 12- year-old son Ashok. In the bohemianism of an aid worker who thought nothing of driving across Europe to help orphans in war-torn Chechnya. In the Carr family's continued interest in Eastern religion.

But most of all, the influence can be seen in a tradition of strong, unflappable women. The resilience of women in the Carr family may be responsible for a happy conclusion to what threatened to be a tragic tale.

You could see Camilla Carr's strength on the video released by her kidnappers last month. As her partner, Jon James, openly wondered on screen whether he could stay sane much longer, she butted in that they would be OK. And once again, her fortitude was evident as they arrived at RAF Brize Norton on Sunday. She stepped off the plane and confidently thanked everyone.

Then there is Camilla's sister, Alexandra, mother of four children aged between six and 14. She fronted the campaign to secure the release of Camilla and her partner, Jon James, with professionalism and persuasiveness. Alexandra, 42, is a former model; her husband, David Little, runs an advertising agency. But none of this prepared her for a gruelling year of tension and media exposure. And finally, there is Helen, Camilla's mother and a fellow bohemian. Now in her mid-sixties, she is a graduate of the Slade School of Art and, like her daughter, a woman interested in Eastern mysticism, spiritual healing and Sufism. As one family member says: "She played the archetypal mother. She never freaked."

Yet there was plenty to get upset about. Dr Maurice Lipsedge was brought in to advise the family on how to cope. He is a consultant psychiatrist at Guy's hospital and experienced in treating other released hostages. "There was the indeterminate nature of it all," he says. "The fact that they did not know when it would end. The fear that it could end tragically. They knew that there had been two bungled attempts at releasing Camilla and Jon in which people had been killed. And there was the awful dilemma created by the understandable prohibition on paying ransom. They knew that if it was available, their nearest and dearest would almost certainly be saved."

The Carr women - and indeed Jon James's family - stayed firm. "These are real tough ladies," says David Little, Alexandra's husband. "They have been the glue that kept everything together. I remember seeing Helen being interviewed. She was asked if all the calm was just a PR front. She said it wasn't, that inside she was completely knotted, but she was not going to break down. She was determined to keep going. She has spoken about how the whole experience has been a moving lesson for living in the moment."

Of his own wife, Little says: "She proved to be very good on television. Of course, there were problems. In ways, it was damaging to the family. If you are going to do something important well, then there will be a price to pay. Alexandra just got on with the job. I'm amazed at her. Today, she got up at 4.30am, did three TV interviews before nine and then two radio interviews."

In terms of strength, Alexandra and Camilla may be chips off the old block. They acted in much the way you might expect of women whose father was an Old Etonian bomber pilot in the Second World War.

But that is where the similarity ends. For whereas Alexandra enjoys all the pleasures and comforts of life in the Surrey stockbroker belt, Camilla was always the unworldly one. Growing up, they shared the same bedroom. But when they were at public school in Shrewsbury, Camilla was the jaunty, earnest one with long, curly hair. She was head of hockey, whereas Alexandra hated sport and preferred to hide in the art room. When Alexandra left school for the commercial world of Soho advertising, Camilla went off to Amsterdam to make avant garde plays, become a respected sculptor but never made money.

It is these differences between the sisters, who are very close, which are essential to this story. For the unworldliness of Camilla led her to meet Jon James, a kindred spirit. The son of a Gloucestershire postman, he has spent much of his life involved in alternative therapies and has particular interests in Native American and Celtic cultures. An outdoor type, at the age of 10 he canoed the Severn tidal bore.

This background was important in the survival of both hostages. As Dr Maurice Lipsedge says: "Like other hostages I have known, they have been able to fall back on religious commitments that can sustain you for a long time."

Meanwhile, the far more worldly sister Alexandra was busy back in England using her skills with the media to save the lives of her sister and her partner. The campaign organised a service at the fashionable St James's Piccadilly, a rock concert in Ross-on-Wye, and a 40th birthday party for Camilla in the Groucho Club. They were planning to print a million post cards of the pair. An advertising agency, St Lukes, was even engaged to give the story the right angle for maximum exposure. The image was of a kindly couple from middle England, who tried to help orphans in Chechnya and were kidnapped in the process of doing good. Camilla was the focus as the only British woman anyone could remember being kidnapped. At times, the campaigners worried about the message. Would they be accused of cynically marketing Camilla like cornflakes? David Little wondered whether his wife was looking too glamorous. "I wondered should we take off the earrings, the jewellery. She didn't need them. She would look glamorous in an old sheet."

But just as Camilla was using her own methods, meditating in the dark, damp, tiny cell she shared with Jon James, so the folks back home used everything at their disposal. Its success can be measured against the difficulties the three-year-old Middlesbrough-based campaign for two Kashmiri hostages has had in gaining attention in the national media.

The Chechen hostage campaign was expertly organised, with plenty of advice from John McCarthy and Terry Waite, and with David Little in the background. "I didn't want to come out at all and blur the message," he says. They were prepared for every eventuality, says Dr Lipsedge. "We were prepared for physical problems in case they were wounded. We were particularly worried about malnutrition, tuberculosis and anaemia. From a psychiatric point of view, we were concerned about not knowing the circumstances of their incarceration - sensory deprivation can be devastating. But I am very optimistic. They have done brilliantly and may not need any psychiatric intervention. There is a popular view that when someone goes through a trauma, they need instant counselling. That is often false. Often, like Camilla and Jon, people have their own resources for coping."

It was, however, fortunate for everyone concerned that the release came when it did, says David Little. The strain was beginning to grow in the family after the release of the video on national television. "It was becoming a war of nerves. Imagine if you had a son or daughter kidnapped in Chechnya and you thought you were doing all you could. Then you see that unhappy, pathetic video and you wonder whether you are really doing enough. Everyone was beginning to get hot under the collar."

On the other hand, the video was the breakthrough, giving the pair truly national recognition for the first time. "Until that moment," says David Little, "I'd say they had about one per cent recognition. Without that sort of publicity, it takes a very long time and a small fortune to catch people's attention."

So was a ransom paid? "We genuinely don't know, but I hope not. All we know is that there was probably some plot between the governments of Britain, Chechnya and Russia."

Now that the campaign has been successful, the question is: what will happen to those involved - both the freed hostages and those, like Alexandra Little, whose lives have been transformed by the campaign? Chris Pearson, a key figure in the campaign to free John McCarthy, says: "Everyone should remember that it will take longer than anyone imagines to get back to a balanced life. Everyone wants to rush to embrace the hostages. They need time to re-establish relationships one by one."

David Little worries about Camilla. "She will be branded as Britain's longest-held female hostage. That will be hard. I think and I hope though, that she will turn this into an advantage for her genuine interest and concern for children." There is also much to do for other hostages, such as Vincent Cochetel, the 37-year-old French hostage in Chechnya, whose daughter called the Littles to congratulate them on the night of the release.

Alexandra knows that she has been fundamentally changed by the experience, given access to new opportunities as her last-born daughter settles into school. "I've gained so much confidence. People tease me and tell me I should get a job working in the media. For me it's been like a mission. I can see now how John McCarthy and Terry Waite feel, even now, that they must do everything they can to help other hostages."

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