Alan Johnston: Home at last, now he longs for the shadows

The BBC correspondent is deeply grateful for the support people gave during his kidnap in Gaza. But now he is eager to get out of the spotlight
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The Independent Online

Alan Johnston is at home. That is a remarkable thing. For 114 days this year the BBC reporter was kept in solitary confinement in Gaza, after being kidnapped. Forced to live on meagre rations and pace the floor of his tiny cell just to keep his muscles working, he wondered if he would ever see the sun and the sky – let alone home – again.

"I felt buried alive," says the 45-year-old, whose kidnappers made him record a video wearing a suicide-bomber vest stuffed with explosives. When Johnston was suddenly released on 4 July he looked emaciated and bewildered, but he was beaming wildly. He's doing it again now as he sits in his own armchair, in his own front room, in his own flat in west London.

"There has been a vast sense of coming home," says the man who became a foreign correspondent partly because he feared life here would become dull. But that was before he was seized by the Army of Islam in March and confronted by "the alienness of the people who were holding me, moving to quite different rhythms and contemptuous of everything I came from".

He couldn't see outside his cell but could feel the heat and hear the noise of battles raging. Now, in a quiet room close to Notting Hill (where battles are only ever fought over house prices) he says: "It is very good to be here, in a place where I understand all the codes, and where soon I will be entirely anonymous."

This will be the first time he has talked intimately about trying to get back to normal. The coming week will see a flurry of appearances on television and radio to promote a published account of his captivity, and a talk at the Royal Society of Arts in London. So many people want to meet him, and hear him, and tell him their stories, because they supported the international campaign that the BBC led in his name while he was captive. But after this week Johnston will seek to disappear from view for a while, to a desk job at the Beeb.

This is also the first (and almost certainly the last) time this extremely private journalist, alarmed at the level of interest in his personal life, has let an interviewer into his home. Not surprising really: it is almost bare, with a naked light bulb and empty shelves. This is not because of a perverse nostalgia for the simplicity of his old cell – "don't you dare say that!" – but because the flat was rented out when he went to the Middle East three years ago. During the kidnap his stuff was sent from Gaza to Scotland, to the home of his parents. He has yet to bring it all down.

Graham and Margaret Johnston are quiet, devout members of the Church of Scotland who live in a bungalow in Argyll village but were thrust by the kidnap into a world of flash bulbs and TV cameras, which they faced with impressive dignity. When his release came they were also able to provide their son with the peace, calm and privacy he craved. "I needed to just be still, and see how I was coping," he says. "You wondered what it had done in the back of your mind, all those months."

Sleep was difficult at first. "When I was locked up I used to dream vividly of being free. The first day I got out I dreamed fanatically – nightmarishly – of being banged up again." His ability to concentrate was also shot to pieces for a while, although he did his best during two days spent in a hotel room with the police. "The Old Bill is amazing. It had started a case. A crime had been crime committed against a British citizen ... somebody has to be collared for this."

Did they seriously think they could arrest the Army of Islam? "Exactly. I did say that. But once they start, they don't just stop."

From Scotland he went on holiday to Spain for a fortnight. "When you're locked up and you can't see the sun or the sky you really want both those things. And you want exercise. I played tennis and swam and lay about." Did he go alone? A simple question, it provokes a lengthy, complicated response.

The BBC campaign was backed by the Prime Minister and the Secretary General of the United Nations. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world held vigils, protested and prayed on his behalf. With that came a soap-star-scale curiosity about his private life. The tabloids were bemused by someone who had chosen to work in extreme locations – Tashkent, Kabul, then Gaza, where he reported on the Second Intifada, the death of Yasser Arafat and the rise of Hammas. In his book, Kidnapped: And Other Dispatches, he remembers "the great gleaming slick of blood when a Palestinian boy was ripped in half by a tank shell". But people who are willing to report from such dangerous places are often seen as strange.

Here, too, was a man in his mid-40s who had no partner, no children. He looked a loner. Even the kidnappers were aware of that. "The leader made it clear it would have been harder for him in PR terms if there had been two little daughters appearing on al Jazeera every other night," he says. So when Johnston addresses a simple question about his holiday, all that bubbles to the surface. "There is certainly a side of me that is happy with my own company. I used to listen to Desert Island Discs and think, 'that wouldn't be so bad'. When solitary confinement came upon me I was aware of it not troubling me as much as it would a lot of other people."

Born in Tanzania, where his father was a port manager, he says: "I spent the first half being quite a lonely kid." Then he grins, realising how that will sound. "Nothing odd; lots of kids are lonely! I just read too much and used to sail a boat on my own and it somehow wasn't quite meshing socially at 13. But then later on we moved to Scotland and things were different. I was really quite able socially. There are those two sides to my character." His last serious relationship ended some time before he went to Gaza, and there was no chance of starting one there.

He insists he is "very ordinary". While he does not share his parents' faith, he has definitely inherited its taste for modesty, saying he has always been "wary of looking like I was over-stating myself".

Johnston interrupts himself, to say he can't believe he is telling me all this. "It's honestly not a big deal. It was easier to be on my own [in captivity]. I did used to think it would be fantastic to be in this with somebody else – but awful if they were breaking down and you were being drawn into their hell."

His book describes the mental exercises he did to stay sane and positive, including reminding himself he was better off than someone trying to survive Auschwitz, as a friend's father had, or dying of cancer.

"I told myself it would be shameful if I couldn't conduct myself with some grace in the face of my much lesser challenge."

After all that, he still hasn't answered my question about Spain. "That's the point, mate!" But after nearly four months in solitary, holidaying alone seems an extraordinary thing to do – so did he or not? "I did, I did!" he exclaims. "I imagined I would meet folk there. And can you believe it, I met a few!" Now we're both laughing. His dry, self-deprecating wit doesn't quite cover his discomfort. "I make my living talking and being on the box sometimes, so there's a limit to how anonymous I really want to be – but I think you can be just a journalist and tell other people's stories. The idea of being the person that the story is about is another shift altogether."

He became aware of his supporters when his captors allowed him a radio. "It was an amazing thing to be in the worst trouble of my life but also to be aware of that extraordinary campaign. The kidnappers showed me the bleakest side of human nature. But on the outside, the most amazing side of what people can be was being illustrated again and again."

Survivors of traumatic events can become scared of everyday life for a while. "Somebody called it heightened vigilance," he says, recalling the early days of his return to west London when he was startled if "somebody would suddenly get out of a car in front of me. That was how the ambush started. You'd be mad if you didn't think about it for a second."

He was supersensitive to odd behaviour – but people really were behaving oddly, because they recognised him. "On the Tube, in the dead of night, there was nobody about except this really thickset, huge bloke," he says. "He looks over his shoulder. I'm thinking, 'What...?'. Then he says, 'Are you Alan Johnston? Welcome back, mate.'"

At the BBC there were 7,000 emails waiting. "Amazing letters. Such kindness." Johnston chose to tell his story through the Corporation – with a Panorama special and an edition of From Our Own Correspondent. He turned down offers to write "13 chapters of my kidnap anguish" for bigger money. Instead, his new book is an adaptation of his radio dispatches. "It would have been anti-journalistic to say no."

From January he will work at Bush House. "I desperately want a spell of normality." He has also started working with Amnesty on behalf of other kidnap victims; 40 other journalists were seized around the world while he was held, and only eight came out. "The captors need to know that they can do their thing in the dark but their inhumanity and injustice are being noticed."

Johnston saw a psychologist the day after he was released. They have met just once since then. "My feeling was that I am as well as I could be, and I have got through it. He felt that too."

He describes himself as someone who "makes a huge effort to solve their problems on their own. Maybe that's fantastically unhealthy, and maybe life has been a bit of a mess on account of my own advice, but anyway, that's pretty much how I went about it."

Bizarrely, the leader of the kidnappers told him he would go free, write a book and get married. The latter is a long way from coming true. "That's not the sort of thing that happens just because you got kidnapped," he says. "Maybe I'll be lucky and the right woman will... I'll meet one. Maybe I won't. I can deal with it either way."

He has other things to (try not to) worry about for the moment. "The kidnap was a massive thing, the hardest thing I have ever had to endure. You worry that it has changed your personality. But basically I feel okay. I appreciate freedom and family. Everything seems fresher and newer. Maybe there will be trouble down the track... but at the moment I am truly enjoying life. It's great."

Further reading 'Kidnapped: And Other Dispatches' by Alan Johnston (Profile £7.99)

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