Sean Langan: Held hostage and waiting for rescue

The Foreign Office routinely advises the families of kidnap victims not to talk to the press. It's a tall order, says a former captive
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The Independent Online

In the summer of 1994, Kim Housego and David Mackie were kidnapped while hiking in the Kashmir mountains. Their group, which included 16-year-old Kim's parents, had been ambushed by guerrilla bandits and the pair were abducted. Distraught, Kim's parents turned to the Foreign Office, and were told to leave it to them. They were advised not to talk to the media while they embarked on delicate negotiations. But having contacts in the media, Kim's parents decided to ignore the FCO advice, and immediately held a press conference. Within days the world was gripped by the story and after 17 days of sustained publicity, the prisoners were released unharmed.

A year later, six Western men were kidnapped in three separate incidents in Kashmir, among them two Britons, Keith Mangan and Paul Wells. Again the Foreign Office advised their families not to speak to the media, but to leave negotiations to them. Although news of their disappearance was broadcast, their anxious relations agreed to the FCO's advice. But the months dragged on and whatever negotiations were ongoing proved fruitless. To this day they remain missing, presumed dead.

These are just two stories of kidnappings, but they are, I believe, telling. Two years after their disappearance I made a film about Mangan and Wells, and I remember their parents telling me how much they regretted not raising the profile of the story much sooner. By the time they did talk to the media it was a year after they had been kidnapped.

We can learn something from these cases, but only with the benefit of hindsight. It is impossible to know if Keith Mangan and Paul Wells would be alive today had there been a vociferous media campaign immediately after their capture. It may be tempting to draw conclusions from past experiences, but each case must be assessed individually.

On the 10th anniversary of my documentary Nightmare in Paradise, I crossed the border from Afghanistan into the tribal area of Pakistan and was kidnapped by the Taliban. Suddenly I was in a position where the question of whether the media should be alerted was of immediate and poignant relevance. I was kept in a dark room for three months, high in the mountains in Bajaur. During that time I suffered from malnutrition and dysentery and lost two stone in weight. Three of my teeth dropped out and two cracked from lack of vitamin D.

The only thing my Afghan translator and I had to keep our spirits up was a small radio. For the first few weeks we would listen to the BBC World Service, hoping to hear news of our capture. As every news bulletin came and went – and there are a lot of them in a day – our hopes faded a little more as still no mention of us was made. I had been a journalist for 20 years. How many journalists do you have to know before you make the news when you're kidnapped?

After six weeks I knew that something was up – there must have been a news blackout. In the end I was freed, and I later learnt that Channel 4, for whom I was working at the time, had been told by our captors that we would be killed if news of our capture got out. They had carefully overseen the news blackout, and I am alive to tell the tale. My own experience contradicts the stories of Kim Housego, Terry Waite and Alan Johnston, but what I learnt during my experience is that when you're tied up in a Taliban cave, cut off from the world, your only hope is that others are working to get you out. It can be a crushing experience to feel nobody cares. I was praying that one journalist would break the news blackout.

As I now know, a lot was going on behind the scenes. As soon as I was captured, the whole FCO machinery swung into action, with cabinet-level meetings between the Foreign Office, the RAF, the military and the secret service. Special forces were on standby to rescue me at a moment's notice. It is quite heartening as a mere citizen to learn you have been discussed in Cobra meetings.

The Foreign Office has changed a lot since those kidnappings in Kashmir in the mid-1990s. Back then there was a degree of complacency, and a belief that the usual negotiating techniques that had been used with the IRA and other terrorist groups would work with Islamist groups. When I made my film in 1997, Islamist terrorism was in its infancy. But since 11 September, the Foreign Office has undergone a radical change in its approach to Islamist threats to Britons abroad.

One of the problems for negotiators in the case of Peter Moore, the computer expert kidnapped in May 2007 in Iraq, has been a confusion in not knowing whether they are talking to the right Islamist group. It is difficult for a government to have channels with the enemy groups they are supposed to be fighting. This was also initially a problem for those involved in negotiating my release; it was thanks to journalists with terrorist contacts that a dialogue could be opened with my captors.

The Foreign Office's modus operandi is still to let on as little as possible, even to the families of hostages. The difference is that these days, even if it might seem as if nothing is happening, they will be going to extreme lengths to get you out. Those on the outside, even family members, shouldn't jump to conclusions. My family thought the authorities were doing nothing and found the hardest thing was the not knowing what was happening. With me the strategy worked, but ultimately when dealing with extremists you can never be sure.