Life as a hostage of Somali pirates

Colin Freeman has a special insight into Judith Tebbutt's ordeal. He was snatched and held for six weeks in 2008.

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Life as a hostage of Somali pirates


Officially , OF course, there is no such thing as a price on human life. Should you be kidnapped by Somali pirates, though, the going rate for a Westerner is roughly $1.3?million, preferably in bricks of $100 bills.

That is the hefty ransom sum thought to have been paid for Briton Judith Tebbutt, the 57-year-old social worker released from captivity last week after a violent abduction six months ago in which her husband was killed.

Yet watching the brief interview she gave as she was handed over on Wednesday, it struck me that her family certainly got more than value for money, for the cash has bought them back what seems to be a remarkably strong woman.

Despite looking somewhat gaunt, Mrs Tebbutt appeared astonishingly composed, given that she had suffered an ordeal appalling even by kidnapping standards.

Talking in calm, measured tones, she revealed how it was not until a fortnight into her captivity that she learned that her husband David, 58, an executive at the publisher Faber and Faber, had been shot by her captors during the kidnapping at a resort in northern Kenya.

"I didn't know he'd died until about two weeks from my capture, I just assumed he was alive," she said. "I feel extremely sad. But you have just got to pick up the pieces and move on."

A smile then lit her face as she spoke of her only child, Oliver, 25, who found himself in the extraordinary position of leading the negotiations for his mother's release. "I don't know how he secured my release, but he did, and I am very happy," she said.

For all the brave face that Mrs Tebbutt presented in public, I can only guess at what private trauma she is now dealing with. This weekend she returned to Britain, where her empty home in the Hertfordshire town of Bishop's Stortford will pose the fresh challenge of life not just as an ex-hostage, but as a widow.

I have, however, had an insight - albeit a mercifully brief one - into the kind of ordeal she has been through, having languished as a hostage in Somalia myself in 2008.

On assignment to report on what was then a nascent piracy problem, my photographer and I were kidnapped by the very men we had been sent to write about, and spirited off to a remote mountain range, where we lived, Stone-Age style, in caves.

During our time in captivity we endured occasional death threats and a terrifying gunfight when a rival gang tried to "steal" us, but six weeks later we were released unharmed, making it a comparatively short stay.

Mrs Tebbutt has not yet disclosed any real detail about her kidnapping, beyond saying that she was not mistreated. But based on my own experience. I can make some informed guesses as to what it would have been like.

Food is likely to have been goat meat, rice or pasta; monotonous by day two, never mind day 200, but actually rudely healthy; I lost a stone in flab on the pirate plan diet. It is, though, surprising how quick one's needs shrink; within five days, all I cared about was getting a cup of sweet Somali tea and a cigarette every few hours.

The hardest part, though, is passing the time which, unlike a jail sentence, has no fixed end date to focus on. I had neither books nor newspapers, but I did at least have a fellow hostage to talk to, something that most kidnap psychologists say is essential for fending off those darker moments.

Other aspects of Mrs Tebbutt's ordeal, I cannot begin to empathise with, in particular her bereavement. Others in her situation might have been tempted to take their own lives, as did some British soldiers when stationed here after the Second World War, driven mad by isolation in Somalia's uniquely harsh and barren landscape.

So how exactly did her son secure her release? In all likelihood, while he may have played a key role, possibly talking to the kidnappers by telephone, he will have been closely advised by one of the private security firms that also deals with commercial piracy cases.

Even so, with his mother's life on the line, it cannot have been easy taking part in a negotiation with such high stakes. And there would also be the knowledge that once a deal was struck, it would line the pockets of the very people who killed his father.

Where the ransom money came from remains unclear. Some reports have talked of family friends chipping in, raising the prospect of donations from wealthy authors at Faber and Faber, or whip-rounds in the Lakeland town of Ulverston, where Mrs Tebbutt's mother, Gladys, and five siblings still live.

Some within the private security world, though, believe it may have been paid by an insurance company.

"It has the hallmarks of a well-run corporate operation" said one negotiator. "No videos released by the pirates during her captivity, no uncontrolled publicity and so on." Last night, Somali journalists working for The Sunday Telegraph provided more detailed accounts of Mrs Tebbutt's time in captivity, relayed to them by people close to her abductors.

According to these accounts, which cannot be verified, when first taken hostage Mrs Tebbutt repeatedly argued with her kidnappers and demanded to know why they were holding her. She was also allegedly threatened during some telephone calls home: a tactic my own abductors used too.

"She acted as if she had no worries, but when communications were coming from London, she was made to feel intimidated," said one source. "This was to try to make her cry while speaking to relatives."

They also claimed her guards became increasingly nervous after a US special forces raid in late January that freed two Danish and American hostages, in which nine kidnappers died.

For a time she was moved almost every 24 hours, sometimes sleeping in a car or in bushland. Fearing that spies on the ground would give their location away, the gang also reportedly split into three different groups, all claiming to be holding Mrs Tebbutt, and refusing to let even their own ranks carry mobile phones when guarding her.

"They also had a group of pirates checking people passing through the area," said the source. "Any suspected spies were told to leave or threatened with death."

Whether Somalia's home-grown al-Qaeda franchise, al-Shabaab, had a hand in the abduction is a moot point. While the group denies involvement, many believe it was a militia allied to al-Shabaab that launched the original kidnap operation, in return for providing it with a cut of any ransom money. That militia is then said to have sold Mrs Tebbutt on to a pirate group for $300,000 shortly after, knowing the pirates could negotiate a considerably higher ransom. Then again, al-Shabaab was never likely to claim responsibility; while British government policy does not forbid the payment of ransoms to criminal gangs such as pirates, it does forbid them to terrorist groups.

Aside from concerns over whom such cash ends up with, there is increasing unease at the number of British firms involved in the ransom-paying business.

From City insurance and shipping law firms through to the private security outfits which deliver the cash, the operation is dominated by Britons from start to finish. Take, for example, the Nairobi-based security company Salama Fikira, which is said to deliver some 75 per cent of all pirate ransom drops, including last week's one for Mrs Tebbutt. Its managing director is Rob Andrew, a former SAS officer, who was previously regional counter-terrorism adviser with the British embassy in Nairobi.

Such firms argue that without their expertise, hostages would simply languish for far longer, and possibly end up dead. Yet at last month's international summit on Somalia in London, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, issued a call to stop ransom payments "because in the end they only ensure that crime pays".

The US feels the same way, and already, British lawyers involved in pirate ransom negotiations claim their work is being made more difficult.

"Until recently, I could go to a British bank like RBS or Barclays and ask them to hold money for me for a ransom delivery," complained one. "Now they won't do it for 'reputational reasons'."

Such concerns are now thankfully in the past for Mrs Tebbutt as she recovers, most likely with help from psychologists trained in dealing with hostage cases.

A sympathetic ear is also on offer from Paul and Rachel Chandler, who told me last week that they thought she stood a good chance of putting her ordeal behind her, as they have done. "I would say there is a 100 per cent chance of her getting back to normal," said Mr Chandler, whose elderly father died while he was in captivity. "She has suffered a bereavement of a different level to mine, as my father was 99 anyway. But as far as having been a hostage itself goes, yes, you can get over it and put
it down to experience."

He pointed out, though, that some 250 sailors are still held prisoner in Somalia - including fellow yachters Bruno Pelizzari and Debbie Calitz, from South Africa, who were hijacked 18 months ago.

"We were overjoyed when we heard of Judith's release," he said. "But there are still lots out there who aren't getting help."

? Kidnapped: life as a Somali pirate hostage, by Colin Freeman, is published by Monday Books

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