Return to Freedom - The ISIS Hostage (2016)

The ISIS Hostage (2016)

Return to Freedom

Susanne came home from work, took a long bath and put on an old sweatsuit and thick socks. Kjeld was away at a gymnastics meet, so she crawled under the blanket on the sofa and turned on the television. She watched a news report about some people in a nearby park who shot rook chicks, which they then prepared and invited the townspeople to come and taste. The owner of a local wine shop was asked which wine would go best with the meal.

In the middle of the news item, Susanne’s mobile rang. She could see a long number from abroad on the display, so she made her voice sound hard, just in case it was the kidnappers.

‘This is Susanne.’

‘Hi Mum, it’s Daniel. I’m free.’

‘What … is that Daniel?’ repeated Susanne, although she immediately recognized his voice.

They were both weeping so much that they could hardly hear what the other was saying.

‘I’m fine, Mum,’ sobbed Daniel. ‘Everything’s OK.’ Then he asked the three questions he had been thinking about for a long time.

‘Is Signe still there?’

‘Yes, she’s been so sweet.’

‘Have you sold everything you own to free me?’

‘No, we haven’t.’

‘Has Christina finished high school or has she dropped out?’

‘No, she’s working hard to finish her final exams.’

Susanne told him how good everyone had been and that no one had paid more than they could afford for the ransom.

‘Say hello to everyone,’ said Daniel.

‘Arthur’s coming to get you,’ said Susanne.

‘Who’s Arthur?’

‘The man you talked to before you went to Syria. Anita’s also in Turkey waiting for you.’

‘Mum, I have to go. Toni also wants to call home.’

Susanne immediately sent a message to Arthur that Daniel was at the border. Then she called Kjeld, who didn’t answer. Christina didn’t pick up her phone either. Signe answered and was given the news, and then Susanne managed to get hold of Kjeld. He swallowed a quick celebratory beer with his gymnastics friends and hurried home to Susanne, who had already opened a bottle of red wine, while the phone rang off the hook and friends and neighbours came by with champagne.

They were both fairly tipsy and very relieved when they fell asleep that night.

· * ·

Daniel wiped his eyes and went back into the guard room. He sat down on the sofa and tried to follow the World Cup match. But the players looked blurry on the little television, because he didn’t have his glasses. He looked at Toni, who was totally absorbed in the game.

‘Do you want to borrow the phone, Toni?’ he asked, but the German shook his head and took a bite of the kebab he had been given.

Daniel was restless and wanted to call home again. This time he got his father on the other end.

‘It’s good to hear you’re back,’ said Kjeld quietly and with relief.

The Internet didn’t work in Anita’s hotel room in Kilis, so she didn’t get the message from Susanne about Daniel’s release. It wasn’t until half an hour after Daniel’s call that the crisis psychologist and the representative from the Danish Foreign Ministry knocked on her door and told her that something was happening.

They also said that Arthur was speeding towards the border at 120 miles an hour.

Anita took a bath. Her stomach was so jumpy that she had to take some of the diarrhoea pills she had brought for Daniel. Then she sat on the bed and waited.

A white car drove up and pulled into the covered car park in front of the Turkish border control. A tall man stepped out from the driver’s seat. Daniel squinted and recognized Arthur, who rushed towards him with a broad smile. When he reached Daniel, he stretched out his arms and embraced him.

‘My, am I glad to see you, man! You idiot,’ said Arthur, with the emphasis on ‘man’ and ‘idiot’.

‘I didn’t know it was you who was looking for me!’ exclaimed Daniel.

‘Yes, it’s been me ever since your father called when you didn’t come back,’ said Arthur, fishing out a pair of glasses from his pocket and handing them to Daniel.

Suddenly, Daniel could clearly see the faces staring at him. Arthur wasn’t alone. Beside him stood a doctor, a man from Danish Intelligence (PET) and some Germans with gelled hair and polished shoes who had come for Toni.

The doctor immediately shone a light in Daniel’s eyes and took his pulse.

‘Are you hungry or thirsty?’ asked the doctor.

Daniel shook his head. Arthur was keeping his distance and had lit his pipe. As everyone was preparing to leave, Daniel and Toni shook hands and gave each other a pat on the back as a farewell.

‘Have a good trip home,’ said Daniel and went and sat with the doctor in Arthur’s car.

They drove to the first stop on their way, the local police station, where Daniel had to make a report. The local officers didn’t bat an eye.

‘Do you want to make a complaint against those who have been detaining you?’

‘No,’ replied Daniel, signing the report that declared he had been released.

Daniel glanced over at Arthur, who was leaning against a wall, looking pleased.

The PET agent had to gather evidence. He took pictures of the bruises on Daniel’s torso and the scars on his ankle and wrists. Daniel’s clothes were placed in sealed bags for later DNA testing and Daniel helped by setting up the camera, so that the marks from his torture became clearer under the dim lighting.

He was handed a pair of board shorts and a loose T-shirt to replace the tiny shirt and olive-coloured trousers he had been given. Then they proceeded to a local hospital, where a senior doctor examined him rather superficially before writing a report.

The rumour had clearly already spread among Turkish journalists that ISIS had released two hostages. Local film crews turned up outside the hospital’s main entrance and Daniel wore a cap and sunglasses as he was taken straight to a car, which had pulled up in front of the entrance, and away from the glare of the lights.

When they were finally able to head towards the hotel in Gaziantep, Daniel remembered that he had talked with his fellow prisoners about what music each of them wanted to listen to when they were sitting safely in a car on their way out of Syria.

‘Do you have any music, Arthur? Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, for example?’ he asked.

Arthur looked for Pink Floyd on his iPhone.

‘No, unfortunately, I don’t,’ he said.

However, he had saved Signe’s mobile number and gave the phone to Daniel, who had spent so much time thinking about her. After the ringing tone had sounded a few times, he heard her voice in his ear. She was out for a walk alone and began crying. She told him that she had bought an apartment.

‘Is there room for one more in that apartment?’

‘No, well, I don’t know … I heard that you’ve put on weight.’

It didn’t sound like a joke. Daniel could feel the distance between them.

‘I’ve been exercising a lot in there, so I’m not at all fat any more.’ He ended the conversation by saying, ‘See you when I get home.’

He sat quietly for a moment. It had been the most awkward conversation of his entire life.

The representative from the Foreign Ministry and the crisis psychologist met Daniel at the hotel entrance. They introduced themselves and followed him up to his room, while Anita waited in the adjoining room.

‘May I see her soon or what?’ asked Daniel eagerly.

He felt that they were all trying to size him up and that there was an unknown plan that they were following to the letter, but the only thing he wanted was to see his sister. Finally, the door to Anita’s room opened.

They stood in a long embrace, surrounded by the others.

‘I’ve talked to Signe - it didn’t go too well,’ said Daniel.

Anita didn’t comment, but just looked at her brother, who had a beard, was as white as a ghost and had visible scars snaking around his wrists and one ankle.

When Arthur also gave Anita a long hug of relief, Daniel said, ‘That’s a bit strange, you two. How come you know each other?’ and laughter broke out.

It was around midnight when the Foreign Ministry issued the press release that the family and Arthur had helped to write.

The 25-year-old Danish photographer Daniel Rye Ottosen from Give has been released after having been detained in Syria since 17 May last year, when he travelled to Syria to photo-document the conflict and the living conditions of the civilians - especially the children.

Under the circumstances, Daniel Rye Ottosen is well and is now being reunited with his family.

The Rye Ottosen family would like to take this opportunity to extend heartfelt thanks to everyone who has assisted them in getting Daniel home.

Daniel’s case has been known to the Danish press for a long time, but out of consideration for Daniel’s safety, everyone has refrained from covering the story. The press is requested to continue to show consideration and discretion.

The family does not wish to comment further. The Rye Ottosen family does not wish to have contact with the media or other outsiders and would like to thank you for your understanding.

Despite the timing, Danish Intelligence wanted to ask Daniel some questions straight away about his capture in order to gather evidence about ISIS.

‘I can’t cope with that right now,’ said Daniel.

‘No, I quite understand,’ replied the PET man and he remained seated.

Daniel wondered why there seemed to be such a rush. Couldn’t it wait until the day after, the week after? What if he had been released and had to stay in hospital for a week?

Eventually, the PET agent left Daniel and Anita alone, while the crisis psychologist went into the room next door so that he was close by if they needed him.

Daniel went into the bathroom and closed the door. His time was his own and there was no guard outside waiting with a stick. He sat down on the clean toilet and stayed there a long time. It was so wonderful to be able to shit in peace that he began to cry. Then he turned on the shower. The water gushed out of the huge shower head above him, while he filled the scrubbing glove with gel and scrubbed the dirt off his body. The foam slid down over his skin. He made the shower warmer and shaved off the beard on his cheeks and his moustache. He stood under the warm, clean water for a long time and washed off thirteen months of captivity.

He threw all his clothes out of the bag Anita had brought with her and put on an old, washed-out T-shirt that the boys from his boarding school had made. There was a picture on the chest of them all together with his apple-green car. He took a beer out of the fridge for himself and one for Anita too.

‘I bring greetings with me,’ she told him and went through the gifts, photographs and letters in the order that the crisis psychologist had suggested.

Daniel was given a picture of some boys he had gone to Free School with. One of them had become a father and was sitting with his daughter on his lap. There were pictures of Christina with their grandparents and one of Anita’s boyfriend sitting in a kayak. Susanne and Kjeld had also written a letter, and Susanne had sent a Lego set of The Simpsons to Daniel, with the mini-figures of Homer, Bart, Lisa, Maggie and Marge that were the new hit at Legoland. Daniel and Anita looked at each other and laughed when Daniel unpacked them.

‘It’s good that she’s still herself,’ said Daniel, looking at the figures. ‘It’s just like Mum.’

In one picture, Signe was sitting on a beach. But she wasn’t there for him any more, he thought, and the proof-of-life question about how they had met now felt hollow and misleading.

Daniel and Anita lay under their blankets as he told her everything that had happened to him without censoring anything. She finally found out how he got the marks on his neck. The story of how he had tried to commit suicide to escape the torture was the worst. Anita’s and the family’s darkest fears had been correct.

Anita noticed that her brother was constantly eating. When they left the room so that Daniel could smoke a cigarette outside, there was a used plate with some French fries still on it, which he picked at in passing.

He asked for an Internet connection to see what the Danish media were writing about him, but Anita refused. Now wasn’t the time for him to be relating to other people’s opinions of him.

They didn’t sleep all night, but lay under the blankets, talking until first light.

The next morning brunch was laid out on long tables in the hotel restaurant. Daniel filled his plate, while watching a couple sitting across from each other at one of the tables. The man had his newspaper and iPad in front of him, as well as a mobile alongside. Daniel was surprised that someone could sit opposite his wife in such a nice place, so deeply buried in electronic gizmos.

When he had eaten his fill, he had conversations with the psychologist and the PET agent, before he had a chance to call Christina, who was on her way to an exam, with the mobile he had finally been given.

‘They’re going completely berserk in the media,’ said Christina.

‘Really, what’re they saying?’ asked Daniel, who knew that no one in the family had said anything about his situation.

There were already several articles about Daniel on Danish newspaper websites. His former mentor, the photographer Jan Grarup, had said that Daniel ‘was aware that Syria is a dangerous place, but he may not have been completely updated on how dangerous it really is’.

One newspaper also wrote that they had information that he ‘had primarily been held in an area around the town of Raqqa’, which wasn’t true.

In another article from the news agency Ritzau, the headline said, ‘Leading Psychologist: Danish hostage will never be the same.’ The article described how traumatic an experience it is to be a hostage.

On another website an article began with the phrase ‘In May, two days after Daniel Rye Ottosen ignored Foreign Ministry warnings and travelled to Syria for the first time, everything went wrong’ - this ignored the fact that journalists and photographers often don’t follow the Ministry’s travel advice, because it would make it impossible for them to report from the world’s conflict and disaster areas.

Generally, the media contained a lot of discussion about how defensible it was for a young photographer to have gone into Syria when the security risk was so great. But several articles were erroneously comparing the situation now with that which existed more than a year ago. When Daniel was captured in May 2013 very few journalists in Denmark had even heard of ISIS. It was very different in June 2014, because ISIS had grown and had taken control of large areas of northern Syria and captured Mosul in Iraq. One newspaper conveniently failed to mention that its own young reporter was in northern Syria at that very moment.

Journalists sitting comfortably at home in Denmark, ignorant of the details surrounding his capture, were now analysing everything that Daniel had been blaming himself for during the last thirteen months. He had often regretted that he went into Syria with Aya and that he hadn’t insisted on travelling with his original fixer, Mahmoud. He had often asked himself whether he had been too unprepared, and whether it had been naive of him to travel to Syria when he had never been to the Middle East before. But the guilt had faded gradually as the prison cells he sat in were filled with hostages, several of whom had far more experience than him.

The articles in the media revived all his old guilt. Anita noticed that his face had turned as white as a sheet and suggested that he call Pierre, who had also been through the experience of coming home after being held captive by ISIS.

Daniel sat on the orange sofa in the foyer and ate half a chocolate bar, while talking to Pierre over Skype. Pierre had hated his own homecoming, because, unlike Daniel’s, it had been a hero’s welcome. President Hollande had spoken about how proud he was that the nation had Frenchmen like Pierre, who went to Syria to report on the situation.

Pierre reassured Daniel that no matter what the media in Denmark wrote - or what the president of France had to say - about everything they had experienced in Syria, none of them knew what had really happened.

‘They know nothing about you or what you have done or experienced, so don’t worry about it,’ said Pierre in his usual calm manner.

Daniel told Pierre about his last violent weeks in captivity and his fear of what would happen to the remaining hostages.

They agreed to meet again sometime soon.

That afternoon Daniel, Arthur and Anita drove to the airport to take a flight to a safe house at Aalborg Air Base in Denmark. They were transported home in one of the Armed Forces’ aircraft, and Arthur had made arrangements for them to stay at the air base for a few days. Daniel could get the peace and quiet that would enable him to recuperate and avoid media attention. It was a move designed to help him with his first fragile steps back to his old life.

Daniel was sitting in the white leather seat, staring out of the window at the flat landscape, when finally, on 20 June 2014, he landed on Danish soil.

· * ·

Kjeld, Susanne and Christina stood waiting for Daniel at Aalborg Air Base. They were in high spirits. They were going to see their long-lost son and brother - and they had come directly from Rosborg High School, where Christina had just got top marks in her penultimate exam.

The family was greeted at the barracks by a psychologist, who made it clear that Daniel should come to them, not vice versa. It was important that he had a choice after so long in captivity. Christina was only half-listening, while intensely watching the sky for her big brother. The family was led out into a small corridor with glass doors, so they could watch as the plane hit the runway - and then Daniel got out. As soon as Christina saw him, she raced out and threw herself, weeping, into his arms.

Susanne and Kjeld followed at a more modest pace. Daniel and Susanne both wept as they embraced each other.

‘How lovely you look, Mum,’ said Daniel.

Kjeld was more calm and collected. He gave Daniel a hug and a firm pat on the back and Daniel noticed that his hair had become greyer.

‘You’re so lucky …,’ sniffled Susanne, ‘… that you’re loved by so many people.’

At the barracks Daniel was assigned a room where they all sat down to listen to his story. He skated lightly over the torture centre and his suicide attempt. He slowed down when he came to the moment when he tried to escape, which he related with a modicum of humour. He dwelt on tales of the hostages exercising and playing home-made games.

They had never imagined that he would try to take his own life. As his mother, Susanne knew instinctively that the captors must have been very hard on him for him to choose that path.

‘I’m well,’ said Daniel. ‘I’ve been broken down, but I’ve also rediscovered myself. Please don’t feel bad for me.’

But he had changed. When the barracks served sandwiches as a snack before bedtime, he chose the most boring one, with rolled meat sausage, and ate it with some potato crisps from his room. If food dropped on the floor, he picked it up and put it in his mouth. He also ate what the others left on their plates, because he didn’t want to let any food go to waste.

They thought he was eating oddly and Susanne noticed he’d developed a lazy eye. She suspected that it was probably because he hadn’t been wearing his glasses for a long time. Anita stayed at the barracks, but the rest of the family left to go home to Hedegård. At which point the conversation that Daniel was dreading awaited him.

‘Come with me,’ said Arthur and Daniel followed him out into the kitchenette. ‘I’ve made an appointment with Diane Foley. You can call her now.’

Daniel knew that the time had come to contact James’s parents, and he was glad that Arthur had taken the initiative. It was going to be a difficult conversation.

Diane answered the phone in New Hampshire.

‘Hi, dearest Daniel, so wonderful to hear your voice,’ Diane said in a soft voice. ‘How are you? We hope you’re doing OK under the circumstances.’

Daniel said he felt fine.

‘That’s good to hear. How nice. We just wanted to hear if you had talked to Jim. Did he say anything to you?’ she asked gently and put the phone on the speaker, so that James’s father John could listen in.

Daniel walked in circles around the kitchenette, while he delivered James’s greetings from memory: his thoughts about his grandmother, whom James hoped would carry on dancing; the message that he could feel the family when he prayed in the dark and that he hoped and knew that everyone was staying strong. Daniel told them that James had put on weight and was getting better food. He could hear that Diane was writing everything down.

‘How has it been for all of you? How did they treat you?’ asked Diane afterwards.

The longing for just a tiny bit of information burned down the wire. They had been living in the dark for months.

‘James is better than he was in the beginning,’ said Daniel. He refrained from talking about the last two weeks, when the Beatles had been behaving violently and unpredictably. Instead, he told them about the Risk game and the chessboard and the Secret Santa scheme and how much strength their son had shown.

‘What do you think is going to happen, Daniel?’ asked Diane.

He took a deep breath and paused.

‘I don’t know, Diane. I don’t know any more than you do. It’s as if there’s a different plan for the British and the Americans.’

He told them about the video that had been recorded with James in which he had been forced to demand €100 million.

‘We’re groping in the dark. There’s no one who will help us,’ said Diane, referring to the US authorities. ‘Oh, Daniel, we’re so grateful - we know this is hard for you. You’re a huge help - we want you to know that.’

When he put the phone down after an hour and a half, he sat out on the lawn with Arthur, smoking cigarettes.

‘For Christ’s sake, Arthur, this is so damn sad,’ said Daniel. They just sat in silence a while.

‘I’m afraid you’re the last person that they’ll talk to who has seen their son alive,’ said Arthur.

Daniel went straight to bed and passed a restless night.

The barracks were intended to be a safe environment for four days, and there was a detailed plan in place that would help Daniel create a smooth transition to the life that awaited him outside the air base. He received the constant support of professionals who had experience of helping hostages return home.

One day he was taken to the hospital to be X-rayed and, in between appointments, he drove with his guardian to buy some more underwear. They went to H&M’s underwear department, which turned out to be for women only.

Daniel stared at the lingerie, the posters of half-naked women and the female customers, feeling like an eleven year old. He hadn’t seen an uncovered woman for more than a year and laughed at himself, telling his guardian that he could hardly remember what a pair of breasts looked like. He fled across the street to a hunting-and-fishing store, where he found a black balaclava and took a selfie with it on. He also bought an air rifle and got it wrapped up.

He often talked with Anita, who followed him closely in those early days. During their conversations, he asked frequently about Signe.

‘Isn’t Signe coming to Christina’s graduation party?’

‘Only if you two are still together, Daniel,’ said Anita elusively.

A few days later, when she said goodbye to him in the barracks’ car park, he was excited that Signe had said she would visit him.

Anita stared out of the window of the train from Aalborg to Odense. She finally had a moment to herself and the emotions overwhelmed her. In the middle of the train compartment, she burst into tears. Not so much over the suffering her brother had undergone in Syria, but over the pain he had to live through now. This time no one could make it easy for him. She could pick him up from kindergarten when he was little, raise money for his release and fill a toiletry bag with nice things, but she couldn’t mend his relationship with his girlfriend after such an ordeal.

· * ·

The wide pines encircled the lawn so that no one could see if Daniel ran around naked on the grass. The trees provided shade from the sun and a screen against the neighbours if you were sitting on the covered wooden terrace or on the sofa in the living room, which looked out over the garden through large, floor-to-ceiling windows.

Daniel loved being in the family’s summer house, which served as his second safe house in the weeks after his release.

He had found a picture on the Internet of the Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche, one of his guards, who had gone by the name of Abu Omar and who, by all accounts, was the perpetrator of an attack on the Jewish Museum in Belgium. Daniel had printed out a picture of Nemmouche’s face, which he had hung up in the garden. Together with Kjeld, he drank beer and used it as a target for his air rifle.

After a few days at the summer house, he went to collect Signe at the train station. He spotted her immediately when she stepped out on to the platform. She stood there with a large suitcase, dressed in pure white trainers, shorts and a tight blouse. She hadn’t changed a bit.

They embraced. Signe began to cry.

‘Well, what’s new?’ asked Daniel when they had arrived at the summer house and were sitting together in the shade on the terrace.

Signe told him about the chaotic night when she had waited for him at the airport and that she’d had a difficult time while he had been away. She had tried to be optimistic and to help where she could, and she had talked a lot with Kjeld and Susanne. But around Christmas time, when Daniel had been away for more than six months, she had tried to move forwards with her life. She had stopped doing gymnastics and had found peace in her new apartment. She finally felt that she had moved on.

Daniel couldn’t hold back the tears.

‘I can really understand,’ he said, ‘but I’ve been thinking about you so much.’

Signe had been his light in the darkness. His thoughts about her had kept him going. Suddenly it felt as if something inside him had become constricted and his sobs overwhelmed him. He wept and wept until there was nothing left but relief; relief that he knew what he had to deal with - and that Signe no longer had to worry about him.

They put Queen on the stereo and danced until they collapsed, exhausted, on the sofa, where they lay watching a dreadful film until her parents came to pick her up.

Daniel waved goodbye as Signe left in the car.

A week after Daniel had returned from Syria, he and the rest of the family stood waiting impatiently in the corridor at Rosborg High School. He was holding one long red rose and his little sister’s graduation cap.

She was behind the door, completing her very last exam in biology. In captivity Daniel had been so afraid that Christina would drop out of school.

The door finally opened and Christina came out to meet him in her sleeveless white dress, her curly hair hanging loose.

Daniel took his sister in his arms and cried on her shoulder as he hugged her so hard and for so long that his grip left marks on her arms.

Then he put the graduation cap on her head and toasted her with champagne for finishing high school, and for him being home to celebrate it with her.