The ISIS Hostage (2016)
Can You See the Moon, Daniel?
During the day, when light reached the cell, the hostages tried to find creative ways of passing the time. Daniel got an idea from a white cardboard box which had contained dates and which the guards had left in a corner of the cell.
‘Are you interested in making a game of Risk?’ he asked.
The others thought it sounded like fun and Daniel began collecting material for the game. The side of the cardboard box measured approximately 16 by 24 inches, and on this they drew the world map from the Risk game, purely from memory.
When Daniel ate olives, he spat the pits into a metal tub, filled a bucket with water and scrubbed them clean. He then used a nail to scrape the fruit flesh off the pits and laid them out to dry on the wall that separated the room from the toilet. The others also gave him their date and olive pits, which he cleaned and categorized. The stones could be dark, light, large or small. A small olive pit symbolized a soldier, a large olive pit a horse, while a date pit symbolized a cannon with ten soldiers.
Daniel had saved a small yoghurt tub, which he used to construct a die. He pricked a circle in the bottom with a nail, then divided the circle into six equal parts and gave each section a number from one to six. When an olive stone was thrown into the tub, it landed on the number of dots that the player should move his piece.
They made mission cards and tore paper into strips to use as pieces. When everything was completed, Risk became a popular alternative to chess, the only game in the cell until then. Daniel had become a complete chess nerd and found a mental escape from his captivity by immersing himself in looking for gaps in his opponent’s defence. There were a lot of them on James’s half of the board, on the rare occasions when Daniel persuaded him to play.
The new game also helped him forget where he was, and between four and six of them would often play together. Daniel feared that the guards would mistake the Risk board for an escape plan, so they would sit in his corner with their backs to the door and play at conquering countries and territories around the world, ready to cover the pieces with a blanket if the guards should come in.
An independent judge would be appointed for each new round, although debates would quickly arise about how independent he was when he had to adjudicate how far a player could move if the olive pit lay on the dividing line between two numbers. The players would form alliances, which led to cynical power struggles and predictable intrigues. They took defeat so personally and seriously that they would fall out over it.
‘I quit!’ one of them would say suddenly. ‘I don’t want to play any more.’
‘Come on now, it’s just a game,’ someone would say. It was as if it had become impossible to play for fun, because the fear of death, the longing and the pain, was all being channelled into a board game made of cardboard and olive pits.
Daniel stopped playing and thought back to his first shocking days in captivity, when he had imagined that it would be a matter of hours, days or weeks before he would be free again. Back then, it never crossed his mind to think in terms of months, and now six months had already gone by. Perhaps he would have to add ‘number of years’ to his internal accounting of his time as a hostage.
Around noon one day in November there was heavy hammering on the door and concerns greater than how many dots were in the tub arrived in the shape of the three British guards. Daniel was kneeling with his face against the wall, but he recognized their accent from the day when the Brit’s unpleasant visit had turned Federico’s and David’s faces deathly pale.
Daniel stiffened, while the Brits went around the room selecting individual hostages, who were given a few blows on the torso. He could hear that they were being tough on Steven, accusing him of writing articles that were untrue. They also circled David for a long time.
One of the guards asked them, one by one, to say what they knew about Dawlah al-Islamiyah, the Arabic name for ISIS.
Daniel deliberately kept his answer very short.
‘Your goal is to create an Islamic state where you implement sharia law,’ he said.
The three Brits talked about the policies of western countries against Muslims and about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
‘Why are you sitting here? Because you support your stupid governments,’ said one of them.
‘Is there anyone who knows what democracy means?’ continued the lesson. ‘It comes from Latin. Demos means “people”, kratos means “power”. And who are the people? The people, that’s you. So you are the sinners.’
After that day the hostages began to see the three hooded British guards more frequently. They nicknamed them the Beatles. That way, they could talk about John, Ringo and George, without the guards detecting that the prisoners were speaking about them.
The Beatles were always dressed in black hoods, desert boots and black or military green clothing, but several of the hostages in the cell noted that their hands were dark-skinned. They guessed that they came from Pakistan and had perhaps met each other in a mosque in London.
George was the most violent and unpredictable of the three and sometimes he held his nose while he walked around the cell, talking or telling bad jokes. According to David and Federico - and also James, who had encountered George earlier in his captivity - he had gone from being quiet to aggressive and domineering. Ringo, on the other hand, seemed to be reserved, while John was articulate.
Daniel hardly dared to listen when they were in the cell, so he often couldn’t tell them apart. But it was immaterial - as a trio, they were frightening. Whether they came in together or separately, the forewarning was always a strong, bitter-sweet scent of male perfume that wafted into the room while they stood outside the door, waiting for the hostages to turn to face the wall before they entered. Sometimes Daniel thought he could smell when they were coming, but it usually turned out to be a false alarm. Every time the prisoners sensed a whiff of perfume, there was panic.
· * ·
Towards the end of 2013, while Daniel and his fellow prisoners in Aleppo had fallen under the control of British jihadists, James Foley’s family in the United States were approached by the father of a returned Syrian combatant. At the beginning of November Dimitri, Jejoen Bontinck’s father, called James’s brother Michael with the message that his son had apparently met James in a prison in Aleppo.
The family had been getting calls for several months from various people, each one more well-informed and well-intentioned than the next. Common to all of them was that they claimed to know where James was being held, without it ever leading to anything new. Even so, Michael thought that Dimitri’s story was worth passing on to Arthur, who had been looking for James for about a year without success. Arthur listened to the long message that Jejoen’s father had recorded. Dimitri spoke stridently, quickly and incoherently, but Arthur decided to contact him anyway to find out what it was really about.
Dimitri said his son had become radicalized and had gone to Syria to fight.
‘I’ve been in Syria looking for him,’ he continued, at which Arthur couldn’t suppress a little smile. When Dimitri’s son finally returned home, after more than six months, he had been imprisoned by the Belgian authorities on suspicion of committing terrorist acts in Syria and of being a member of ISIS, in the days when he wasn’t under house arrest. Jejoen’s testimony added to the public prosecutor’s case against forty-seven members of Sharia4Belgium, including himself. According to Dimitri, Jejoen had told him that he had been held in the same cell as James for several weeks in the basement of a children’s hospital in Aleppo.
When Arthur hung up, he sat back with a strange gut feeling. During the past few months he had spoken with hundreds of people who said they knew James’s whereabouts. Their only motive had been money. But what in heaven’s name would prompt a young Belgian jihadist to fabricate a story about having met James? he asked himself. The only motive Arthur could imagine was immunity, meaning that Jejoen hoped he might be released if he gave information about a well-known, kidnapped American in Syria. There were several details in Dimitri’s story that aroused Arthur’s curiosity, since much of his information about Daniel had also been obtained from released Syrians who had been held in the same prisons.
In the United States the FBI didn’t think Arthur should spend even a second of his valuable time on the returned Belgian fighter. Even though the Syrian regime denied that James was in one of their prisons, this possibility was the only lead that Arthur had been asked to prioritize by the FBI. Prominent sources in the regime said that not even President Assad would necessarily know if there was an American in one of the secret prisons, because when prisoners were registered, their name was thrown away and the prisoner reduced to a number. It would be difficult to find the person without being able to match a name with a number. Moreover, it wasn’t inconceivable that a general or a colonel somewhere in the system had ‘stashed Foley away’ as an insurance policy. If the regime fell, releasing him could be a ticket out.
‘We have to use our scarce resources to follow the lead in Damascus,’ was the message from the US. But Arthur, ignoring the FBI’s view on the matter, followed his gut feeling and flew to Antwerp, Belgium.
Through Dimitri, Arthur obtained a permit to visit Jejoen under the guise of being a family member who had come from the United States to welcome him home.
The high-security prison couldn’t deny the prisoner a family visit, but if he came for investigative purposes, the police had to be involved. Arthur wanted to avoid the latter at all costs. He could already imagine how authorization for the visit would evaporate in red tape and delays.
Before going through the prison security search, Arthur wrote a number of names on the broad palm of his hand that he wanted to check with the fighter. Abu Athir, Abu Ubaidah and Abu Suheib were among them; he wanted to know what they looked like and where they had been staying. He had also rolled up his shirt sleeves and hidden a mini ballpoint pen in the cuffs so the wardens didn’t discover it when he went into the visiting room.
It looked like a classroom with small desks, and the visitors and inmates were only allowed to sit in specifically designated chairs. The prison wardens walked between the tables, keeping an eye on things; pen and paper were not allowed.
A few moments later Arthur was sitting opposite Jejoen, whose dark skin came from his Nigerian mother. Arthur spoke quietly and honestly from the beginning.
‘I’m not a member of James’s family. But I’m not from the intelligence services, either. I’m looking for James on behalf of his family. I’m also looking for a Dane called Daniel.’
‘I’ve seen James and heard about the Dane,’ said Jejoen.
In order to verify his statements, Arthur asked him to explain how he had ended up under the children’s hospital in Aleppo.
When he finished recounting his story, there was no doubt. Jejoen told Arthur where James had gone to school and that he had been a teacher. He also gave information about John Cantlie that no one knew publicly, and John hadn’t even been in the press. At that point in time the Brit’s capture was still unknown to the public.
Arthur wrote everything on his forearm with his mini pen as unobtrusively as possible, while his cheeks burned. This is the BREAKTHROUGH! a voice said inside him. After searching for about a year, he finally had the first proof of life of James Foley. He was still alive.
The next breakthrough came a few minutes later when Arthur read out the list of prominent ISIS leaders that he had written on his palm. Jejoen nodded and described all of them in detail. Arthur suddenly understood the connection: James and Daniel had been taken prisoner by the same people.
With the knowledge that Arthur had about the other western hostages, it became clear to him that the same key characters among the kidnappers were popping up every time. Perhaps all of the hostages were being held at the same location.
As soon as Arthur came out of the maximum security prison he called the United States and Britain. As euphoric as he was to finally know where James had been staying, he was equally depressed at the thought that Daniel was sitting in the hands of the same Islamists who had made James disappear for a year without any sign of life.
It was no longer just one Dane who was imprisoned or one American. It was a multinational hostage-taking, since there was much to indicate that some Frenchmen, a Brit and a German were also hostages in the same place. Arthur knew from experience that when a case involved many nationalities, it would mean every government fighting against the other. But that wasn’t the worst part.
When the kidnappers had several hostages in their custody, the risk increased that one of them would be killed. Not all of the captives would have the same value, and the captors were usually willing to sacrifice some more than others. Daniel might not be at the top of the list of those they wanted to keep.
Given these circumstances, Arthur realized that the appeal letter Daniel’s parents had sent to Emir Abu Athir had been completely irrelevant. Now it was simply a matter of how long it would take before someone tried to get in touch with Susanne and Kjeld and what ISIS’s grand plan was for Daniel, James and the others. Was it about money, politics, ideology or a combination of them all?
As Arthur saw it, Daniel and the other foreign hostages had become pawns in a dangerous political game in which the Islamists moved the pieces as and when it suited them. It was a game that could end up putting governments under pressure and presenting them with a dilemma: if they wanted their countrymen to be freed, they would be forced to indulge ISIS and pay ransoms to terrorists.
Arthur left Belgium with the feeling that anything could happen.
· * ·
The family in Hedegård was living in the iron grip of uncertainty. It had been many weeks since they had received any sign of life and even longer since anyone had shown any interest in negotiating Daniel’s release. Susanne was desperate to talk to her son, to see him and hear his voice as she remembered it. She and Kjeld went to the cinema more often than they had ever done; it was a place where they could forget reality for a while and where there was no one who asked about Daniel.
They wrote another letter, which Arthur’s contacts would try to get delivered to Daniel. Susanne spent a whole morning writing it, crying and crossing out. The letter was to give her son information about what was happening. It was meant to inspire hope - and show that they loved him, in case they never saw him again:
We, Signe and the rest of your family are thinking about you very much. How are you? Are they treating you well? We have seen pictures and videos of you; it was hard, but nice too. We hope and believe that you can use your always positive outlook and attitude in the difficult situation you’re in, and your kind, friendly personality and maybe your gymnastics to benefit your body and soul.
Susanne and Kjeld wrote about how they were keeping his disappearance a secret, so that the press didn’t get wind of the story:
We are doing everything in our power to get you safely home to Denmark, so just keep going and fight on. You should know that we are all ready to receive you with love; we will help and support you, and together we will no doubt move forwards, together we are strong.
Here in Denmark, it’s the same old stuff. Christina has started her third year at high school. Signe is in school. Anita and her boyfriend both have new jobs, which are fortunately going really well. Dad is driving his truck and cycling a lot, and I’m working at Legoland, of course. Granddad and Grandma are worried, of course, like the rest of us, but they are holding out well.
We have had a fantastic, fine summer here in Denmark with a lot of sunshine and warm weather. We had three good days on Samsø, along with Anita and her boyfriend, who kayaked over and stayed at a campsite. Dad and I stayed in a boarding school, so now we have also tried that. We had our bikes with us, so we cycled all over Samsø. Christina went to Move Yourself in Viborg and has also worked at Legoland. Signe is a wonderful girl - she has been on holiday with her parents and her brothers and sisters. She misses you very much, but she is contributing enormously and fighting alongside us.
The harvest is now in and autumn is approaching; the leaves are falling from the trees and the dark time of year is approaching, the time with candles and cosiness. So we hope with all our hearts that you will come home soon and be able to enjoy yourself with us.
They ended the letter with a saying:
A tree with strong roots can withstand even the fiercest storm.
Many hugs and warm thoughts to you from your Mum and Dad.
· * ·
After months with no proof of life or any signs of negotiations, Daniel was finally collected from the cell and taken up to an office that had windows all around, like a glass cage.
He cast a quick glance out of the windows and managed to get a sense of where he was - some old cars were parked in a yard, where there was also some building clutter and two dumbbells - before an English-speaking guard ordered him to sit down on a chair. The guard said some phrases that Daniel had to repeat in front of a video camera:
‘My name is Daniel. I am a Danish citizen. I got caught by this group, because I had some pictures on my camera showing the houses of the mujahideen. This is a message to the prime minister of Denmark, Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Stop the support for groups like Liwa al-Tawheed and pay money in order for me to return home,’ he said, referring to one of the larger, moderate rebel groups.
He was then taken back to the cell, without having the slightest idea whether or not any of the video appeals he had made were ever sent to Denmark.
James was holding a candle out towards the door. The electricity kept disappearing for increasingly longer periods in the evening. When it happened, the hostages called the guards, who lit the wick of the candle they had finally been given.
All thirteen of them were sitting covered by their blankets, staring into the flame, as they looked forward to a small meal - a little bread and olives. No one said anything. Daniel looked at the others’ faces in the yellow gleam of the candlelight and for a moment he felt that it was actually quite cosy, especially when James distributed the food in equal portions.
The basement had become cold and damp. December was on its way. Daniel suggested a game he knew from when he taught at Bjerre Gymnastics and Sports School. During the Christmas month, the head of the boarding school had arranged a Secret Santa exchange that Daniel thought would work in the cell too. The rules were that everyone was secretly allocated someone who would be their Secret Santa and who would pamper them until Christmas. Then, on Christmas Eve, they all had to guess who was their Secret Santa.
Some were sceptical about playing Secret Santa in a Muslim prison and, except for James, who thought it was a good idea, those who had converted to Islam didn’t want to join in. One of the Muslims who didn’t want to be involved allocated Secret Santas to the hostages. He whispered in Daniel’s ear that he should be Secret Santa for Steven and Daniel started thinking about how he could be pleasant towards him in the coming weeks.
The Christmas season also brought a new acquaintance. Daniel woke abruptly one night in early December when the door to the basement room opened and a new hostage came into the cell. It was a Russian called Sergei Gorbunov. He had a receding hairline and a bushy goatee beard on his chin and didn’t speak any English, but Marc, the Spaniard, could communicate a little with him in Russian.
Sergei told them that he was a Muslim and a scientist and that he had been on his way to an area of Aleppo with some important papers when he was captured. The others couldn’t figure out what he was really doing in Syria. He spoke incoherently and maybe he was a little crazy. But Sergei was good at being a prisoner. He settled in and quickly got into the rhythm. Apparently he had been imprisoned for several years in Russia, and Daniel thought that maybe there wasn’t a lot of difference between an ISIS prison in Syria and a Russian state prison. The everyday routines were probably much the same.
Sergei was also good at chess, even though he cheated and moved his knight in a non-regulation manner. But not everyone was enthusiastic about the Russian. Pierre didn’t like his energy and kept his distance. He thought that Sergei had come in with animalistic tendencies, where he attacked the weak and obeyed the strong. Most of all, Pierre’s aversion was the result of his own efforts to maintain a civilized level of behaviour, a little dignity in the midst of a world in which they were controlled by the Beatles.
· * ·
The hostages were dragged out of the cell one at a time. When it was Daniel’s turn, he was thrown on to the floor of a room in which one of the Brits sat behind a table. On the table were a small computer and a sub-machine gun. Daniel was on his knees and handcuffed, staring at the floor in front of him, while the hooded guard asked him his name and why he had come to Syria.
‘Would you like to go home? Who can pay for you?’ were the next questions.
‘My family doesn’t have any money, but they’ll do everything they can to pay a ransom,’ replied Daniel.
‘If nobody pays, we’ll shoot you,’ said the guard, getting up and sticking a pistol barrel into Daniel’s mouth.
‘Do you want to die now or will you tell us what possibilities there are?’
Daniel calmly gave him a signal with his hand that he wanted to say something and, when the barrel was removed from his mouth, he told them how much he was insured for and reeled off email addresses for Susanne, Kjeld and his sisters.
‘Have you heard of Guantánamo?’
‘What can you tell us about the place?’
He tried to say as little as possible about the US detention camp in Cuba, where there was evidence of widespread torture. The Brits were rough, uncompromising and unpleasant.
‘I know they’re holding Muslim prisoners who have been treated very badly,’ said Daniel.
‘It’s your duty to know. You are part of the democracy that holds these people prisoner,’ said the guard, emphasizing every word as he continued to outline how Daniel was complicit in the mistreatment of Muslims in western democracies.
‘This is our response to how the West is treating our brothers.’
Daniel nodded again, knowing that the Beatles had previously subjected some of the hostages to a method of torture called waterboarding, which they had imported from Guantánamo. This involved putting a cloth over the prisoners’ faces and pouring gallons of water over them so that they felt as if they were drowning.
The guard punched Daniel hard in the torso and led him back to the cell. His ribs were aching, but he was surprised that he hadn’t reacted to having a pistol stuck in his mouth - as if he were indifferent to dying. Maybe his body had stopped feeling fear. Maybe he was just tired and had become immune to death threats.
The other hostages had also had email addresses demanded of them, which made the British and Americans happy. It was the first sign that contact might be made with their families. Until now, James had always been told that he would never be going home. Sergei was the only one who had no email address to give the Beatles. The prisoners talked a lot about what this demand for email addresses meant, while simultaneously getting involved in their Secret Santa roles.
Steven slept by Daniel’s feet and some evenings Daniel would wrap him up in the blanket like a sausage, from his shoulders all the way down his body and around his feet. When Steven got up, Daniel would wish him good morning, and every time Steven suggested a game of chess, he would volunteer to be his opponent. He consistently took part in Steven’s yoga classes three times a week and asked afterwards whether Steven would tell him about Israel and Palestine. The American was Jewish, something they never mentioned in front of the guards.
One day, beside his sleeping place, Daniel found a small boat shaped out of the wrapper from a packet of butter. In his universe, this gift from his Secret Santa symbolized freedom. The foil boat could drift wherever it wanted, depending on where Daniel’s thoughts led it. The Secret Santa game was creating a larger mental space in the cell.
The daily guards who brought them food mainly spoke French. They called themselves Abu Idriss and Abu Mohammed and they acted professionally by keeping a distance and addressing the prisoners with the formal vous instead of the informal tu when they took them out to the toilet and brought them food.
Pierre also recognized a third French guard, Abu Omar, whom he had met when he first arrived at the hospital in Aleppo. He had evidently moved with them to the Dungeon, as the hostages called the prison. Sometimes, when Abu Omar was on duty, the prisoners didn’t get any food, and the first time he came into the cell, his face wasn’t covered.
Maybe it was the presence of Pierre and the other Frenchmen that got Abu Omar hanging out with them in their cell. He really enjoyed talking about the French police, the former Yugoslavia and the so-called Roubaix gang - a terrorist cell whose members had been in Bosnia during the war in 1992 and who had robbed and attacked several places in France throughout the 1990s. A large-scale attack against a police building in Lille in 1996 had failed, however, when their home-made bomb had destroyed only the Peugeot they had parked outside.
While other people had their favourite actors, Abu Omar had his favourite major criminals, which Pierre interpreted to mean that he personally wanted to become a famous felon. Little did Pierre know, but Abu Omar would later fulfil his wish. His name was in fact Mehdi Nemmouche. He had Algerian roots and, in 2014, he was accused of killing four people in an attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. According to prosecutors, the twenty-nine-year-old French national from Roubaix admitted to carrying out the attack, which had been caught on the museum’s security cameras. On 24 May he ran into the museum, took a Kalashnikov out of his bag and shot and killed two Israeli tourists and a Frenchman, while a fourth victim, a Belgian employee of the museum, later died of his wounds. Mehdi Nemmouche managed to flee on foot and got as far as Marseille before being apprehended.
It was the first attack in Europe in which the perpetrator had a connection to ISIS.
Although Abu Omar probably beat the Syrian inmates in the prison - some of the hostages thought they heard it happening - it was still the British guards they feared the most. When the Beatles were in the room, no one knew what was going to happen.
One day in December Daniel immediately became apprehensive when they dragged him out to the toilet. He was told to take off his shirt and stand up against the end wall. Ringo was holding a video camera, while the other two coached Daniel to speak into the camera and appeal to all the important and rich people in Denmark to pay a ransom, so that he could go back home to his family. They handed him the front page of a Danish tabloid, which he had to hold up in front of him while asking for help.
‘Pull yourself together!’ shouted one of the Brits. ‘Do it again!’
Daniel repeated the speech, while Ringo filmed.
‘Stooooop! You sound like a tourist, like you don’t mean it. Pull yourself together now. Do it again!’
Daniel tried to sound more frightened and after three or four takes the Brits deemed that the video was finally in the can. He put on his shirt and went back to the cell, where he and Pierre were getting ready for Christmas Eve.
They had been putting aside food from their meals for weeks. As a rule, they saved a chunk of bread, spread it with margarine and apricot jam and wrapped it in a plastic bag that lay between them while they slept. The feast grew every day as they added another piece of bread and jam. Pierre had convinced Daniel that the bread wouldn’t go mouldy if it was smeared with jam and Daniel regarded the greasy jam roll in the bag almost like a baby that was growing between them - and which they had to guard with their lives, so that they could celebrate Christmas Eve.
· * ·
In the days leading up to the first Sunday of Advent, Susanne strung Christmas lights up in the pots and bushes outside their house.
‘We’ve got to carry on living as normal, so that we don’t attract attention,’ she thought to herself. She put on some Christmas music, while placing gnomes and spruce twigs in the windows. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she tidied up the Advent wreath that stood on the table, ready for the first candle to be lit.
Susanne and Kjeld went out and ate some delicious food at an Italian restaurant, and afterwards they laughed for a while at the Christmas show at Vejle Music Hall. One Saturday Kjeld went to a Christmas party with some truck driver friends, while Susanne went to a spa, then they ate steak and drank red wine together. They tried to honour their usual Christmas traditions, both outwardly and at home. As Susanne quoted in her diary: ‘Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.’
They ate traditional pastries and drank mulled wine, cut down a Christmas tree in the forest and sent a parcel to Daniel in Syria. It contained an old work sweatshirt from Bjerre Gymnastics and Sports School with greetings written on small slips of paper in the pocket. Christina enclosed a school photo of herself and wrote her own message on the back, along with an extract from the same song her mother had been listening to: ‘I love you. I think about you every day and know that you can handle it. It’ll all work out, when the time is right. I miss you so.’ Despite this, every time Susanne stopped in the middle of the Christmas rush, she was overcome with grief.
‘Tears are words the heart can’t say,’ she wrote in her diary on 16 December.
Two days later she read an article online about former Syrian prisoners of ISIS. A fieldworker from Amnesty International in northern Syria had collected eyewitness accounts by hostages released from ISIS prisons in the Raqqa and Aleppo provinces. The prisoners had been held between May and November 2013 and they told the fieldworker how they had been detained by masked, armed men who blindfolded them and drove them to a prison cell, where they were tortured. Susanne tried to forget what she had read and hurried outside to put out some firewood that her younger brother was coming to collect the following day.
Some evenings, when the sky was clear, she would gaze for a long time at the moon that shone over Hedegård’s brown winter fields and empty roads.
‘Can you see the moon, Daniel?’ she asked quietly. ‘I wonder if you can see the moon.’
It reassured her to think that they both found themselves under the same sky. Then her son didn’t feel so far away after all.
· * ·
Arthur spent December 2013 holding meetings with his network in the border region between Turkey and Syria. He was now receiving reports that Daniel, James and the other western hostages had apparently been moved from the children’s hospital to what was thought to be a sawmill in the industrial area of Sheikh Najjar on the outskirts of Aleppo. The information didn’t surprise him, since any negotiations or access to Daniel had ground to a halt after late August. Arthur was told that the guards had demanded email addresses for all the hostages’ families. A Syrian prisoner who had since been released had overheard them being questioned. He had been sitting in a one-man cell just opposite the western hostages in the basement and heard the British guards question each of them.
In mid-December James Foley’s family received an email with the kidnappers’ demands. In return for James’s release, they demanded that the family press the US government to release Muslim prisoners, or else they wanted the astronomical sum of €100 million. The email also contained an invitation to the family to send some proof of life questions for James.
Arthur interpreted the message as a serious opening. Even if the demand was sky high, the kidnappers couldn’t be discounted as negotiators. He had seen before how kidnappers started out with enormous demands in order to suss out the families. The US authorities responded to the Foley family and rejected any question of a prisoner exchange or ransom negotiation. But that didn’t mean that the dialogue should end.
‘The starting point for all releases is dialogue,’ Arthur told the Foleys.
He thought it might be a deliberate strategy to reach out first to a family in the one country where the payment of a ransom seemed the most impossible to achieve.
The Foley family quickly got an email back with James’s answers to questions about where his brother got married, who had wept during his speech at the wedding and what position James played on the football team. But the communication stopped as suddenly as it had started. After only a few emails, before the family could begin any real negotiations, there was silence from the other end. The kidnappers wrote what they called a final message in which they insisted on €100 million in cash to release James.
Susanne and Kjeld in Hedegård were sharing a destiny with Diane and John Foley in Rochester. They too were waiting in vain for an email about their son.
· * ·
On the morning of 23 December 2013 the guards came into the cell.
‘You’re going to be released now,’ one said and declared that the rich Gulf state of Qatar had paid €260 million for all thirteen foreign hostages.
‘You have ten minutes to get ready,’ was the message.
‘May we take anything with us?’ asked one of the prisoners and got a no in reply. The hostages did some quick calculations based on Qatar’s generous €260 million and laughed − they were worth more than 11 F-16 fighter aircraft. Deep down, everyone knew very well that they were probably just being taken to a new cell.
The prospect of a move created panic in Daniel and Pierre about what would become of their Christmas Eve treat, the bread and jam that they had been assembling for several weeks and was hidden between their sleeping places.
They decided to eat it straight away, so they split it into two equal pieces. Daniel feasted on the fatty, soft, sugary mass of old bread and lavish volumes of jam, margarine and butter. It was many more calories than he had taken in for several months. When the jam roll had been consumed, he pulled on a pair of Adidas trousers, Toni’s military tunic, a pair of socks and the far-too-small turquoise sandals.
The guards tied the hostages’ hands together with white plastic straps that cut into the skin. They were blindfolded and led out to a truck. Daniel lost his sandals on the way and felt a sugar rush rise up from his stomach, which was bubbling with a strange happiness. Tears ran down his cheeks, because he believed that he was going home - and minutes later because he thought he was going to die.
Suddenly, he felt an intense urge to go to the toilet, but it was too late. The truck had already started and the prisoners slid around each other in the cargo compartment. His stomach was gurgling, his mind racing, and he couldn’t stop crying.
When the truck finally stopped, Daniel imagined that they had come to a refugee camp and would soon be released. Someone took him by the arm and he stepped out with his right leg first - the leg which had not had a knee injury − into the uncertain depths, without having any idea of how far down the ground was. But he felt that there was a chair under him and he stepped onto it before he was in his stockinged feet on some gravel. A hand took his arm again and he felt someone run a finger along his neck in a sawing motion. So they probably weren’t going home.
With their hands bound, the hostages were lifted up by the arms so they were forced to walk on their toes and led into a room.
After a short time, they were taken out individually.
Some guards with masks asked Daniel to take off all his clothes. ‘My socks too?’
Daniel’s stomach was rumbling as he stood naked on the chilly floor and was asked to bend forward and spread his buttocks. They apparently wanted to examine whether he had smuggled anything up his behind and he was terrified that he wouldn’t be able to hold himself while they inspected him.
Afterwards, they threw into his arms a two-part orange prison uniform with loose trousers and a thin shirt and he pulled it over his naked body. The body lice were gone with his old trousers. On reflection, he dared not imagine what it could mean that all of them were now dressed in Guantánamo-coloured suits.
‘It’s their dream,’ said James and related that, early in his captivity, the Beatles had told him that they were going to dress him in an orange prison uniform.
The hostages were divided into two groups. Daniel was relieved that he was put together with Pierre, James, Steven, John, Toni, Marc and Edouard in a large basement room with two small windows looking out on to a foyer, and with a proper toilet and shower.
The hostages were in the cell they soon dubbed the Five-Star Hotel.
· * ·
As usual at this time of year, Anita placed on the bookcase in the living room a small wooden church with an electric light. Her grandfather had made it back in the 1980s and, when she was a child, it had been on display at Hedegård every holiday season, lighting up a Christmas landscape of cotton wool. It had later become hers and it wasn’t really Christmas until it had been unpacked along with the other decorations.
The Rye family alternated where they stayed for Christmas Eve, and this year Anita was waiting for Susanne, Kjeld and Christina to come and spend Christmas with her and her boyfriend at their house in Odense. They arrived in the early afternoon and enjoyed a glass of port around the coffee table before helping out in the kitchen. On the menu was goose with caramelized potatoes and red cabbage, followed by the traditional Danish Christmas dessert of creamy rice pudding with chopped almonds.
Anita thought back to last year when the family had Skyped with Daniel during dinner, because he was in Russia. This Christmas she had hoped so much that he would have returned from Syria that she had transferred some money into his bank account as a Christmas present.
While they ate, they talked about Daniel, who last year had been looking out at them from the computer on the windowsill. This year it was Kjeld’s and Susanne’s phones that lay on the windowsill. Kjeld checked his mobile regularly in the hope that Daniel would be allowed to call home. Maybe the kidnappers would show some mercy on Christmas Eve and let him wish them a Merry Christmas. But the only thing that came in was a text message from Arthur:
Dear Both, Merry Christmas. I hope you can find some peace with your family, even if it won’t be the same this year. I’ve spoken to Alpha this evening. He hasn’t heard anything from our contacts, but I’ve asked him to answer the Skype message I sent. All the best to you. Best wishes, Arthur.
OK, thanks Arthur. Merry Christmas to you and your family too.
Anita thought that Daniel wouldn’t have wanted them to just sink into a miserable heap, so they celebrated Christmas as they usually did. Kjeld got the whole almond in his rice pudding, so he won the special prize, which was a set of wooden salad utensils, and, after a relaxing walk round the neighbourhood to settle their stomachs, they danced around the Christmas tree. Susanne had not been looking forward to this Christmas tradition with such a significant person missing from the circle, but they ended as usual by singing ‘Now It’s Christmas Again’ and dancing in a chain all around the house, both inside and outside.
Susanne and Christina fell asleep at each end of the sofa, while Kjeld slept on an air mattress.
· * ·
On 24 December Daniel woke up early and washed himself under the ice-cold running water in the ‘five-star’ dungeon. He dressed in his lice-free orange prison uniform, which was too thin for the winter cold, and sat down on a mattress under a thick blanket.
A new prison guard, whom they called the Spanish Chef, soon brought some food into the cell. He got this nickname because he was responsible for their meals and he spoke a little Spanish. He was a tall, obliging man, even though he walked around in a suicide vest with a fuse hanging out in front. In addition to the vest, he wore what was, in the circumstances, a stylish jacket with matching trousers, and a waistcoat with pockets in which he placed rifle magazines.
When the Spanish Chef came into the cell, the hostages didn’t have to turn against the wall. He was happy to let them see his face and the braces on his teeth. He wanted them to see that he was a human being. He said that he was from Tunisia and reassured them that their release was just a matter of money. He served two pieces of bread to each hostage and placed a metal tray in front of them with tuna, sardines, cheese, hummus and onions.
‘Thank you,’ they said.
It was a feast.
‘You should thank God. It is He who gives,’ said the Spanish Chef and left the room.
Daniel’s thoughts went to his Christmas Eve the year before, when he had Skyped home from Russia. He missed his family and Signe, but wanted to have a good Christmas wherever he was.
Everyone in the cell seemed to be thinking along the same lines and they agreed that the best gift they could give each other was honesty. A circle of orange-clad hostages took shape and they began to tell stories about each other.
Edouard said that he was Daniel’s Secret Santa and had put the tin foil boat by Daniel’s sleeping space. He also told them that he had deliberately distanced himself from Daniel when they had met in the cell under the children’s hospital, because Daniel had looked so damaged.
‘You were an indication of the worst that could happen,’ he admitted.
Daniel revealed that he was Steven’s Secret Santa and he told James that he had read about him before they had met in captivity; that he had seen photographs of someone he believed to be tough war reporter. He also said that he had been amused when he discovered that James was a klutz who lurched around the cell knocking over water bottles. Daniel thanked James for the massages and all the chats about women and dreams of the future - and for sticking to his values when people behaved unfairly.
‘You are quite simply a good human being, James,’ he noted.
They laughed about their first meeting in the toilet. James teased Daniel about how he had looked - he had stood behind the others with his tousled hair sticking out every which way and stared at James with his sunken eyes.
‘You looked like a frightened mouse,’ laughed James.
‘I noticed your underbite and thought you looked a little unintelligent,’ teased Daniel back.
They talked about their first attempts at gymnastics and laughed about how weak and pathetic they had been when they turned somersaults on the blankets, and the time James nearly broke his neck when he tried to stand on his head.
That night, Daniel crept under his blanket on the soft mattress and fell into a deep, carefree sleep. When he woke up the next morning, it was without the usual pain in his hip bone.