FACE TO FACE WITH KIDNAPPED JOURNALIST
Allan Johnston, a BBC correspondent, made international headlines when he was kidnapped in Gaza and a ransom of $5million dollars demanded. He later went on to write a book, a memoir of his 114 days in captivity in Gaza. I met him in Helsinki, Finland, where he had been invited to speak on a panel discussion on journalism and terrorism. Before speaking to the forum, I cornered him to share his experience in the hands of the kidnappers who at a point threatened to behead him. Excerpts:
Allan, can you please tell me your story and how come you were kidnapped?
I was kidnapped in Gaza in 2007 and there was amazing amount of support for the effort to get me free from many journalists around the world and from the IPI. Some of your colleagues here came and tried to negotiate my freedom. After a lot of efforts, eventually after four months, I was, in fact, freed. And here I am in Helsinki, very lucky to be here.
What took you to Gaza?
I feel that that story of the divisions between the East and the West is one of the unfortunate big stories of our time. And I feel very much that the Israeli-Palestinian issue sits in the middle of that problem. And I felt that Gaza is the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian problem. So, I went there and I have lived there for about three years, trying to report on the story on a day-to-day basis. Eventually, things did go wrong and I got kidnapped. But the story remains tremendously important. It's a place worth a journalist spending his time. I felt that very much.
Who kidnapped you?
The people that were actually holding me called themselves the Army of Islam and they were inspired by Al Qaeda. And they were working with a particular clan in Gaza City. I think they were fired by a certain extremist political agenda as well. The kidnappers wanted the freedom of some Al Qaeda people in Jordan and in Britain.
Why did they single out you for kidnapping?
One of the people they wanted out of prison was in Britain. They definitely had a problem with Britain and the West generally. And they wanted an Al Qaeda man to come out of jail in Britain. And I was a way of putting pressure on the British authorities.
When were you kidnapped?
I was kidnapped on March 12, 2007 and I was freed on July 4. The day I was kidnapped, it was really a bad day. I had a dentist appointment in the morning and for once, I was outside Gaza. I was in Jerusalem and I had a big dental operation. And somebody stole my credit card that day. And when I drove down to Gaza, then I got kidnapped. It was a Monday. A bad Monday. A difficult Monday.
How were you kidnapped?
The business of the kidnap was an ambush in the street. My car was forced to the side of the road. Suddenly, there were three of them in this white saloon car. One was with a pistol; one was with Kalashnikov. And it was obvious what was happening. Very quickly, I was thrown in the back of their car. They put a black hood over my head and forced me to lie down. Then we were off to the rough part of Gaza. And I was held there in about five different hideouts around the east side of the city. There was a room and an apartment. And there was one, a toughened apartment block. I was moved round a bit within this small area, within a few streets. I was lucky. The whole of Gaza's very difficulty politics swarm in June 2007 when Hamas took control of the whole place in a war with Fatah party. And Hamas decided that it was going to end the kidnapping. And the end was quite dramatic. I was very afraid I was going to be killed in some kind of rescue effort. I was lucky, lucky in many ways. A Nigerian, Mallam Ismaila Isa, was one of a number of journalists from the IPI who went to press for my release with the Palestinian authorities and I am tremendously grateful.
Were they threatening you when they arrested you?
All I can say is that I was worried that it might be years of captivity always and there were few times I was worried that I might actually not survive. They did talk at one stage about possibly beheading me. But I was lucky. They asked for many things, but the major demand of the Jihadists was the freeing of Abu Qatadar, the man held in Britain.
(Allan Johnston takes permission to leave to speak at a panel discussion on Journalism and Terrorism. Interview switches to Mallam Isa Ismaila of the IPI)
Mallam Ismaila, how was the release secured?
We had a meeting with the Palestinian authorities, ministers and the Palestinian authority president Mamoud Abass. We had a meeting through video link with spokesman of Hamas and then we had a meeting with the Prime Minister of the Palestinian authority and then with the spokesman of Hamas, because the prime minister is from the Hamas side. We had a video link discussion and negotiation with him. He told us that Allan would be released and he gave us a rough idea of when Allan would be released. And it happened. The kidnappers were under the command of one general that the Palestinian authorities regarded as criminals. And to make sure he is released, they arrested relations of the people who were holding him and they gave them time limit within which either to release or—they know where they were keeping him—they would go and get him out by force.
They asked for $5million plus a piece of land belonging to the Palestinian authority and the Palestinian authority did mention to us that the land would cost $10million and they claimed that they wanted the money to build the mosque on the land they are asking. We told them they couldn't do that because it is not Islamic. At the end of the day, Hamas promised to deliver him and they did. I really felt good that he was released because he could be killed any moment under the situation.