St Bride's: News

Alan Johnston - a shell shocked hostage with no bitterness

Alan JohnstonWithin a week, St Bride's played host to a second TV journalist whose face became a world icon. Following on from John Simpson and standing at the same lectern where Simpson had stood a few days earlier, we saw the gentle and endearing figure of Alan Johnston, still bearing, inevitably, a shell-shocked facial expression, and no doubt still grappling with the sheer unreality of being released from a dangerous bunch of people.

Here is a quite brilliant, enthusiastic, unbiased reporter, who after years of reporting the news, finds himself actually not just making the news, but making world headlines. After all, being incarcerated in a darkened room in sweltering temperatures for 114 days, and facing almost certain death, is not the sort of news story that gets mentioned in a couple of pars on page four.

The former BBC Gaza correspondent faced a packed church, standing within feet of the journalists' altar, where his photograph had been strategically placed and where, of course, candles had been burning for him daily in a vigil which was as moving as it was beautiful.

Alan Johnston turned first to the altar and then the congregation with the words: "This church stood by me in my darkest hour." That first darkest hour took place on March 12 when, on the way home he was taken at gunpoint by a group called the Army of Islam. It remains uncertain as to how long Mr Johnston will take to recover from that day and the 113 days following. But one important aspect of the whole horrid, dangerous and cruel event is there for all to see. He bears no bitterness for the terrifying ordeal and his captors who organised it. His fortitude and valour will surely be long remembered, not only by his fellow journalists, but the free world at large.

During those dark days, Mr Johnston said that he was greatly comforted when he was given a radio and heard the voice of Brian Keenan, himself a hostage for over four years before being released in 1990, uttering these words of hope: "We shall not walk away." And at a recent reception in Dublin to mark Alan's release stood Brian Keenan.

pen.gifMr Johnston was speaking at a service to mark the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, organised by the Prison Committee of English Pen - Mightier than the sword says its logo. From campaigning on behalf of persecuted writers to promoting literature in translation and running writing workshops in schools, English PEN seeks to dismantle the barriers to creative expression. The organisation's work is made possible by sponsorship, donors and members. Further information about PEN and their activities is available from their website.

I spoke briefly to Alan Johnston as he stood at the west end of the church following the service and mentioned just how many prayers had been said for him day by day. He looked up, touched his heart, and said quietly and softly "Thank you."

Transcript of Alan Johnston's Address

Not so many months ago, if you had come to this sacred place, you would have seen my picture, lit by candles on the altar here where journalists in trouble are remembered. And God knows, I was indeed in trouble. I was lost, far from home... Buried alive in Gaza. I was in the hands of dangerous and unpredictable people... Sometimes I wondered if I would survive, and always I feared that my captivity might last for years.

But I was lucky. In the chaos of Gaza, events shifted in my favour, and quite suddenly, I was released. And I cannot tell you how very good it is to be able to stand before you tonight -- how very, very good it is to be free. And coming here, to this church that stood by me in my darkest time, I am reminded again how fortunate I was. The campaign launched on my behalf was extraordinary. My friends and colleagues banged a drum for me in a way that caught the imagination of people far beyond the BBC. In an act of kindness, my guards had given me a radio. And on it I heard voices being raised for me in Beijing, Buenos Aires, New York, Baghdad, Kabul and many, many other places. It is hard to describe how moving it was to lie in my cell - isolated and often afraid -- and yet be able to listen to that rising tide support. I will never really, fully, understand why so many people who did not know me stepped forward, but they DID, and for that I will be grateful all of my days.

But as I endured my solitary confinement, I was very much aware that I was not the only person in that predicament. Of course, I knew that around the world there were many people unjustly imprisoned, but unfortunately none of them was receiving anything like the support that I was getting. I used to think of myself - if there is such a thing - as the world's luckiest kidnap victim. And I used to use that thought as ammunition in my long fight to try to keep my mind in the right place. I used to tell myself that if I couldn't hold on when hundreds of thousands of people were willing me to, it would be a shameful thing. And I decided then that if I could one day use my story to focus a little attention on the plight of those forgotten others, then I would -- and that is what I want to do tonight.

When I emerged from my incarceration I found out that during those first six months of the year forty journalists around the world had been kidnapped, and up to that point only eight of us had been freed. I was told that last year was the most deadly for journalists for well over a decade. More than eighty of our colleagues paid with their lives for the work that they did.

And let me, for a moment, take you behind that statistic, and introduce you to one of the dead. His name was Fernando Batul, and he worked as a radio journalist exposing corruption on Palawan Island in the Philippines. His enemies had flung grenades at his home and written a letter warning him off. But Fernando Batul kept going. Eventually, he exposed a particularly brutal police officer, and soon afterwards he was shot dead on his way to work. The policeman was arrested and charged with the murder.....Fernando Batul knew that he was in grave danger, but kept hammering away at the forces that were dragging his society down.

A long way from the Philippines, in Central Asia, another journalist, Alisher Saipov, just 26 years old, showed every bit as much courage as he went about his work. A friend of mine who knew him well said that Alisher wrote endlessly about the repression of dissent in Uzbekistan, and the torture in its prisons. He took on one of the world's most ruthless regimes. As my friend put it, Alisher went "where others would not go, and asked questions that no one else dared to raise". One evening, about two weeks ago he was shot three times in the head and chest, and died -- leaving his young wife with a three month old daughter.

You and I didn't know Alisher, or the Filipino reporter, Fernando Batul in life, but when you know their stories it is a little easier to appreciate that among the journalists who are killed every few days in different parts of the world, there are some of the very best and the bravest in our profession.

Of course, we MUST remember and honour the dead.

But perhaps it's even more important this evening that we focus on those journalists and writers who are very much alive but enduring persecution, and who may even be facing the danger of death. And when it comes to those who are in detention of some kind, given my recent experience, I think that I am in a position to tell you a little of what they may be going through.

In the military they use the phrase "the shock of capture" to describe the extraordinary mental anguish that can come with the start of a period of incarceration. And I certainly remember the first days of my captivity as being the hardest of my life. The freedom that I had always taken so much for granted was suddenly gone. I no longer had control of the smallest things - what or when I would eat, or who I could speak to, or even what door I could walk through. I was desperately hoping that a deal of some kind might be struck and that I would be released quickly. But there were also bouts of the most appalling anxiety I have ever known as I considered the possibility that I might be held for years. It felt as though the earth had opened up beneath my feet, and I was filled with a fear so intense that it was almost a physical sensation.

I do remember though washing up on firmer mental ground on about the eleventh night...I seemed more able then to contemplate with some calm what it would mean to have to endure a really extended period of captivity. And so I began in earnest that psychological struggle that surely each of those journalists jailed elsewhere in the world tonight are waging for themselves. And believe me, it is an exhausting, lonely fight. You can lose battles, but you know that you must not lose the war. It is the effort to confront the fear and other bleak emotions that always threaten to take hold and drive you down the path towards despair and collapse. In my sleep I often used to dream very vividly and convincingly of being free, but then, as I woke, I would open my eyes and see again that pale yellow door, and realise that, of course, I was still very much a prisoner. And so, many days began with an attempt to make once again that slow climb out of the darker depths of my mind.

As powerful as any of my memories of the nature of captivity was that terrible sense of powerlessness and vulnerability. Whether I lived or died was not a question in which I would be allowed to have any say. And there was that afternoon when the door opened and my guard walked in with a set of chains, and I was manacled by my wrists and ankles. In the stifling heat of Gaza's summer, my window was closed and the light put out, and I was told that it was being decided whether I would be executed in the days to come. I'm quite sure that many of those kidnapped or imprisoned men and women in our thoughts tonight will share that sense I had that I was always on very thin ice. The fear that even if I was coping with the conditions and all the pressures, they might dramatically worsen at any moment.

And I was very, very lucky that I was not being beaten. There was no violence at all until the last moments of my kidnap. But of course the terrible truth is that at least some of those jailed journalists and writers will not be as fortunate as I was. Being subjected to torture would take the experience of captivity to a whole new horrifying dimension of a kind that is genuinely impossible for me to imagine. I set just one great goal for myself. Survival. I was determined to try to still be okay -- living and breathing and thinking -- at that moment when my captivity might end, however long that moment might take to come. But it may simply have been impossible to hold my mind and body together if my guards had been coming in to beat me round my room every few days. That, and even worse, is surely happening to some of the people who we are thinking of this evening in those jails and basements and makeshift cells.

But the human spirit is sometimes capable of enduring an astonishing amount.
Not long before I was captured, a friend of mine told me how her father had survived Auschwitz, and later married a German woman. He seemed to me to have demonstrated all the best that a man can be -- our capacity to endure, to forgive and to love. Of course my challenge was a much, much lesser thing. I used to tell myself that I was only locked up in Gaza. I wasn't being forced to endure the Nazi death camps, or the Russian Gulag, or the treatment inflicted on Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. And putting my plight in context in that way definitely helped me to get through.

But there is no doubt that one of my major sources of inspiration were the messages of support that came via the radio from all over the world. And as powerful as any was one from the Irish, former Beirut hostage, Brian Keenan. He knew exactly what someone in my position wanted to hear. He said that hundreds of thousands of people were lighting a candle for me. They were waiting, he said, and he ended with these simple, powerful words...."We shall not walk away". And I hung on to that line with everything that I had. Sometimes I used to say it to myself as I paced up and down my cell. "We shall not walk away....We shall not walk away."

And in conclusion I will say this......through their work, organisations like PEN and Amnesty International are sending Keenan's message to all those unjustly imprisoned writers and journalists. No matter how dire their situation is, in spirit at least, they are not entirely alone. Other people know and care about their plight. And when that message gets through -- as it did in my case, loud and clear -- it can be incredibly powerful.
Sometimes of course, our words just won't reach the man in chains. Sometimes the message won't penetrate the walls of his cell. But it is, always, worth sending it. It is always worth trying. Just as the captive must never give up, neither must we. We must not walk away.

And even if the prisoner doesn't hear the message, those who are holding him surely will. And we say to them, "You may do the things that you do in dark places. But your injustice and your inhumanity do not go unnoticed. The world is watching."

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