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About Alan Johnston and others held captive in the Middle East

Alan Johnston, the BBC's Gaza correspondent was released early on Wednesday 4 July 2007. HIs case received worldwide coverage. Thousands of people signed petitions calling for his release, including myself. He is only the latest in a long line of individuals who have been held against their will in the MIddle East. I have also had some Middle East experiences that make me empathise with victims of kidnapping.

Held captive in Gaza

After a period of 114 days in captivity, Alan Johnston, the BBC's Gaza correspondent was released early on Wednesday 4 July 2007. His case received worldwide coverage. Thousands of people signed petitions calling for him to be freed, including myself. He is only the latest in a long line of individuals who have been held against their will in the Middle East. I have also had some Middle East experiences that make me empathise with such victims.

Alan Johnston was born in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and moved with his parents to Scotland where he attended school and University. He did a journalism diploma in Cardiff.

He had already served as BBC correspondent in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan and was the only international journalist in the Gaza strip.

He was in the final weeks of his 3 year posting when he was kidnapped Monday 12 March 2007. What happened after that is well documented. He was released early on Wednesday 4 July 2007.

See the Wikipedia entry on Alan Johnston.

Olaf Wiig, 36, and Steve Centanni, 60, of US channel Fox News were captured in Gaza on Monday 14 August 2006 and released on Sunday 27th August.

More on the BBC News website

The Fox journalists were held for just 13 days, Alan Johnston for 114 days. Though it must have seemed like an eternity, these are comparatively short periods of captivity.

Kidnapped in Lebanon

Writer Brian Keenan from Belfast was held in Lebanon from April 1986 to Friday 24 August 1990. He had just arrived there take up a teaching position at the American University of Beirut when he was kidnapped. He held both UK and Irish passports, and the Irish government played a key role in his release. His book 'An Evil Cradling' tells the story of his five years in captivity.

See the Wikipedia entry on Brian Keenan

Journalist John McCarthy CBE is British of Irish Catholic background. He was held along with Brian Keenan from April 1986, but wasn't released until Thursday 8 August 1991. John McCarthy and Brian Keenan published a book about their experiences, called Blind Flight.

More on the BBC news website

Terry Waite born in Styal, Cheshire. He was the Archibichop of Canterbury's Envoy and had already secured the release of a number of hostages in the 1980s. In 1987 he travelled to Lebanon to try and secure the release of hostages including Brian Keenan and John McCarthy, but was kidnapped himself, and was held from Monday 2 February 1987 till Sunday 17 Nov 1991, a period of 1763 days, much of it spent in solitary confinement.

See Wikipedia entry on Terry Waite

My late sister Phil (Philomena Dare, née O'Rourke) met Terry Waite. I would certainly like to interview and photograph Terry Waite some time. During my own periods of expatriate stress and uncertainty, Terry Waite has been a source of inspiration to me.

It would be a joke to compare my experiences of working in the Middle East to being held by violent armed men, but there are some similarities that make me empathise very much with the plight of kidnap victims in the Middle East.

Culture shock, conflicting feelings

I worked as an English language instructor in Saudi Arabia from Saturday 15 July 1991 to Wednesday 3 June 1992. I was employed at the Institute of Banking, part of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency.

Soon after arriving in Saudi Arabia I felt the culture shock often experienced by people from outside the Middle East when they arrive there for the first time.

Though the country was in many respects fascinating, in others ways it was entirely alien to my way of thinking.

I kept a calendar on the wall of my apartment and counted down each day until the end of my contract. The morning I touched down at Heathrow Airport on Friday 5 June 1992 was the happiest day of my life.

Many Middle East veterans from Europe and North America develop conflicting feelings towards the Middle East.

One the one hand, the atmosphere of the place, the sunsets, the mystique, the incense, the smell of cardamom and Middle Eastern cuisine can alluring, even addictive. The hospitality and kindness of individuals is overwhelming. It's an exciting and challenging place, whether you go to the affluent and stable Gulf region, or the more conflict-ridden area further west.

But there is cultural gap that at times seems insurmountable and you can encounter things that make you long for home and want to get out at the earliest opportunity.

Prison sentence

On Saturday 5 September 1992 I started a teaching job working with the UAE Military in Abu Dhabi, UAE. I was employed by ECS Ltd along with around 200 or so other teachers.

All went well until six months into the second year, when our salary wasn't paid. We never received a dirham after that, and went through four months of financial hardship and uncertainty. We continued to go to work every day. I was posted at the school in Sweihan. Eventually we were re-hired but I had to stay an extra year to recoup the unpaid salary.

My final year was like a prison sentence, and I kept a daily calendar, as I had done in Saudi Arabia. The day we touched down at Heathrow Airport Monday 15 July 1996 was the second happiest day of my life. By co-incidence it was five years to the day since I had first set foot in Saudi Arabia.

Having to spend an extra year in Abu Dhabi from Sept 95 to July 96 meant that I missed the opportunity to photograph and write about Manchester before the bomb and during its immediate aftermath.

Never again

All things considered, my Middle East nightmare was like a stay in a holiday camp by comparison to being kidnapped, and yet there are similarities: The uncertainty of the situation, the feeling of being trapped far from home, not knowing what was going to happen from one day to the next, the conflicting feelings and sense of betrayal - we were there to teach local students and earn a salary, and yet weren't being paid any - the journalists were in Gaza to tell the world about the plight of the people there, and yet they were being held captive, their lives threatened.

After eleven years back home in the UK / Ireland / Europe, I have less desire than ever to return to the Middle East.

Congratulations and hats off to hero journalist Alan Johnston and all other reporters who dare to go where I wouldn't.

I'd also like to mention valiant photographer Geert van Kesteren, whom I met at the Redeye Democratic Image symposium. He went on a very risky photoshoot in Iraq, and produced the remarkable book 'Why Mister Why?' www.whymisterwhy.com


Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2007-07-04

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