Alan Johnston had already written the dispatch that he planned to file on his last day as a BBC correspondent in Gaza City. It was about looking back on the stories he had covered during his three years in the Middle East for the London-based international news organization. He had 16 days left as the only remaining Western journalist living and working in Gaza. He had booked his flight out, and was beginning to look forward to his departure.
He had no idea that a different ending was in store.
He left his office in Gaza on March 12, 2007, and was driving on a side street to his apartment when it happened - what every journalist in the Middle East worried about. A car surged past him, forcing him off the road. A young man leapt out, pointing a pistol at him. Mr. Johnston had reported on 29 kidnappings of Westerners in his three years in the area. He was the 30th.
He quickly figured out that his capture was the work of one of the extremist Islamic groups that he feared the most - the Army of Islam, an anti-Western group whose demands included the release of Muslim prisoners held in various parts of the world. He knew that the British government would never release the Islamic figure they wanted. He also knew the BBC never paid ransoms.
"What the BBC can do is bang a drum for one of its lost guys," he says in an interview, while in Toronto last week to celebrate World Press Freedom Day in Canada. "They know how to make people hear."
Still, even if his captors kept him alive, he would have to endure an unknown amount of time in captivity.
In the four months that followed, his struggle was intense, and it was all within himself.
"The major battle from that first moment was not to panic, stay calm, and hold onto your mind," explains the author
of Kidnapped and Other
To make matters worse, he also had the misfortune of being caught on a day when he was wearing his contact lenses. He usually wore glasses for the very reason that if he was kidnapped, he wouldn't have the problem of having to get rid of his disposable lenses. As it was, he had to remove them the moment he had a chance, when his hands were uncuffed. "I was living in this very blurred world," he recalls.
For his mind, his salvation came in the form of a radio, and for his body, in French fries and boiled water.
Locked in a small room, he had only a chair and a sagging thin bed. He told time by the passage of the sun and calls to prayer at a local mosque. The one thing he insisted his captors give him was a radio.
"I pushed for it every day, and argued and kept at it whenever I thought they would bear listening to me. Maybe they felt sorry for me, or maybe they were sick of hearing about a radio or maybe they did it as an act of kindness. But anyway, at pretty much my lowest moment, they appeared with this radio and that changed everything," the 45-year-old says.
On it, he heard of the demonstrations, vigils and other efforts to gain his release. "To know that the outside world is almost inexplicably rallying to your cause is amazing and difficult to quite understand. It's overwhelming to be the subject of that sort of focus of goodwill."
The French fries dietary solution occurred to him about 10 days into his captivity.
"My European stomach couldn't cope with the food or the water or both. Within 10 days, I was pretty sick. I had a swelling under my ribs and all my systems seemed to be seizing up. The fear was that I would get sicker and sicker, and for me, in that place, there would never be any medical help."
He had noticed that they often provided French fries with his meal. "I had always had faith in French fries through all my travels to Mongolia and Afghanistan," where he had also been a BBC correspondent. "There's really nothing that survives that boiled oil," he explains with a glimmer of humour. He asked if they could just give him fries every day. They did. And they agreed to give him boiled water. "It was a huge relief."
Still, he had many dark moments to overcome. He was never beaten or tortured, he points out. But there was despair to fight, "dragging my mind to a better place," and the constant threat that he might be killed.
"I did say to myself that it was really the great test of my life and that I would always measure myself by the way I responded to it. I used to think, for example, that if you were to collapse under pressure then you must never pick up a book on Auschwitz because you'd have to know that under less pressure [than that endured by Jews during the Holocaust]you succumbed.
"The worst moment was when I heard on the radio that they had executed me. That's an extraordinary thing to hear in that situation," he says. "I feared that the statement was just ahead of the act."
He stayed up all night, anticipating the sound of the footsteps of his approaching assassin. "You're looking at the possibility of your own violent death," he says softly.
The night passed without incident. When the call to prayer signalled the dawn, he felt sure there would be no killing at that point, and he fell asleep. With a rueful smile, he adds that he should admit feeling some pleasure in being able to quote - if only to himself in the confines of his cell - the famous Mark Twain line that "reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
A balding, pale man with clear blue eyes, Mr. Johnston tells his story in a hushed voice, dispassionately, like the veteran journalist he is. He is calm, reporting from the centre of his own horror for his avid listeners, as if in the middle of a war zone.
He passed 114 days as a hostage analyzing himself and his life. "I did go right through my life and my personality," he says. "I used to think I was doing a psychological job on myself that you would pay a lot for in Manhattan," he continues without a change in his serious voice.
Mr. Johnston was released under mounting international pressure and, in particular, through the intervention of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that had recently won power in the Palestinian Authority's general legislative election.
He now works at a desk job for the BBC in London. "One of the things I learned in that room was how much I rather like the West. I had spent most of my life to get away to more intense places. I did actually realize that home is better than I quite realized."
He also understood the beauty of freedom. "There is no sensation in the world like regaining your freedom."
He found he had more patience in the daily frustrations of life. "On the flight from Jerusalem, it was delayed an hour, and everyone was complaining, and I thought, 'What's an hour?' "
But the spell didn't last. Six weeks later, in London, he was standing in the rain waiting for a bus. "I was thinking with great impatience, 'There are no buses in this city.' "
He laughs gently, adding that the thought was both disappointing and reassuring. "That's normal. That's human nature."
People adapt to captivity, and they adapt to freedom, too.