In his new book, A Season in Hell, Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler recounts how he and fellow envoy Louis Guay were abducted by a terrorist faction known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
On the 87th day of their captivity, the Canadians were allowed to call home for the first time. While Mr. Fowler desperately to wanted to speak to his wife, his abductors – including AQIM group leader Mohktar Belmokhtar and lesser henchmen identified only by their first names – had had more sinister motivations for encouraging the conversation.
“You must understand,” chipped in Omar Three, “that the Canadian government has been very duplicitous. They do not want you back. They are doing everything possible to ensure that you do not return. What you must do is get your wives to make a big noise, to engage the journalists and the politicians to bring pressure on the Canadian government, which will do nothing for you if this does not happen.”
… It must have been close to seven in the evening when we saw a light flashing to the east through the gathering dusk, surprisingly high above what I had got used to as the desert horizon. They had clearly been expecting such a signal. Belmokhtar immediately swung off the rudimentary piste we had been following and drove toward it, the three trucks following behind in our wake. … Louis and I were told to follow Belmokhtar, Omar One and Ahmed up the razor-backed crest of an enormous sand dune. It was hard going up that steep, soft sand bank. With each step, we slipped back about half the distance we gained.
At the top of the huge dune were steep slopes in both directions, and being somewhat subject to vertigo, I was glad it was dark. We stood in a line along the crest, one foot on each slope, and they outlined how it was going to go down. We were up there so we could catch the Algerian cell net, the border being some 40 kilometres distant. To make such calls from their satellite phones would be to invite an Algerian air strike, they said matter-of-factly … So they oriented me toward some distant, invisible tower to the east, explaining I could not move or twist or I would lose the signal. …
“So, what is the number?” asked Ahmed, again. And I didn’t know. I could not remember my home phone number. I froze.
Louis then quietly offered me his always appropriate and timely advice at times like these. “Breathe!” he said. “Breathe!”
And I did, calmed down and remembered the number. In it went and the phone was handed to me. … I heard the familiar ring of an Ottawa phone, again and again, until my own voice told me that neither Mary nor I were there so would I please leave a message. So I did: “Hi Sweetie, I’m calling from atop a huge sand dune somewhere in the Sahara. I am not, repeat not, free, but I need to speak with you. I’ll call back.”
“Call her cell,” one of our captors kibitzed, so I did that, too. Again it rang and rang until I got her voice mail and left a similar message …
“Okay, Mr. Robert, you try again,” said Ahmed. I opted to try our home in Ottawa again and again struck out …
“Send her an SMS.”
“A what?” I exclaimed.
“An SMS,” he repeated. I had only recently learned how to do that, so a little uncertainly I said, “Okay …”
I pecked out, “Darling call me at this number asap great love bob.”
As I handed the phone back, Ahmed noticed the battery was all but dead. So he stumbled down to the base of the dune, hooked it up to a charger in one of the trucks, and soon we heard the familiar, “vrooom vrooom.” ...
I gave it another go. This time I called Mary’s cellphone first and she answered on the second ring. “Mary, it’s Bob.”
“Who?” she replied.
Not a good start. Then, surprising me with a skill-testing question, she asked, “What do your grandchildren call you?”
… “Danda,” I meekly replied, and she sobbed, “Bob, is it really you?”
… At this point I could feel Omar One, who was standing right beside me, becoming agitated. His body language screamed, “Get to the main message!” … So I said to Mary, “Listen, this is not just hard on Louis and me but it is evidently stressing our kidnappers. … They are becoming ever more threatening and unstable. They say they have lost all confidence in their Canadian interlocutors. You must convince whoever is acting for us in the Canadian government – if indeed anybody is – to pick up the pace and get this thing over with …”
… What she told me on the phone, however, was that the effort being mounted on our behalf was massive. … She told me the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister were directly engaged and that many of our friends in other countries and the UN system, current and retired, had offered support.
… “In case I don’t see you again, I’m so glad I have had a chance to tell you what a wonderful wife and mother you have been, how happy you have made me, and how very lucky I have been.”
Her reaction to this mawkish moment was swift and uncompromising. “What do you mean if you don’t get back? Of course you are going to get back.”
Excerpt from A Season In Hell published in the English language in Canada by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright © 2011 by Robert R. Fowler. All rights reserved.