In his new book, A Season in Hell, Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler recounts how he was abducted by a terrorist faction known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
In the following passage, he writes how he, fellow Canadian diplomat Louis Guay, and their driver, Soumana Moukaila, were on a United Nations mission in Niger when they were captured. The AQIM abductors then drove for days to take their new hostages deep into the Sahara Desert. This was Mr. Fowler’s first encounter with Islamist extremists – including men he knew as “Omar,” “Hassan” and “Ibrahim” – with whom he would spend the next four months.
At this point a pickup truck appeared out of nowhere and was quickly overtaking us. Its speed seemed out of place as we were doing about 120 kilometres per hour. As soon as it passes us it slewed across our front, forcing Soumana to brake.
“What the hell!” I exclaimed woken from my reverie. … with gut wrenching dread I understood that that was no crazy driver or road rage incident but rather the overture to a hideous nightmare …
Before we came to a complete stop I saw two African figures in the bed of the truck in front leap into action. One knelt, raising a Kalashnikov assault rifle, or AK-47, and aimed about four metres away through the windshield and into our driver’s face. The other, one hand on the tailgate, vaulted on the road with the AK in the other hand. … I was overcome with the hackneyed yet inescapable thought “This cannot be happening to me!” …
But before I had even fully exited my side, still undecided, the taller of the AK-waving young men had me by the upper arm. He shoved me toward the truck, shouting “Depechez-vous,” then pushed and lifted me into the arms of his colleague. Once in the truck bed I saw that he was standing on Louis and Soumana, who were lying prostrate with horrified looks on their faces. I was thrown on top of them. The truck then performed a squealing 180-degree turn and began to speed back in the direction from which we had just come.
… After about 10 or 15 minutes of smooth, fast driving on blacktop, we braked sharply and though I could see nothing, it seemed as if we had turned right, northeast off the highway. Now we were clearly running off-road as the bumps and smacks were horrendous, the three of us rising, it seemed, nearly a metre before being slammed back on the metal truck bed.
* * * *
Omar was a traditionalist. He navigated by the sun and stars. Even I can find Polaris so I was able to watch him follow the North Star hour after hour, sometimes stopping and walking around to get his bearings but always finding the track or direction he was seeking … We bumped across maize fields, the dead stalks whipping against the windshield and crashed straight through collections of huts but generally avoided inhabited areas – something that became easier as we proceeded north. …
In addition to the 56 hours in the truck were four or five periods of rest lasting one to three hours each – perhaps 10 hours of rest in total. These were psychologically tough times as we blasted into what promised to be a bleak future. When would we be missed and when we were, what would happen? … When would our families learn what had happened?
* * * *
On and on we drove until a couple of hours before dawn we skidded to a stop following a particularly difficult stretch. Omar announced, “I must sleep,” opened his door and rolled under the truck. Hassan cut the tape binding our wrists, threw a blanket from the back onto the hard-packed sand and told us to rest.…
I was terribly thirsty but had got it into my addled brain that I must not drink the murky, sludgy brown water from their large 10-litre plastic container. If I did so, I was convinced, I would contract dysentery. … Tea, however, seemed reasonably safe. Ibrahim was dropping handfuls of tea and sugar into the pot and I hoped to cadge a glass or two. It was the Arab version: hot, green and very sweet, and served in minuscule glasses, which would not greatly alleviate my dehydration.
When I was standing above him, he looked up with a sardonic fire-lit smile and asked, “So, have you figured out who we are yet?” … I simply stared at him as the fire danced in his menacing black eyes.
Finally, drawing out the moment with cruel anticipation, he fiercely spat out the word, “We are al-Qaeda!” And the bottom fell out of my world.
As I walked away from the fire, reeling from the palpable enjoyment Ibrahim had derived from his revelation, I did not look forward to passing this news to Louis. When I found a private moment to tell him, while our kidnappers had stopped to pray, he took it stoically enough, simply noting, “I’d rather be in the hands of people who prayed.”
For my part, however, I estimated that the chances of emerging whole from this ordeal stood at about 5 per cent, principally because I could not convince myself to accept a lower number.
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.