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.
In April, 2009, after four months in limbo, the captives learned they were going to be imminently freed or imminently killed. And it was AQIM group leader Mohktar Belmokhtar – nicknamed “Jack” by the Canadians – who would decide their fate.
It was then that Mr. Fowler met two negotiators – Burkina Faso’s Mustapha Chaffi and Mali’s Baba Ould Cheik – who were working for their presidents.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has denied that Canada paid into any ransom. Mr. Fowler writes that he has never been made privy to details. The Globe and Mail has previously reported the deal involved the release of four jailed AQIM prisoners and the payment of millions of dollars by unknown parties.
AQIM also released two European captives, a third European hostage was released later, and British hostage Edwin Dyer was beheaded after the others were let go.
* * * *
After everyone had eaten lunch, Jack summoned his full council – nine of them, including Omar Two – to sit beneath a distant tree across the flat open space behind our designated prison, perhaps 300 metres distant. There they sat talking for five interminable hours. Without a doubt, this time it was indeed the jury that was deciding our fate. Jack obviously felt he needed to get formal buy-in from his senior lieutenants and that was not coming easily.
While the jury was deliberating, Louis and I discussed the extent to which any of them were really in our corner. There were clearly two schools within the group: One believed that whatever deal was on offer should be rejected, with cataclysmic consequences for us; the other held that it was better than nothing and we should be released. ... Eventually, in the gathering dusk, the members of the council trooped back, right past us, without saying a word or acknowledging our presence in any way. They had their habitually quick dinner and all was quiet. We were on tenterhooks. What had been decided?
A couple of long hours later, Omar One emerged from the dark and hunkered down before us. He did not appear happy, but we couldn’t tell if he was angry at us or with some of his colleagues.
He was sure as hell angry at Canada. He began by reiterating how perfidious Canada had been throughout the negotiations, stressing the lies he said they had been told and the unfulfilled promises made. He repeatedly insisted, stabbing his finger at me, “They do not want you back. They do not care the least about you. They hope you will stay with us, or, more likely, that we will kill you.”
But – and then I suddenly paid close attention – “we will not do that. We have decided to free you, and by God, Canada will feel our wrath.”
* * * * *
Belmokhtar’s troops, fully armed, pressed around all three vehicles facing outward. As soon as the women were loaded, Belmokhtar, standing beside the driver’s window, ordered Baba with a sweep of his hand, “Leave – immediately!”
Suddenly Omar One knocked on the passenger window. When Chaffi opened it, Omar, wagging his finger at me, reminded me that on the Day of Judgment I needed to be very clear in my meeting with my maker that he, Omar, had tried valiantly – if unsuccessfully – to guide me to the straight and true path.
Then to my utter surprise, Omar Two, who had refused even to acknowledge our departure moments before, thrust his hand through the window and grabbed mine, saying, “I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you will find the true path, so I offer you my hand believing that you will become a brother.”
* * * * *
Chaffi turned to me and, giving me an uncertain look, asked, “Would you like to know how they would have done it?”
“Done what?” I replied.
“How they would have killed your friend,” gesturing with his thumb back toward where Louis sat on his tires in the back of the truck, “and then, perhaps, you?” ...
To sharpen his focus during those long hours of negotiation, they told him that they had decided they would kill Louis first, in order to get the attention of Canada and the United Nations, before they decided whether I should get the same treatment. They explained that they would have stuffed our mouths with cotton wool and then put tape over our lips to prevent unpleasant sounds being heard on the video and to ensure that there would be no unseemly eruptions of blood from the mouth when the sword was drawn – some practitioners insist that it be done slowly – across our throats.
Excerpts from A Season In Hell published in English in Canada by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright © 2011 by Robert R. Fowler. All rights reserved.
A Season in Hell: A four-part series
Thursday: The Call Home
Friday: Captivity in the Desert