For eight months, the family and friends of Carl Campeau received increasingly chilling news from his captors in Syria. They were told that Mr. Campeau, a Canadian United Nations official, was sick, that one of his legs had been cut off, that he would be killed unless someone came up with millions of dollars in ransom and released dozens of political prisoners in Iraq.
Mr. Campeau’s elderly mother felt powerless and despaired of ever again seeing her son. Mr. Campeau himself, in one of the rare late-night phone calls he was allowed to make to his family to let them know he was still alive, despaired of ever again seeing his own young son.
That nightmare came to an end Thursday with an unexpected phone call to the family and these words: “It’s Carl. I’m in Damascus and I’m okay.”
“It came out of the blue,” said Laurence, Mr. Campeau’s ex-partner and the mother of his young son. The call, she said, came about noon on Thursday at her home in Vienna.
Mr. Campeau, a legal adviser to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force that patrols the ceasefire line between Israeli and Syrian forces on the Golan Heights, told Laurence he had “slipped out” when his captors “went to pray” and seemingly “forgot to lock the door” of the room in which he had been held.
Mr. Campeau had been abducted in February by an armed group south of the Syrian capital. It is believed he was held by at least two different groups at two different locations during his time in captivity.
The Syrian government handed over Mr. Campeau to a UN representative Thursday in Damascus. The former hostage looked healthy and relaxed. It is unclear exactly when he freed himself and how he came to be in government hands.
Serendipitously, Mr. Campeau’s mother, Louise, and her husband, Ron Hagan, were in Vienna to celebrate the ninth birthday of their grandson when the call from Mr. Campeau came.
The ordeal has been especially difficult for young Raphael, whose mother told him everything about his father’s situation during these eight long months. “He is used to having his father come to visit him every two months,” Laurence said. “I decided it was best to tell him the truth.”
On hearing the news that his father would soon be home “he didn’t quite believe it,” Laurence said. “He saw a clip of him on TV speaking in Damascus, but thinks it’s still some kind of fiction.
“When he sees him in the flesh, it’ll sink in,” she said.
During Mr. Campeau’s abduction, his family was told the United Nations was working behind the scenes to secure his release.
Initially, things looked promising. A week or so after the abduction, the family was reassured that Mr. Campeau was in good health and thought his incarceration might be brief.
A video sent to the United Nations by his captors and shared with the family showed a very calm Mr. Campeau describing his captors as respectful and saying he was getting lots of English-language books to read.
By the end of April, however, ten weeks after his abduction, things turned ugly when the family was told Mr. Campeau would be killed by the end of the week if someone did not pay a ransom for his release.
The ransom demand came in an emotional phone call by Mr. Campeau himself early one Saturday morning, a call that came from his own cellphone.
“He sounded terrible,” said his mother, who lives with her husband in Florida. “He said he was tired, badly constipated and going crazy.”
The tearful woman described her son as saying: “Mummy, I love you. Promise you’ll take care of my son.”
Another man, English-speaking, then took the phone from Mr. Campeau and told the horrified family of the deadline.
Previous ransom demands had been for € 7-million and € 5-million; this time, no specific amount was given.
“He just told us we have four days to come up with as much money as we can and they’ll let us know if it’s enough and also how to get the money to them,” Mr. Hagan said.
Terrified, the family tried to pull together between $200,000 and $300,000 dollars by mortgaging their home, but were advised not to send it. They never got back to the kidnappers.
After an anxious wait of more than a week, the family finally heard again from Mr. Campeau. Their worst fears of his being killed hadn’t materialized, but more demands and threats from other kidnappers followed.
In mid-May, came perplexing news: Another Syrian group had gotten involved and offered to secure Mr. Campeau’s freedom in exchange for the release of 25 Syrian prisoners in neighbouring Iraq.
After that demand, contact with Mr. Campeau was spotty throughout the summer months.
Then, in mid-September, after a month and a half with almost no news, Louise Campeau received a horrifying “proof of life” in the form of a short video. In it, her son was shown lying on a bed, with his leg seemingly amputated. There was no explanation, the family said. But Mr. Campeau cried that he was suffering terribly.
A UN spokesman, Farhan Haq, cautioned at the time that the report of an amputation “may not be accurate.”
“Whether this situation is staged or not remains an open question,” a family friend said. “But in any case, it doesn’t look good.”
Soon after that, an Italian journalist and a Belgian teacher were released after five months being held hostage by other captors somewhere in Syria.
Why not Carl? The family asked.