They hid in false ceilings and beneath beds. They blocked doors with furniture. They waited as hours turned into terrifying days, echoing with the sounds of gunfire and mortars. They were unarmed, unable to defend themselves. Many were captured. Some were forced to wear belts packed with explosives. Some were gunned down. Of those who survived, many believed they too would die.
As hostages taken at an Algerian gas plant return home, they have brought with them chilling memories of survival and escape.
Alan Wright was having breakfast when the power went off – a relatively common occurrence at the isolated facility, 1,300 kilometres from Algiers. But when word began to circulate that a terrorist attack had been launched, he and fellow workers gathered supplies, food, water and a satellite phone and locked themselves in one of the offices, putting paper over the window.
Outside, gunfire rang out, sometimes in rapid bursts. “We knew it was really bad,” Mr. Wright, who is Scottish, told ITV News. Then a friendly Arabic voice rang out in the hallways, saying “good morning” – a trick, he believed, to lure people out of hiding.
By early evening, the Algerian workers with Mr. Wright gave Mr. Wright clothes and a hat to help him blend in. The group cut through a fence and walked out into the desert, eventually reaching a military checkpoint where they realized they were safe. “That was a big, big relief,” Mr. Wright recalled.
Ruben Andrada remembers “gunfire all around.” It was, he told Al Jazeera, “scary to say the least.” The terrorists who took him hostage along with 35 or 36 other workers said that unless “other al Qaeda members from other countries are freed, we will be killed.”
Without weapons or training on how to cope with a hostage-taking, the captives’ only option was to follow commands. “That’s what we did,” said Mr. Andrada, a Filipino. “Probably that’s how I survived.”
Freedom came when he was among a group of hostages who were being moved. The Algerian army gave chase “and my vehicle turned over.” Mr. Andrada escaped, injured. A bullet had grazed his right arm. He had laceration wounds “all over my body.”
The scars inside – the trauma from thinking he would die – were worse. “I assure you this will never be repeated again,” he told Al Jazeera. “I cannot endure the experience I had.”
For Alexandre Berceaux, the nightmare also started with the sound of gunfire. He sought safety in his room, stashing away his passport – worried that his French citizenship might be used against him, as word filtered out that terrorists were targeting foreigners – before hiding beneath his bed.
He could see nothing. But he could hear shots ring out. The nights were quieter – but cold and long, he told the French newspaper Le Parisien. “It was horrible,” he said.
Algerian co-workers, at great risk to themselves, brought him food. When armed men discovered him beneath his bed, “I thought it was over,” he said. Instead, he discovered that he was being rescued. He had been found by Algerian special forces.
At the outset of the attack, armed men attacked a bus carrying workers to the local airport. Gunfire broke out. Three Japanese workers, seeking safety, ran out of the bus. They were killed. An Algerian worker named Riad, an employee of a Japanese engineering firm, told Agence France-Presse that those still on the bus were taken to a residential compound at the gas plant, where they joined other hostages. It was not a safe haven. At one point, Riad told AFP, “a terrorist shouted ‘open the door!’ with a strong North American accent, and opened fire. Two other Japanese died then and we found four other Japanese bodies.”
As the gunfire rang out, Stephen McFaul hid. Mobile phone in hand, he texted his family. Then the terrorists found him. They gave him one last chance to call home.
The Irishman was taken hostage with other foreigners whose mouths, his family told Reuters, were taped shut. At one point, explosives were draped around their necks.
They were moved across the gas plant in a convoy of jeeps that came under attack by the Algerian army. Mr. McFaul’s vehicle crashed. He escaped. He called his wife, saying, according to the Daily Mail: “I’m free, love, I’m free!”
The great majority of workers at the gas plant were Algerian. Of those rescued, only 107 out of 792 workers were foreign, the Algerian Ministry of Interior said in a weekend statement. But it was clear that they were the target. Algerian women were immediately released. Moussa, an Algerian worker, told the New York Times that the Algerian men were told: “‘We are your brothers. You have telephones: call your families to reassure them.’” The men, however, were not released. They were told it was for their safety. The terrorists said: “We’re afraid that if we free you, the army will shoot at you,” said Moussa.