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The Globe and Mail

How a Canadian survived for eight months as an al-Qaeda hostage in Syria

Canadian UN adviser Carl Campeau is pictured in a flat in Vienna, January 30, 2014.

Herwig Prammer/Herwig Prammer

Canadian lawyer Carl Campeau, an international legal adviser at the United Nations, has been around conflict zones enough to know the first rule if ever you're taken hostage : Do whatever you have to do in order to stay alive.

That's just what the veteran of Bosnia and Syria did.

When Mr. Campeau was stopped at gunpoint on the road to Damascus last February, he quickly offered the rebel fighters the $450 he had with him and even offered them the UN car he was driving.

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The men, members of the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, took the money and the car, and everything else he had, but determined he'd be more valuable to them alive than dead – either to extract a ransom or to make a prisoner exchange.

Speaking this week for the first time since gaining his freedom in October, Mr. Campeau told The Globe and Mail from his home in Vienna how he had been kept mostly in the dark in a bedroom of a country house for eight months. During that time, he said, he was very careful not to upset his jailors who often debated whether they should kill him, since their ransom demands were repeatedly rebuffed. When the men seemed annoyed at how often he asked to go to a toilet down the hall, for example, he chose to urinate most often in a glass and pour it out the window.

When his captors video-recorded him to send his family and the United Nations proof he was still alive, he posed in the way they asked, even once making it look as if he had lost half his left leg – an image that terrified his family.

And when a new commander, an extremely religious non-Syrian man, arrived on the scene, Mr. Campeau, a Christian, even changed his faith.

The newly arrived cleric had ordered all the prisoner's privileges withdrawn. Everything was removed from his room: the three books (one on how to invest in the stock market, another on the Balfour Declaration and the third in German on tourists sites in Europe) he had read over and over again; the paper he used to keep a diary; and even the Sudoku puzzles someone had given him. No one was to talk to him, and he certainly wasn't allowed to watch any TV when the house had a couple hours of electricity in the evening.

For two and a half weeks, he saw no one and did nothing.

Worried that this treatment might foreshadow his demise, Mr. Campeau decided to become a Muslim. His captors had often asked him to convert, but he always declined. Why now? his guards wanted to know.

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"I told them I had prayed last night and at 4 o'clock in the morning I woke up and had the answer in my head that I should convert to Islam," he said. "And they bought it."

From then on, he was treated better. He joined the men in prayers.

And one day, following the early-morning prayer, the door to his room was left unlocked.

While the guards were outside playing soccer, Mr. Campeau slipped away, wrapped a red and white scarf, or keffiyeh, around his head and turned south toward the Golan Heights and the UN camp where he'd been based. After three hours he encountered a company of Syrian soldiers and surrendered to them. They, in turn, delivered him to the government in Damascus, which handed him over to UN officials.

Mr. Campeau wants his captors punished for what they did, but said he understands why they did it. "Their set of laws is completely different from ours because they don't recognize international law" he said, adding, "They are bound by the sharia."

"Even though I was a non-combatant, to them I was a prisoner of war because I was a citizen of an enemy nation," he explained. "Canada is on top of their list of enemies, as well as the UN, so it made me twice an enemy."

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Mr. Campeau himself is critical of United Nations for its inaction while he was captive.

"They could have done more," he said. The organization wouldn't pay a ransom, according to Mr. Campeau, and didn't want anyone else to do so either.

"They told my family," he said, "if they paid anything [the abductors] would take the money and then just kill me. That's what they were told. And we know that's not true. There are many people who are freed by paying money."

"They said also to my family not to go to the media, to keep quiet, because [speaking out] would jeopardize my security."

However, after he was back in Europe, Mr. Campeau did some research. "It seems that sometimes, when the families go to the media and they start a media campaign, they have some success. It puts some pressure on the government to do more."

In his case, Mr. Campeau said he has a dubious honour. "In the history of the United Nations, I'm the longest-serving hostage."

And, in the end, Mr. Campeau said he wants it clearly understood that it wasn't the UN that freed him on Oct. 17. "If I didn't take that risk that day to run away, I would probably still be there."

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