Robert R. Fowler was the foreign policy adviser to three prime ministers, personal representative for Africa of three others, deputy minister of defence, Canada’s longest-serving ambassador to the United Nations, and UN special envoy to Niger. He is the author of A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda.
Lately, I have been thinking about the 130 days my colleague Louis Gay and I spent in the Sahara as captives of al-Qaeda, nearly 11 years ago.
The dissimilarities between that time and my current isolation, courtesy of COVID-19, are obvious and significant. As hostages we were faced with a constant existential threat. The implacable enmity of our captors, accomplished killers all, was always clear. We were poorly nourished, our lives regularly menaced and we had no notion of what was happening in the outside world.
Today, in the face of the pandemic, we’re all in the same boat. Our individual circumstances vary greatly, but we share common concerns: Will I, or someone I love, die? If we get sick and survive, will our quality of life be impaired? When will it end? What will our lives be like when it does?
During our kidnapping, our families made extraordinary efforts to keep in touch – they also had to go about their normal lives. That offered a kind of relief. They had their regular routines – work, school, shopping, fitness – to distract them. The fact that they had to put on a brave face for the kids, for friends, and for colleagues tended to make them braver, served to divert their attention, if only for a while, from their worry about us.
These days, we are offered few such distractions. Indeed, those available tend to make things worse. Stuck at home, without those routines and obligations, we have too much time to brood, and as we stare at screens at home, the data on the virus seems well nigh infinite. All is revealed: the good, the bad and the very ugly. Along with COVID-19 infections, my screen time seems to double every three days.
During our absence, a decade ago, our loved ones were sustained and encouraged by an array of friends whose steadfast support eased their pain. Today, we all share similar worries and challenges, but are prohibited from offering each other such comfort. Emotionally, many are already stretched pretty thin. Happily, saints abound among us who can look after their own along with many others. These brave health professionals, stalwart merchants, civil protectors and other essential risk-takers are keeping us alive. Their service reminds us of what’s important and admirable in our troubled world.
As captives, we were nearly broken by our helplessness, by our utter lack of control over our circumstances. Today, while the outcome is also obscure, there are things we can do to protect ourselves and offer succor to others. We can keep in touch, shop and cook for friends, sew masks – and complain to our heart’s content.
A thousand kilometers north of Timbuktu, Louis and I developed a daily routine and these "rules" to govern our behaviour:
#1 No what ifs or if onlys
We quickly agreed that it would be perilous, counterproductive and downright self-indulgent to wallow in any musings about what had brought us to such a pretty pass.
In current circumstances, there will be a time to decide why we were not better prepared, given our experience with SARS and H1N1, but this is not that time.
#2 No discussing bad stuff after midday
We realized that if we shared our worst fears late into the night, we would not sleep and our physical and mental health would deteriorate. Thus, in a ridiculously effective act of self-delusion, we decreed that those dark thoughts could and would be aired and dissected in the morning, but not after lunch.
These days, I think it wise to limit COVID-19 surfing, and in any case stop well before bedtime.
#3 No discussing anything sensitive after dark
We could not tell where our kidnappers were at night and knew they might be listening.
There’s not a close parallel here, but I think it wise to shield our children at least somewhat from the onslaught of disturbing information.
#4 Absolute avoidance of rabbit holes
This was the most important and had to be strictly observed. As soon as one of us began to enter some downward spiral of worry and depression, the other was to use every wile or threat to pull him back out. We had to be particularly vigilant about simultaneously diving down separate holes, or the same one.
The application of this one is as important today as it was then, but should, of course, include friends and neighbours, particularly those living alone.
As we continue to fight the battle of our lives, I hope the coping strategy we developed in captivity might be of some help.
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