John McCarthy is a British journalist, writer and broadcaster who was taken captive in the 1991 Lebanon hostage crisis.
When I heard about the safe return of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – two Canadians who had been held in China for nearly three years – my mind flashed back to the front seat of a car in Beirut, 30 years ago.
I had just been released after five years of captivity as a hostage in Lebanon, and as Syrian military intelligence officers drove me over the border to Damascus, where a Royal Air Force plane was waiting to take me home to England, I remember taking in the view around me. It was such a sharp contrast to when I’d travelled last, when I was snatched up, blindfolded, bound and gagged in a sack in the trunk of a car.
I knew I was free, at that moment. But I did not feel safe until my plane took off and I saw another view: the Syrian coastline along the Mediterranean Sea from out the window, before entering European airspace. I flew back to Britain through a perfectly clear night sky, and coming in over London I could pick out the famous landmarks twinkling below us. It felt magical.
How was it, then, for the Michaels? When did they finally feel certain that their long ordeal was over? Was it when they joined Canadian officials on a plane in China, or when they left Chinese airspace? Or did they not feel sure until they were on the tarmac in Calgary?
This kinship I feel is a select and strange kind of solidarity, and I know it won’t end with their return to safety. There are many little and often surprising things that mark the unique transition away from life as a hostage.
I remember being anxious that, after such a long time apart and without having any communication, reunions with family and friends might be difficult or stilted. I worried that things had changed irretrievably over my five years in captivity. Instead, that first night home just brought reassurance. Nothing seemed to have changed at all; with my father and brother, with my fiancée and other friends everything was easy, relaxed and joyful. We were just so happy in the moment, knowing that there would be plenty of time for proper reflection further down the line if we needed it. I trust Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor have experienced the same thing upon their return.
But while things did seem gratefully normal at first, I do remember walking around in something of a trance. Everything was familiar, but also so new. Waking up after that first night in Britain and looking out over a lawn, I saw little birds hopping about, hunting bugs and worms. I was transfixed: I hadn’t seen anything like it for years.
Totally normal things such as opening the curtains, getting dressed, freely moving from room, going outside and standing in the sunshine, watching trees move in the breeze and feeling that breeze on my face – it all came back so quickly, but I was constantly struck by the freshness, newness and wonder of it all.
Some things were different, of course. My face had become so well-known that people would greet me wherever I went. They could have been strange interactions, as I didn’t want to be in the limelight, but the warmth and sincerity of those encounters with everyday Brits helped overcome any weirdness. And I remember how, one day, I heard my father taking a call and chatting away as if to an old buddy, before handing me the phone – “It’s the prime minister, John Major, for you.”
The two Michaels are ahead of the game on this. They met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when they got off their plane on Friday, and posed for news photos at the airport, so they are already aware of the curious mix of the intensely personal and also very public aspects of this kind of homecoming.
Thousands of Canadians have been campaigning to keep their detention in the headlines, to impose whatever pressure they could to bring them home. I don’t know if the Michaels were aware of this in their Chinese prison cells, but when I was in captivity, I did hear about the campaign for the British hostages – the Friends of John McCarthy – led by my then-fiancée Jill Morrell and other close friends. Knowing that we were not forgotten was a phenomenal source of support to me and my cellmates.
After coming home, I learned so much more about the group’s efforts, and found myself deeply humbled that people had done so much. My friends and family had to continue on with their lives while constantly and desperately worrying and volunteering their time to do something for me; in this way, they were hostages, too. And beyond my immediate circle, there were so many others – complete strangers, moved by the plight of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary, unfair and cruel circumstances.
Awed by what they’d achieved, I was also anxious about how I could possibly say thank you for all they had done. But an old friend put me at ease: “Well John, we love you, and anyway we had quite a lot of fun along the way!” The continued support of friends and family – indeed, of the general public – was an enormous help in my re-entry to the real world.
Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig were reportedly incarcerated with limited and occasional consular visits; neither were able to see lawyers or family. Officials, citing COVID-19, kept the men in solitary confinement, where the lights were never turned off and they were questioned for hours. Last December, Dominic Barton – Canada’s ambassador to China – told journalists that they were in good mental and physical health and showing great resilience. This suggests to me that they will be able to move on from their ordeal and pick their lives back up again.
Nevertheless, the sense of isolation, the frustration, the worries for the folks back home – the endless question of “how much longer?” – will have taken a toll. Years of keeping focused, trying to stay strong for yourself as well as for those back home, is exhausting, especially in the hostile environment of captivity.
The two Michaels will need plenty of rest, I imagine, as well as space and calm. I was lucky enough to have the invaluable counsel of psychiatrists who were at the forefront of what was then a relatively new field, studying post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They warned me that at times I might be overwhelmed by my new free life – by choices I had to make and the responsibilities I’d have to face. They also cautioned that I might find myself lost in a fog of memories of captivity – that sometimes I would want to talk and talk about my experiences, while at other times I’d want to shut down the subject and focus on other things. All this, they told me, was totally normal and I should try to remember that if I was getting stressed. Gradually, they said, it would pass – and they were right.
Life as a free person did get back to normal, and my five-year-old habits of living in perpetual high-alert mode gave way as new experiences brought alternative perspectives. Writing a book about the hostage years with Jill was therapeutic – a way of putting that time on record and, in a way, filing it away.
And 30 years on, I can give thanks for a fortunate and mainly happy life. Indeed, at times – like right now, in fact – I look back in wonder, asking myself, ”Did all that really happen to me?” I hope the two Michaels and their families will find that distance for themselves, soon, and get to live fulfilling, happy lives again. I’m living proof that it’s possible.