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kidnapping

“For the first time in my life, I have shed ‘survivor’ or ‘victim’ as my identity. I was having to survive on being a ‘survivor’, because that’s how I was making money, speaking about what happened to me. Now I want to talk about coding.” [Quoted in Wired magazine]

Catie Hart was 18 when she was coerced into being a sex worker by a man she met soon after arriving in San Francisco. She eventually broke away and now, aged 40, has a degree in Sociology from UC Berkeley, worked as an advisor on human trafficking for the San Francisco Police Department, Shasta County and UC Davis and is currently a lecturer at AnnieCannons, a Bay area nonprofit where survivors of human trafficking can learn to code.

Our adult lives couldn’t have started more differently; when I was 18, I was heading to Cambridge University and then on to a successful career in London and Washington DC.

Around the time Catie’s life took a turn for the worst, I had too had a formative experience: my uncle was kidnapped by terrorists in Colombia and held hostage for 7 months.

I spent the first two decades of my career dedicated to setting up Hostage UK and Hostage US, nonprofits to support hostage families through the ordeal and help returning captives rebuild their lives after they are released. I recently stepped down as Executive Director from Hostage US and would describe my time there as doing the right thing, in the right place, with the right people. Anyone who gets that once in their career is doing really well. I’ve had it twice.

There is no more effective way to convince people to donate or partner than to connect them with survivors like Catie. After hearing a hostage speak about their experiences, I have watched people instinctively reach for their check book or business card, moved to do whatever they can to help. These personal stories help build the infrastructure and resources that make nonprofits sustainable.

And yet, I always struggled to make the ask.

Telling your story can be therapeutic; one former hostage told me writing a book helped them to process what they had been through, ensure their story was told in their own words, and move on with their life. In every telling, it becomes someone’s else’s story until you can cast it aside entirely, like shedding a layer of skin. The late, great Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

For many, the telling and re-telling of the most traumatic experience of their life has a negative impact. In the most extreme cases, it can re-traumatize, triggering a range of symptoms, such as flashbacks and nightmares, anxiousness, trouble sleeping and concentrating, negative emotions and social isolation.

It can also lead to ‘identity groundhog day’. One former hostage told me she had stepped off the professional speaking circuit because she was fed up of being “hostage girl”. Everywhere she went – dropping the kids at school, attending church, over wine with friends – her identity was dominated by two months of her life five years previously. She just wanted to be a mom, wife, humanitarian, and bad karaoke singer again.

With care and thought, we can create environments for survivors to tell their stories in ways that have a net positive impact; let the survivor set the ground rules about what they do and don’t want to talk about and whether they will answer questions; ask if they would prefer to sit or stand, be interviewed or deliver a speech; help them to feel comfortable in the space by sharing photos of the room or arranging a visit beforehand; and designate someone to shield them from prying audience members afterwards. The best survivors’ organizations do this.

Catie’s quote struck a personal chord with me, too. Over the past two decades, I have told and re-told my own story countless times; to donors, partners, and bored conference attendees alike. Often, I felt good knowing something positive resulted from my family’s suffering.

At times, I resented it.

There were the times it seemed like ‘entertainment’ and left me feeling hollow knowing my story was little more than next weekend’s titillating dinner party fodder for audience members. What’s worse is feeling like I conspired in commoditizing my story; the same old patter, recycled anecdotes, and jokes in all the right places to ensure the mood didn’t dip into ‘awkward and uncomfortable’.

I also became “hostage girl” and watched the boundary between my professional and personal identities vanish. I’ll never forget sitting at a rooftop bar enjoying a balmy Washington DC evening, glass of red wine in hand as I tried to unwind after an especially stressful week at work. Introducing me to a new group, my friend said, “Rachel, do you mind if I tell everyone what you do for a job?” I wanted to scream “Yes I do mind – just let me enjoy my weekend!” I didn’t have the energy to object and inevitably spent the rest of the evening being asked questions about hostages.

I have no doubt that personal stories change the world. They help us to ‘cross the line’ as donors, volunteers and partners; they generate the compassion, energy and will to make a difference; and our instinct to share them helps raise awareness. As Dorothy Allison said, ‘…stories are the one sure way I know to touch the heart and change the world.”

There comes a time when storytelling needs to stop. We are more than our worst experiences and we cannot move forward if we can’t let go of the past.

The James W Foley Legacy Foundation has launched its second annual review of US Government handling of hostages cases. Bringing Americans Home 2020 is based on interviews with 25 people with direct experience of hostage taking or wrongful detention, both those who were held as well as their family members.

I was honored to join the launch event hosted by New America Foundation alongside Diane Foley, Lisa Monaco, and report author Cynthia Loertscher.

I would urge anyone interested in hostages and hostage policy to read the report in full, but here are the main findings.

  1. The US Government’s 2015 hostage policy reforms have largely been durable, but there is always room for improvement
  2. The families of Americans wrongly detained by a foreign government have not benefited from the changes stemming from the 2015 review and report poor satisfaction regarding their interaction with the US government
  3. While the current Administration has prioritized bringing Americans home, more focus and further prioritization is needed

The report is rich with quotes from families and former hostages and detainees and contains a long list of concrete recommendations for the USG government, nonprofit organizations, and others. Excellent work – and well worth your time to read it in full.

 

David Alexander was one of the finest professionals I have ever worked with. He strived for the highest standards for the patients and partners he worked with and was never shy of standing his ground when he felt things weren’t being done just right and just so.

I was incredibly moved to see his commitment to the former hostages and family members we asked him to support – always willing to jump on a train, take the journey, make the time.

He was that rare beast in the caring profession – he saw what he was doing as just one in a series of contributions that could help that person to help themselves to get better. Co-dependency was not within his vocabulary – his job was to help people to move forward themselves. To him, empowerment was critical to the recovery process.

As well as the work, I will remember with great fondness and a smile my phone calls with David – me in my flat in SE London, him in his home in northern Scotland, often at night due to his punishing workload during the day. Rarely would a call end without him expressing frustration about his ageing laptop – or an announcement that it was time for a wee dram of the strong stuff.

As I sign off from work cursing my own failing laptop, I’m off home to have a wee dram of the strong stuff in David’s honor.

Events over the past week have offered a sobering reminder of the risks to journalists around the world. They started with the murder of James Foley in Syria, the video of which closed with a threat to the life of fellow journalist and hostage, Steven Sotloff. Our spirits were raised somewhat yesterday with the news that Theo Curtis, held since 2012 by Al Nusra, had been freed. But scores of other journalists remain captives around the world; in the last year alone, there has been a 129 per cent increase in the number of journalists kidnapped worldwide.

Security risks for journalists

The latest figures from Reporters Without Borders show the whole picture of violence and security risks facing journalists. This is what 2013 looked like globally:

  • 71 journalists were killed
  • 826 journalists were arrested
  • 2160 journalists were threatened or physically attacked
  • 87 journalists were kidnapped
  • 77 journalists fled their country
  • 6 media assistants were killed
  • 39 netizens and citizen-journalists were killed
  • 127 bloggers and netizens were arrested
  • 178 journalists are held in prison

The regions with the most number of journalists killed in connection with their work were Asia (24) and the Middle East and North Africa (23). 39 per cent of these deaths occurred in conflict zones – Syria, Somalia, Mali, the Indian province of Chhattisgah, the Pakistani province of Balochistan and the Russian republic of Dagestan.

The five deadliest countries for the media were Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, India and the Philippines.

The overwhelming majority of victims were men (96%) and there was an even spread between print, radio and TV journalists.

Security risks for aid workers

Journalists are not alone in facing a sharp rise in security risks around the world. Last week, Humanitarian Outcomes published its annual Aid Worker Security Report. It made for sobering reading; 2013 set a new record for violence against civilian aid workers, with 251 separate attacks affecting 460 aid workers.  This is what 2013 looked like for the humanitarian community:

  • 155 aid workers were killed
  • 171 aid workers were seriously wounded
  • 134 aid workers were kidnapped

Like journalists, the threat to aid workers is increasing at an alarming rate; in the decade since 2003, the number of aid workers killed has increased by 78 per cent, injured by 249 per cent, and the number kidnapped has grown by a staggering 1814 per cent from 7 to 134 last year.

Violence against aid workers occurred in 30 countries, but three quarters of all attacks took place in just five settings: Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan, Pakistan, and Sudan. Somalia finds itself outside the top five for the first time in many years, but the reduction of incidents in the country is a result not of growing stability, but because the situation has become so bad. 2013 saw the wholesale withdrawal of Medicins Sans Frontieres from Somalia after 22 years of operating there.

Most victims (87 per cent) were local staffers, but international personnel who account for approximately 8 per cent of humanitarian staff in the field were overrepresented as 13 per cent of victims.

The security challenge for media and aid organisations

It is obvious that journalists and aid workers – who for many years enjoyed safe passage through conflict zones – no longer enjoy these privileges in some places. The people of countries, such as Syria, Pakistan and South Sudan need their help more than ever, but they are less able to perform their vital roles.

It is imperative that organisations sending local or international staff and freelancers to such places enact the necessary security measures needed to keep their people as safe as possible. Reporters Without Borders is lobbying the UN to amend Article 8 of the International Criminal Court’s statute amended so that “deliberate attacks on journalists, media workers and associated personnel” are defined as war crimes. And when – inevitably – things do go wrong, it is vital that victims and their families and colleagues get the practical and psychological support they need to respond to what has happened.

 

 

On Tuesday, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) turns 50. Formed by Pedro Antonio Marin Marin aka Marulanda on 27 May 1964, they have been embroiled in one of South America’s deadliest battles for control of the land, the people, and the soul of the great country of Colombia.

For decades they have claimed the title of ‘revolutionaries’, fighting for the common man and woman. In reality, they have brought terror and violence to a country that, given its natural resources, should be the success story of the continent.

I have been interested in the FARC for 18 years, ever since my uncle was kidnapped on a road between Medellin and Bogota on his way to work in January 1996. It wasn’t the FARC that held him for 7.5 months, but the ELN, or National Liberation Army. But in the years that have followed, I have interviewed many surviving hostages who were held by the FARC. From what I could tell of their testimony, the FARC was willing to use torture to control the minds and bodies of their captives, more cruelly than anything I ever heard from those who had been held by the ELN.

As the FARC prepares for its birthday party, it will not be the only one wondering if life really does begin at 50. The peace process continues in Cuba, with more optimism than has shrouded the ones that preceded it, but still caution is still the order of the day. Literally billions of US dollars and tens of thousands of boots on the ground have failed to kill off the FARC. Its grip remains on certain parts of the country. It can no longer boast 20,000 members, but it is estimated to be 7,000 strong and enjoy the support of those who rely on it for their protection and livelihood.

The results of today’s Presidential election might have a bearing on whether Tuesday should be a party or a wake for the FARC. President Santos hopes to stay in office and continue the peace talks. His main opponent, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga has threatened to pull the plug on the talks, or at least impose conditions that would render then untenable.

Colombia – yet again – finds itself at a crossroads. And, as usual, peace doesn’t look like the most likely destination.

Today I spent the morning with a group of security directors from some of Canada’s largest companies, talking about how corporate security has changed during the 15 years that I have been following it.

I talked about the four key changes that have occurred and how they have helped to bring security out of the boiler room and into the boardroom.

philosophical shift
Fifteen years ago, corporate security directors talked about the frustration of being seen as little more than the ‘man on the gate’. Both literally and metaphorically, they were shut out of the real business of their organisations.

This was largely of their own doing; most were trying to apply the logic and practices of their old organisations (mostly police and military – where hierarchies and command and control are how things get done) to complex, fast-paced and flat global matrix structures. They also limited themselves to being ‘boots on the ground’ because they focused on detailed operational delivery rather than strategic vision and oversight. Old habits died hard.

A decade and a half later, and things couldn’t be more different. The corporate security functions of the large multi-nationals are led by individuals – still the majority are men – who understand that they need to be business enablers rather than corporate cops.  They are proactive at interfacing with the business, rather than waiting for problems to come to them. They focus on persuasion and influence rather than change management through orders. And they are now much more strategic than operational, delegating a higher proportion of the delivery to local business units.

structural integration
Fine words are not enough to realise this 21st century vision of corporate security. So much rests on structural integration to lock the function into the key decision making parts of the company and give it the face time with the business that helps it to gain traction when it matters. The majority of corporate security directors now report directly into the executive committee. They have standard policies and practices that are mandated by the company. And they put in place smart reporting lines and relationships to embed themselves into the horizontal complexity of global multi-nationals with multiple business units and regional hubs. Fifteen years ago, corporate security departments were marginal players. Today, they are increasingly at the heart of business critical processes.

changing corporate security workload
One of the most stark shifts has been in the nature of the work of the corporate security department. A decade and a half ago, their time was spent on investigations, man guarding contracts and organising the travel and protection of the company’s top team. Many corporate security directors proudly talked about their close relationship with the chief exec, but in reality this was almost no different that which he or she enjoyed with their driver or chef.

Today, corporate security functions spend much more of their time on strategy, vision, leadership and oversight, and less on operational delivery. There is also much more focus on new areas of business risk, such as information security, due diligence, risk analysis and business continuity. Of course physical security is still important, but if the central team provides clear policies and procurement rules on man-guarding, for instance, this is just as effectively managed and acquired by local business units.

One of the most important trends within corporate security departments is the growth of in-house intelligence and analysis units. These small teams focus on regional, geo-political and threat specific analysis, tightly tailored to business needs, which can help to inform future decision making and insert corporate security into new business development processes. It is this change that will have the most profound impact on corporate security in the years ahead – it is this that will truly make it a business enabler.

people
Ultimately, any process, practice, procedure or strategy is delivered by people. While the majority of those within corporate security departments still come from a traditional security background (police, military, government, intelligence), they are leaving their old careers earlier, they are more diverse, and there are – slowly but surely – more women entering the function. If corporate security departments are there to serve diverse, multi-cultural and complex organisations, they must do a better job of reflecting them. And they must also do all they can to avoid group think.

The corporate security departments of 15 years ago thought their power and respect emanated from their expert knowledge. Today they realise that they need to talk and walk the language of business, be excellent communicators, and focus on building relationships. Boards do not want to know the minutia of a threat assessment and security process – they just want to know that the company’s problems are in hand. The corporate security directors that cry wolf are a dying and marginalised breed.

For more on corporate security, see The Business of Resilience.

 

My interest in security was sparked when I was at university and my beloved uncle Phil was kidnapped in Colombia. Suddenly, I was thrust into a world of private security companies and response consultants, and felt like an extra on a Hollywood movie set. It led me to ask a few basic questions: who had taken him? Why would they want him? How would we get him back? And, importantly, what could be done to help others who might suffer the same anguish as his family did for 7 long months?

I now dedicate part of my life to the final challenge – running a small charity called Hostage UK, which supports the families of hostages during a kidnap and the family and hostage post-release. We offer pastoral care, put the families in touch with others who have been through the same experience, provide them with any professional support they might need, and offer advice and guidance on how best they can cope with their experience.

When I am not running Hostage UK, I am Research and Policy Director at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. There, I oversee our work on extremism and counter-terrorism, where – amongst other things – we have recently launched the Against Violent Extremism Network (AVE) to bring together former extremists with the survivors of violent extremist attacks to work to counter radicalization and help reintegrate extremists looking to leave their movements.

I have been reflecting on where these two worlds collide, and it strikes me that there are lessons to be learned from the reintegration of hostages and former extremists back into their family environments. I am not seeking to make light of the experiences of hostages, or draw parallels between their suffering and the choices of extremists. But if we look at the specific challenge of reintegration, there are some parallels. Here are five lessons that those looking to reintegrate former extremists could learn from our work at Hostage UK.

First, both the hostage and the family experience extreme forms of trauma. Hostages always say that their family experiences more stress than they do, because they always have the luxury of knowing whether they are alive or dead. When the hostage is released, the family is often not in a position to support fully, because they are in need of support themselves.

Second, the hostage and the family go through different experiences, and this can mean that they feel estranged from one another when the hostage returns.

Third, while the hostage has been away, the family has inevitably moved on. It is so often the main breadwinner who has been taken, and in their absence their wife (it is usually a female partner at home) has assumed the position of head of household, taken on responsibility for finances, and usurped the hostage’s role within the family. This can make reintegration difficult, as the hostage will not be able simply to slot back in and might feel excluded. It is mainly for this reason that there can be higher than average incidences of divorce post-release.

Fourth, the hostage may have experienced things during their captivity that they do not wish to share with their families due to a sense of shame and an inability to communicate. This only increases the sense of division between them and their family members.

Fifth, there is so often a reluctance on the part of both the former hostage and their family to accept that they might need help and support.

Applying these lessons across former hostages and former extremists may not be entirely intuitive. But it is vital to acknowledge that extremism – like kidnapping – is a human crime with a human solution, of which families must be a part. It is vital that these lessons are learned.

For more information about Hostage UK, visit our website.

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