One minute you’re getting in a car to go to go and do your work, and the next you’re bound and gagged in the back of a speeding van.
Being kidnapped is probably the most terrifying experience you will ever experience in your career as a journalist.
Usually it happens so fast that you can’t attempt to escape your abductor(s). However, fortunately, kidnapping doesn’t happen that often and most of those kidnapped around the world are released unharmed and fairly quickly.
However, this is not always the case and any abduction can turn deadly at any time.
Some factors are out of your hands, however your survival can also depend on decisions you make while in captivity.
The first few minutes are the most dangerous, and they become more dangerous if you resist. Often the attackers are armed to deter you from trying to escape. You only have seconds to decide how to react. If there are others around you, this may be the best time to fight back in an attempt to gain attention and help. After the abductors have you where they want you (most often in a car) there will be little chance of escape.
Observing and remembering as much as possible may help you later in planning an escape, predicting your abductor’s next moves, or giving information to the police (or other authorities) to aid in a rescue or to help find and convict the kidnapper. You may be blindfolded, but you can still gather information with your senses of hearing, touch and smell. Visualise the route the abductors take. Make note of turns, stops and variations in speed. What is the amount of time between each stop? Gather information that may be helpful if you decide to escape. Are you injured or wounded? Are you tied up and how much can you move?
Observe your captor(s):
How many are there?
Are they armed? If so, with what?
Are they in good physical condition?
What do they look and sound like?
How old are they?
Do they seem well prepared?
What are their emotional states?
Observe your surroundings:
Where are you being taken?
Where are you being held?
Where are the exits?
Are there cameras in place, a lock on the door or other security precautions?
Build a relationship with your captor
If you can build a bond with your captor, he/she will generally be more hesitant to harm you. Regardless, it is not wise to antagonise them. Keep away from the subject of politics, especially if you are being held by terrorists or hostage takers who are politically motivated.
Pay attention to what your captor has to say
Being a good listener can help you gather information that would be useful for an escape or to help police apprehend the abductor after you’re freed.
Appeal to their family feelings
If you both have children you probably have a powerful bond already in place. If you have pictures of your family, consider showing them to your captors if the topic comes up.
Cooperate and empathise with your captors, but only within reason. In long periods of captivity, captives may develop what is known as the Stockholm Syndrome, where they begin to identify with their captors, sometimes to the point of helping them to commit crimes or escape justice.
Keep your dignity
It is psychologically harder for a person to kill, rape, or otherwise harm a captive if the captive remains human in the captor’s eyes. Do not grovel, beg or become hysterical. Try not to cry. Do not challenge your abductor, but show him/her that you are worthy of respect.
Communicate with other captives
If you are held with other people, talk to them as much as is safely possible. If you look out for each other and have others to talk to, your captivity will be easier to handle. Consider whether you can plan an escape together.
Keep track of time
All former hostages say that keeping track of time is one of the things that kept them sane. If you can establish routines they may enable you to maintain your dignity and your sanity.
Can you work out when your abductor comes and goes?
Can you see sunlight?
Can you hear church bells or calls to prayer?
Can you smell food being cooked?
Can you see a watch on your captor’s wrist?
Stay positive and mentally active
Think about what you’ll do when you get back home. Hold conversations in your head with friends and loved ones. Build that house in your head, recite that poem, think of puzzles to do. Ask for a book or a radio.
Be positive. Remember, most kidnapping victims survive. However long captivity is common. Some hostages were held for years, but they kept a positive attitude and were eventually freed.
Stay physically active
It can be difficult to remain in shape in captivity, especially if you’re restrained, but it’s important to do so if possible. Sit-ups, press-ups and stretching exercises will assist your physical condition and your chance of escaping.
Whether you risk an escape, may depend on who has taken you and their motivation. Are you in a country where ransoms are paid for journalists? If they are holding you for ransom or to negotiate the release of prisoners, you are most likely worth far more to them alive than dead. If you’ve been captured by a serial killer or sexual predator, or if you’ve been abducted in retaliation for some political or military action, your abductor likely intends to kill you.
Your decision on whether and when to attempt an escape should be made based on this information. If you do manage to escape, then keep going until you are in safe hands. In some countries the area you escape into may be just as hostile as the abductors. Keep in mind that if you are recaptured, you will very likely not get another chance – so make your escape count.
Proof of life
If someone asks you something about your life, for example, what was your first car or what colour is your front door, this is a good sign that someone may be negotiating for your release.
On the other hand, if your captors have stopped feeding you or suddenly stop hiding their identities after wearing masks, this is a very strong sign that they may be planning to kill you.
If you hear a lot of noise, a helicopter or shouting, it may be that someone is coming to rescue you. It is more than likely a military or police operation. Your rescuers will assume everyone is hostile until proven otherwise and that includes you. They will be on edge, and most likely shoot first and ask questions later. You should obey all commands they give. If they tell you to lie down on the floor or put your hands on their heads, do it. Do not argue or try to tell them who you are.
Your rescuers may restrain you with zip ties or handcuffs until they are certain who is a hostage and who is a kidnapper. Remain calm and put them at ease.
This advisory is meant to assist journalists in making their own decisions following a rigorous risk assessment. INSI takes no responsibility for any problems that occur as a result of following this advice.