JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Snatched by a shadowy Palestinian faction in the Gaza Strip almost four months ago, Alan Johnston suddenly found himself transformed — from intrepid war reporter to terrified subject of a big news story.
But the BBC correspondent would soon draw comfort from his unwanted fame, as word of an international solidarity campaign mounted by colleagues and well-wishers reached him thanks to an old radio supplied by his captors.
“It was just so weird, the feeling that I could do nothing and the whole, whole world was rooting for me,” Johnston told a news conference at the British consulate in Jerusalem just hours after being freed on Wednesday.
Captivity was like being “buried alive,” Johnston said.
There were “waves of depression” and: “I literally dreamt many times of being free and always woke up back in that room.
“The great fear is the fear of being forgotten ... It’s a battle to keep your mind in the right place.”
Looking gaunt but relieved after his 114-day ordeal, Johnston recalled being shunted from hideout to hideout by Palestinian gunmen who were attentive at first, bringing him food to his taste and reassurances he would not come to harm.
While much of his time was spent in a room measuring 2 metres (6 ft 6 in) by 2.5 metres (8 ft 2 in), he was usually unshackled, had a separate bathroom and access to a kitchenette.
Jarringly, there also threats. Johnston was trussed up in a bomb belt to make a videotaped warning, and told by his captors that he would be blown up if anyone attempted to rescue him by force. The journalist was also briefly beaten.
The radio, and a one-off viewing of a captor’s television while Johnston’s father was making an on-air appeal, offered the correspondent glimmers of hope.
There were updates on the tens of thousands of people worldwide who had signed an online petition for his release, and broadcast messages of goodwill from Terry Waite and Brian Keenan, who spent years as hostages in 1980s Lebanon.
Johnston said he had resolved to look beyond the uncertainty to the day when deliverance would come.
“You’ve got to believe somehow, some day, some way, it’s going to end. You will not grow old there,” he said, recounting how he contrasted himself, in his imagination, with people he knew who had suffered terminal illnesses. “There’s an endless series of psychological devices that you develop.”
Johnston, the only Western journalist based full-time in Gaza, missed out on reporting on one of the territory’s biggest developments — the violent takeover two weeks ago by Hamas.
To his acute journalistic frustration, he knew it had happened — a couple of the street battles raged within earshot — but he also knew what it would mean for him. Having long followed Palestinian power-struggles, Johnston anticipated that the dominant Islamist group would try to free him as part of a campaign to prove itself worthy of governance:
“That changed the atmosphere completely. Hamas has a huge law and order agenda and they want to stop the kidnappings,” he said. “I thought there was a chance they (captors) really might kill me and they wouldn’t let Hamas get what they had come for. It was a 50-50 thing. You had to brace yourself for the worst.”
As it happened, Johnston’s release was bloodless — though he said Hamas had seized the brothers of two of his captors as leverage. And while Gaza has largely fallen silent since last month’s factional warfare, Johnston, a 45-year-old Scotsman, said he did not expect to return to the territory soon.
“I feel, you know, enough of Gaza already. Maybe I’ll go back when it’s a member of the EU.”
Additional reporting by Avida Landau