In December 2008, al Qaeda captured two Canadian diplomats and their driver in Niger. In an excerpt from his new book, A Season in Hell, the author recalls 130 days trapped in the Sahara

In December 2008, al Qaeda captured two Canadian diplomats and their driver in Niger. In an excerpt from his new book, A Season in Hell, the author recalls 130 days trapped in the Sahara

Photograph by Lee Towndrow

As we waited for the ferry on the southwest side of the Niger River, our driver, Soumana Moukaila, oversaw a gaggle of nearly naked young boys as they competed for a few coins and the privilege of washing his carefully tended white Land Cruiser, which proudly sported a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) logo in pale blue on each front door.

We were surrounded by makeshift stalls that sold small items: tiny bars of soap, a few razor blades, shoelaces, packets of Kleenex, and thin plastic bags of purportedly potable water. With loud voices and good humour, hawkers proclaimed the virtues of various dishes to attract hungry travellers before they crossed the great river. The whole scene was suffused with that wonderful concoction of smells—woodsmoke, sweat, rich earth, spices, animals, and just a hint of latrine—so redolent of the essential Africa, a scent that had become embedded in my soul almost half a century earlier when I first set foot on the continent as a nineteen-year-old teacher.

My colleague Louis Guay and I were taking advantage of a quiet Sunday to do a little research into how resource revenues might be used to grease the wheels of a possible peace accord to end the two-year-old Tuareg rebellion in Niger that was further crippling this third-poorest country in the world. For such was my mission as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Niger: get the government and the rebels to the negotiating table.

Leaving the ferry, we climbed the steep escarpment, and Soumana turned right toward the capital, Niamey, and floored it. The surface was excellent, one of the few paved roads in the country. Soumana was a fine driver and proud of what his nearly new Land Cruiser could do. The traffic was light, and there were few pedestrians and domestic animals along the sides of the road. We passed half a dozen cars and trucks that had been ahead of us on the ferry. A van surmounted by a large, fence-like rack holding a number of understandably forlorn sheep was leading the pack. I had seen the van on the ferry and taken a picture of the hapless sheep. After zipping by them all, we found the road clear ahead.

Ten minutes later, we crested a hill, and a long, empty valley stretched into the far distance. The view was lovely and peaceful. I was looking forward to a pleasant dinner in Niamey with Guy Villeneuve, head of the Canadian office, a dependency of the embassy located in faraway Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Louis was on his BlackBerry, arranging the details with Guy.

At this point, a pickup truck appeared out of nowhere and was quickly overtaking us. Its speed seemed out of place, as we were doing 120 kilometres per hour. As soon as it passed us, it slewed across our front, forcing Soumana to brake. “What the hell!” I exclaimed, woken out of my reverie with some surprise and annoyance, but by then Soumana was swinging out to pass the truck that had just cut us off. As soon as we moved left, so too did the truck, right off our front bumper, again blocking our progress and still slowing hard, forcing Soumana to brake to avoid plowing into it. As we pulled back into the right lane, so did the truck, which now occupied the centre of the road, clearly positioning itself to block the possibility that we might still try to pass to the right or left.

Both vehicles were in emergency stopping mode. Soumana was standing on the brakes, and it was all he could do to control our SUV. Before we came to a complete stop, I saw two African figures in the bed of the truck in front leap into action. One knelt, raising a Kalashnikov assault rifle, or an AK-47, and aimed from about four metres away through the windshield into our driver’s face. The other, one hand on the tailgate, vaulted onto the road with his AK in the other hand. They were shouting. Soumana was frozen. I hadn’t yet looked at Louis, seated in the back to my left.

Soumana’s door had been wrenched open, and hands were dragging him out by the scruff of his neck toward the truck in front. My first instinct was to protect my dearest possession, an expensive camera with a valuable lens. I was placing it gently at my feet in the right rear seat well when Louis’s door on the left was torn open and he too was being hauled out.

Through the windshield, I saw Louis being frogmarched toward the back of the truck in front as Soumana was boosted, none too gently, over the tailgate. I looked out my window to the right, assessing the possibility of escape. There was a wide cleared strip on my side of the highway—a line of scrubby bushes, down a slight slope, perhaps forty metres distant. Could I get the door open and run for and hide in that scrub? Would they shoot—how well? Would they linger long enough to come after me? Could I abandon Louis and Soumana to whatever fate awaited them? How much use could I be to them, anyway?

But before I had even fully exited my side, still undecided, the taller of the AK-waving young men had me by the upper arm. He shoved me toward the truck, shouting, “Dépêchez-vous!” then pushed and lifted me into the arms of his colleague. Once in the truck bed, I saw that he was standing on Louis and Soumana, who were lying prostrate with horrified looks on their faces. I was thrown on top of them.

The truck then performed a squealing 180-degree turn and began to speed back in the direction from which we had just come. I caught a glimpse of our vehicle across the highway, doors open, deserted. I was certain, however, that a fourth man, whom we had not yet seen (perhaps a passenger in the cab or in a following blocking vehicle) was about to drive it away. I knew that such a high-performance vehicle was probably the single most desirable commodity in Africa. It made sense that our kidnappers would take it straight into the inventory of one or another of the bands of smugglers, bandits, and rebels that frequent the largely lawless northern Sahel region, or at least to a chop shop.

I assumed that my camera bag was now in the hands of my captors. Inside it was my USB key containing many of the documents relevant to my mission, something I had not trusted to the safe in my room. Some of these reports were sensitive, particularly those relating to my views on the bona fides of the government of President Mamadou Tandja. Also in that bag, I thought, was my Kindle, containing about fifty titles, among them Kill Bin Laden: A Delta Force Commander’s Account of the Hunt for the World’s Most Wanted Man; The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals; and Sniper One: On Scope and Under Siege with a Sniper Team in Iraq. There was also a series of books by Daniel Silva, whose protagonist is a Mossad agent in the business of eliminating the enemies of Israel. I didn’t relish the prospect of any kidnappers in that part of the world discovering my reading preferences.

From my what-the-hell realization that something was seriously amiss to our being slung aboard our kidnappers’ truck and driven off in the opposite direction, no more than forty seconds had elapsed. It had been a slick, violent, well-coordinated, and impeccably executed grab.

No matter how we framed it, things didn’t look good. I didn’t think the Niger armed forces were capable of flying search and rescue missions at night, if indeed they could get their helicopters into the air at all. Our captors were obviously avoiding any chance of running into a police roadblock by the simple expedient of avoiding all roads. Further, every passing minute extended the radius of the search area. Niger is one of the larger countries in the world, and the region from which we were taken, in the extreme southwestern part of the country, was only 100 kilometres from Burkina Faso to the west, about 160 kilometres from Benin to the south, and about the same distance from the border of Mali, due north. I knew that we were heading north, but anybody who might be looking for us could not be sure. Every hour, even as we crunched along off-road at only twenty to thirty kilometres per hour, would add thousands of square kilometres to the search area. Dredging up high school math, I applied pi r2 to our laborious progress and determined that at the end of six hours, as we approached the Malian border to the north, the search area would be over 70,000 square kilometres. I did not expect to be rescued soon.

A couple of hours before dawn, we skidded to a stop. Omar, an Arab-featured man in his mid-forties and the one clearly in charge, announced, “I must sleep,” opened his door, and rolled under the truck. Hassan, the shorter and stockier of the two African abductors, was tightly masked, ninja-like. He cut the tape binding our wrists, threw a blanket from the back onto the hard-packed sand, and told us to rest. He led Soumana away to some other place. Ibrahim, a tall, thin African referred to as “le Sénégalais,” took sentry duty.

I was terribly thirsty but had got it into my addled brain that I must not drink the murky, sludgy brown water from their large, ten-litre plastic container. If I did so, I was convinced, I would contract dysentery. My state of denial was such that I calculated I must avoid the trots so I could take my place in the reviewing stand in just three days’ time in Tillabéri—an hour down the road from where we had been taken—to participate in the celebration of Niger’s fiftieth anniversary of independence. Surely all this unpleasantness would somehow be over by then.

Tea, however, seemed reasonably safe. Ibrahim was dropping handfuls of tea and sugar into the pot, and I hoped to cadge a glass or two. It was the Arab version: hot, green, very sweet, and served in minuscule glasses, which would not greatly alleviate my increasing dehydration. When I was standing above him, he looked up at me with a sardonic, fire-lit smile and asked, “So, have you figured out who we are yet? ”

I had been dreading this moment for most of the preceding twelve hours. I asked, without conviction, “Are you not the Mouvement des Nigériens pour la Justice? ” Ibrahim snorted with derision. “I told you I was Senegalese. What would I be doing with a gang of amateurs like that? ” I simply stared at him as the fire danced in his menacing black eyes. Finally, drawing out the moment with cruel anticipation, he fiercely spat the words “We are al Qaeda!” And the bottom fell out of my world.

I estimated that our chances of emerging whole from this ordeal stood at about 5 percent, principally because I could not convince myself to accept a lower number.

On Thursday, day five, we awoke about a thousand kilometres north of the reviewing stand in Tillabéri. For the first time since that horrible moment the previous Sunday afternoon, we were not being hustled into a vehicle to smash our way cross-country. Looking around us, we implicitly understood why.

Quite evidently, we had arrived. We were there, deep in the Sahara Desert, impossibly far from any familiar frame of reference. I recalled that when we had visited the far northern mining community of Arlit, in Niger, only three months previously (perhaps 700 kilometres east-southeast from where we were), I had been intimidated by the desert’s immediate vastness. There had been no transition. Step beyond that runway, and there was pitiless nothing—forever, a nothing that would kill you very quickly. Walking on the outskirts of Arlit had been like touching the inner skin of the protective, atmosphere-preserving bubble of some science fiction mining operation on a far-flung asteroid. But here in the far north of Mali, there were no outskirts, no human or geophysical link—however tenuous—with anything I had known beyond, of course, Louis. I had never before felt so isolated and forsaken.

Omar approached and explained what were effectively the camp rules. He told us that we could ask to go loin (far) when one of us needed to defecate. We would be unobtrusively accompanied, and we had to find a spot far enough but not too far away. However, as it would require revealing our nakedness (anathema to these prudish zealots), that place had to be well out of sight. And only one of us could go at a time. The rules for going pas loin (not far) were less complicated. We still had to ask for and receive permission to disappear behind a bush for a pee, and we were admonished to do it modestly. When I asked for a toothbrush, Omar taught us how to break off branches from a particular kind of thorn tree growing nearby, and then peel off the bark around the break so that the fibres expanded, like a straw broom.

As soon as Omar had finished explaining the rules of our imprisonment, we were joined by Mokhtar Belmokhtar and what we came to think of as his senior staff. Given the authority with which he moved and the deference everyone paid him, he was clearly the man—their revered leader. Despite the voluminous robes, he was relatively slight, with a heavily weathered, deeply lined face and curly black hair. His most distinguishing feature was a deep, almost vertical scar that began above the middle of his right eyebrow, crossed his right eyelid, and continued across his right cheek, disappearing into his moustache. He was alleged to have a glass eye, but all I could discern was that the deep scar had distorted his right eyelid and somewhat closed that eye. Of course, we named him “Jack”—as in “one-eyed jacks.”

He explained that we were his prisoners, that he led one of many groups of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) mujahedeen, and, speaking through Omar, outlined the organization’s objectives. He also asserted that he and his frères were strict and devout Muslims who unreservedly followed God’s word as revealed to the Prophet in the Quran without deviation or interpretation and to the letter.

He then, in quiet and measured tones, launched into a tirade against the hypocrisy of the Western toady “apostate governments” (atheist or, more accurately, those who renounce belief) of the North African states (the near enemy) and the debauchery of the Jew crusader, American-led Western governments (the far enemy) that had sent vast armies to ravage and occupy “Muslim lands.”

Jack then explained that we would be making a video to let the United Nations and the Canadian government know we were in the hands of al Qaeda so a negotiating process could begin. “Just say who you are,” Jack outlined, “why you were in Niger, that we now hold you hostage, and ask your leaders to work to resolve your situation as expeditiously as possible, without,” he firmly insisted, “resorting to violence, for that would go very badly for you.”

Omar instructed us to follow them over a slight rise and down the reverse slope for a little more than 100 metres to a very large dark green tent, which I had not known was there, nestled among a few sparse acacia trees. At the sight of the tent, my heart lurched. Working away in the back of my mind over the past days had been the prospect that Louis and I would suffer the same fate as Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, at the hands of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Karachi, Pakistan, in February 2002. Unlike nearly 300,000 YouTube viewers, I had not seen the dreadful video clip of his beheading, but—perhaps worse—I had heard it described in excruciating detail, and my imagination recreated the scene again and again, adding a seemingly infinite number of appalling variations.

At the sight of that damned great, dark tent, surrounded by heavily armed, turban-wearing Arabs, my recreation of that horror was given free rein.

Perhaps Omar sensed or even understood the cause of my disquiet, for as he walked between Louis and me he began very methodically to rehearse what we had just agreed would be the script. I was grateful for the diversion. I asked when Soumana, whom we had not seen for twenty-four hours, would speak, but this was quickly brushed off as “unnecessary.” Finally, we were ushered inside, and there was a version of the tableau we have all seen in too many newscasts and movies. A black flag covered with white Arabic script was pinned to the wall of the tent opposite the side that had been opened to allow sunlight to illuminate the set. Standing immediately in front of that flag were four heavily armed men, a couple carrying AKs across their chests and the others holding the heavier, belt-fed machine guns. Two or three of them also had belts of ammunition criss-crossing their chests, Pancho Villa–like, and their faces were almost entirely obscured by their black turbans.

I tried to speak slowly and articulate carefully. I gave my name and then noted that I was the “Special Envoy of the Secretary-General of the United States [sic] for Niger.” I heard the error but was not to be deterred. I urged “those responsible at the UN and in Canada” to engage in negotiations that would lead to our early release and indicated that the conditions in which we were being held were rudimentary in the extreme. I volunteered the fact that we were being treated “honourably” by our abductors (to suggest to our families that we were not being abused), and, as instructed, I cautioned against any kind of military action to secure our freedom.

Then, getting to the bit I cared most immediately about, I sent my love to my wife, Mary, “and my five [sic] children” (I have four). Just before I lost it, I turned to Louis to allow him to take his turn. It was for each of us a wrenching, emotional experience but also cathartic. The negotiations had been opened, and we assumed that our families would shortly know that we were alive and relatively well. They would be devastated by the al Qaeda part but heartened by this invitation to the government and the United Nations to engage, and they would know that once engaged the Canadian government could be a formidable force.

In its stark variety, the desert is as stunning as it is daunting. Unlike Louis, though, I had trouble appreciating beauty in such circumstances. Yes, the plethora of stars in clear air so very far from any light pollution was stunning. And it’s true that the many faces of the Sahara, from the high ridges of classic, shifting dunes standing across our route to the absolutely flat, almost pure white, horizonless, shimmering pans of the Malian desert, or the sharp, rugged black and red stone mountains rearing out of the desert—some streaked laterally with white salt deposits—were all dramatically different, imposing, and not a little frightening in their harsh and unforgiving vastness. To me, however, that all highlighted our lack of freedom and a terrifyingly uncertain future.

Aside from the tiny salt mining settlement at Taoudenni, where only a couple of dozen hardy miners remain year-round, there are no permanent communities in the vast region of Mali north and west of Tessalit, rather similar in its unforgiving austerity, dramatic weather, and stark emptiness to the Barrens of northern Canada. Nor is there an effective police or military presence anywhere in this bleak region. Mali’s ill-equipped, underfunded, and poorly trained army ventures warily and rarely into the Sahara, which is the realm of a variety of nomadic peoples, and dominated by rebels, bandits, traffickers of all kinds, and, of course, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The nomadic population is predominantly Tuareg, a Berber people with a distinctive language, culture, and rather violent history, and only the vaguest allegiance to any of the half-dozen countries through which they roam. They never accepted French colonial authority, and whereas boys of my generation in North America were brought up on tales of cowboys and Indians, in France it was all about legionnaires defending little white crenellated forts against indigo-garbed Tuareg hordes mounted on pale camels and wielding flashing sabres.

There has been a succession of Tuareg rebellions in both Mali and Niger, and in every negotiated settlement, usually brokered by not necessarily benevolent outside interests—most notably those in Algeria and Libya—holdout factions have insisted on continuing their struggle against the governments in Bamako and Niamey. Yet Tuareg serve in the armies of Mali and Niger, as well as in specially raised militias in northern Mali and, of course, in AQIM. More recently, they have formed the core of Moammar Gadhafi’s “African mercenaries.”

Thus the Sahara houses a complex netherworld of people operating outside and beyond any law. Gunrunners bring weapons and ammunition of every description, mostly of Soviet-era origin and mostly from Sudan, Somalia, and Chad, to clients across the western Sahel. Drug traffickers are reportedly paid $40,000 by Colombia’s FARC rebels or their West African partners to run a shipment of cocaine from, say, Guinea-Bissau across the Sahara to the eastern Mediterranean littoral, from where it is taken into Europe’s soft underbelly or to the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf States.

Such vast sums of drug money are wreaking havoc within the traditional Tuareg leadership structure. The elders find it increasingly difficult to hold sway over, and can exert little discipline on, the flash kids with weapons and pockets full of cash. Absent the traditionally strong Tuareg cultural foundation and clan discipline, the kids are easier pickings for AQIM as the region drifts toward the anarchy of Somalia and the turmoil of Darfur, which, my jailers told me, was very much their objective.

Then there are the people movers—the African equivalents of the Asian snakeheads—who for a substantial fee escort desperate people from West Africa who brave the perilous Sahara and the Mediterranean crossing to attempt illegal immigration to Europe. Many of these people had been awaiting their moment to get across the Mediterranean when they were caught up in the piteous suffering, turmoil, and upheaval currently besetting Libya. And finally, there are the ordinary smugglers who have worked these regions for millennia.

Escaping from AQIM into the clutches of any of these shadowy groups would not necessarily have changed our circumstances for the better.

On Day eighty-two, the entire council, led by Abdul Rahman, trooped to our location at Thornhill on a formal visit. They sat in a half-circle in front of us, and Abdul Rahman said, through Omar, “The president has sent you gifts.” He was referring to Blaise Compaoré, the president of Burkina Faso. With a come-hither movement of his left arm, he directed a line of children forward, each bearing a medium-sized carton. There were eleven in all, and they contained quantities of wondrous stuff: vitamins, sardines, cookies of every description, fruit juices, candies, Kleenex, toothbrushes and toothpaste, great bars of soap and chocolate.

No Christmas stocking had ever held such valued treasures. We were starving. We immediately opened a package of biscuits and passed them around. Their first reaction, every one of them, was to refuse. “These things,” they said, “have been sent by President Compaoré to you. They are not for us.”

But I could see Omar salivating. So we insisted, and with some reverence each of these tough, heavily armed, beturbaned, weather-beaten, raggedly clad warriors of Allah slowly and very tentatively reached into the extended package and extracted a rectangular, sugar-coated cookie with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand and began, rather self-consciously, to nibble at the opposite corner, smiling, just a little.

Then, looking embarrassed, Abdul Rahman signalled that he had something important that needed to be said. Obviously ill at ease, he reported that one of the cartons had been dropped. Two packages of biscuits had been pulverized. On examining the damaged carton and discovering the destroyed packages, a few of the younger ones had believed they had the right to eat the crumbs. They were wrong, he sternly said, and they had been punished. It would not happen again, he assured us, and he wished to apologize for such unacceptable behaviour. Then he stared at the ground in front of him, deeply ashamed.

Most of the others seemed equally embarrassed, and they stared straight ahead, avoiding any eye contact with us. I could not comprehend what I was witnessing. Here were these vicious desert warriors, dedicated to the path of bloody, no-holds-barred jihad, planning martyr operations against civilians and targeting aid and humanitarian workers—but they did not steal cookies. I felt certain that every one of them was not only capable of slitting our throats but in some cases anxious to, but they were devastated that some of their number had nicked “our” cookie crumbs. It was at this point that I really appreciated the depth and the single-mindedness of their commitment to jihad and the breadth of the cultural gap between us.

As a result of President Compaoré’s largesse, we became less victims and more individuals. With these assets, we suddenly had choices. We were able to express favour and disfavour, show generosity, demonstrate sympathy or withhold it. Some of our captors allowed themselves to be a little seduced by it, others remained impervious, but all tacitly acknowledged that it altered the captor-captive paradigm.

On arrival in Camp Canada, I realized I had to find some way of keeping track of time, or my grip on reality might well slip. I worried that if I lost the ability to measure the passage of time, I might well lose hold of other anchors. Above all, I needed to be confident that I could keep my wits about me, could track and even perhaps encourage progress toward a happy conclusion to our misadventure—to the extent that it might prove possible from the middle of the Sahara. I wanted to ensure that if I emerged from this trial, it would not be as a cringing, broken disappointment to my family.

After a few days, I decided to try to record the passing days on the underside of my belt, using the ubiquitous long and very sharp thorns that adorned the acacia tree under which we sheltered. It is difficult to overemphasize the importance, at least for my mental well-being, of the decision to maintain the belt calendar.

Knowing the day, date, and precise length of our imprisonment also nourished what came to be an important morale-building ritual. Each day when we awoke, and before our rudimentary ablutions, we would start with an exchange.

“Good morning, Bob. It’s Wednesday, January 7th, and we are still alive.”

“Indeed we are, Louis, on this twenty-fifth day of our captivity.”

Louis was adamant that we must set our clocks to eight months, for we knew that had been the period the Austrian tourists had spent as hostages of AQIM in northern Mali. This seemed an awfully long time to me, but I could not fault his logic, nor did I want to contemplate the implications of other models, most far longer and tougher than the ordeal the Austrians had faced. Still, eight months—240 days—seemed longer than I could bear.

We decided that we needed a business plan. We would strive at all costs to maintain healthy bodies in the extremely hostile environment in which we found ourselves, with the hope and expectation that physical health would help preserve mental health and maintain morale, which we took to be our greatest challenge. We designed a track, or piste, in the immediate vicinity of our designated acacia tree at Camp Canada: one sufficiently modest in its dimensions, we hoped, to avoid arousing the suspicions of our kidnappers that we might be up to something. We paced out a richly contorted route, nineteen circuits to the kilometre, and decided to walk it twice a day—at dawn and dusk—with a view to putting in a total of between four and six kilometres each day.

Our cost-benefit analysis of the physical and psychological advantages to be derived from exercise versus the calories we had to expend, which we knew were not being adequately replaced, capped our ambitions at six, although on rare occasions of extreme stress I would exceed this.

I never stopped gaming out how a successful rescue operation might or should go down in whatever circumstances we found ourselves. Obviously, some situations offered better opportunities than others, the night only four of our captors were present being dramatically better than when the full complement of thirty was on hand. I considered the chances of a totally successful rescue only marginally better than those of a successful escape attempt, less for on-site operational reasons and more because I believed that the policy decision-making back home would necessarily be too timid and too late.

So we lay in the sand, gazing up at more stars than I had ever contemplated, trying to keep hope alive, both anticipating and dreading a rescue attempt as we fixed rendezvous points, and now and then went to bed wearing our shoes.

Excerpted from A Season in Hell, by Robert R. Fowler. Published by HarperCollinsPublishersLtd. Copyright 2011 by Robert R. Fowler. All rights reserved.

This appeared in the December 2011 issue.

Robert Fowler
Robert Fowler is a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and to Italy. He has also served as a foreign policy adviser under three prime ministers.
Lee Towndrow
Lee Towndrow is developing a long-term constructed narrative and portrait project set in Mexico and Argentina.