How do you capture the loneliness of being kept in a locked room? The shades are pulled. You have no books, TV or smartphone, and you're handcuffed to a radiator. Oh yeah — it's also been months, and you have no idea if you'll ever be released.
That was the task of cartoonist Guy Delisle in his new book "Hostage." It tells the story of Christophe André, who was kidnapped in 1997 while working for Doctors Without Borders. It was his first assignment, and he was in Ingushetia, a Russian republic in the Caucasus. André woke up in the middle of the night to intruders, who kidnapped him and took him over the border into Chechnya.
"They kept him in a room where the door was locked. He couldn't see the light," says Delisle. "They would bring him food three times a day. He was completely subject to them." Worse still, André was handcuffed to a radiator. He couldn't even walk around. That isolation and desperation and complete lack of freedom are what Delisle wanted to capture.
"We don't see what's on the outside. We only see the experience that Christophe has been through. He thought he would be there for just a weekend. And then three days go by. And then a week. And then two weeks. And then you start thinking about months, and then you go crazy."
Delisle has always been fascinated with kidnapping stories. "I was always thinking, what would I do in a situation like that? This book is kind of an answer to that," he says. Delisle's goal: "I really wanted to have the reader feel the time go by, so you get into Christophe's head and really experience what it is to have no control over your life. That was the main subject of the book."
André, the hostage, eventually escaped. A number of years later, he sat down with Delisle and told his story. It took hours and much of André's memories were the small details. "There are lots of little moments that he described to me. A noise he would hear. There was some boy playing with a ball in the corridor and that drove him crazy."
Another time, his captors forgot to reattach him to the radiator. The door was still locked. "Even though he wasn't able to escape the room, for the first time he was able to touch the wall that he had been watching for weeks and weeks. He was describing that as a kind of a freedom moment inside a jail feeling."
Another trick André used was indulging his obsession with military history. Instead of thinking about his family, which made him sad, he went through the alphabet. For each letter, he thought of a famous battle fought by Napolean, or an American Civil War general. That coping strategy impressed cartoonist Delisle. "For me, someone who draws and writes comic books, it's interesting to see that you can survive with your own imagination."
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André managed to escape after four months of captivity. One night his captors forgot to lock the door. He returned home but avoided the media. Then in 2003, when Delisle approached him about his interest in telling his story through cartoons, André was open to it. Delisle says "Hostage," the book, has been especially helpful for André's family. "It's actually very nice because they've heard a lot of the story, but to see him and to almost feel physically what he experienced, was a relief for them, who of course had lived the experience with a lot of stress."
Eventually, André's captors asked Doctors Without Borders for a ransom of $1 million. André was incensed, and in his proof-of-life call with his employer — the first contact he had with them since his capture — André begs them not to give them one cent. "To say that after two months of captivity is truly heroic," says Delisle.
And the truly surprising end of the story is this: Just six months after he escaped, André showed up at Doctors Without Borders and asked for a new assignment. He stayed on with them for another 20 years.
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