On the night of July 1, 1997, Christophe Andre, a French administrator with Medicins Sans Frontieres was kidnapped in Ingushetia, Russia’s poorest federal republic and neighbour of the unruly Chechnya.
He had been on his mission for just three months, and it was his first night alone in the building.
It didn’t end well.
Master graphic novelist Guy Delisle has told Christophe’s story in his superb book Hostage, an absolute must for anyone who has ever wondered what it is like to be chained to a radiator for an indeterminate period.
Andre’s only saving grace is that it was summer. Had it not been, it would presumably have been like being handcuffed to a kettle.
This is what you need to know…
- You don’t know why you’re there
- You don’t know where you are
- You don’t know how long you are going to be there
- There’s nothing to do
- On the first night, unfamiliar with sleeping chained to a radiator, you pull a muscle
- Someone who you think is called Dzhambulat, but who you call Thenardier “after the crooked innkeeper in Les Miserables” brings you watery soup and tea each day, then takes you to the toilet. This becomes the pattern of your life.
- At some point you try and move the radiator (this a part of Christophe’s experience you can try at home).
- You have escape fantasies and wonder what other people are doing to locate you
- All you know for sure is the day and the date
- You think about how easy it looks to pick locks in the movies – if only you had …something, but they’ve taken your keys off you
- And you’re still locked in a room anyway, so there’s not much point
- Once, your captors come and do a shot of vodka with you
- “Being a hostage is worse than being in prison…. Whether it’s right or wrong, at least there’s a reason.” And “ you know when you’ll get out…you can count the days to your release”
- After ten days or so your confidence in what day it is starts to wobble
- Even though you do nothing all day, you’re sometimes very tired
- Even when you’re bursting for a piss, you pretend to be fine because you don’t want to let your captives know that you need their help
- Every Monday, you get your hopes up that you are going to be rescued because it’s the beginning of the week
- A tiny alteration to the menu – an omelette instead of watery soup – can briefly make you forget about your predicament
- After a month, you renew your attempts to escape from the cuffs but only succeed in tightening them a notch. You panic that you have cut off circulation to your hand
- “Some days seem to go by in slow motion…other days I get lost in my thoughts, and suddenly it’s already night.”
- One day you even fall asleep before they have recuffed you – but they still cuff you in your sleep
- You have to stop thinking about people you love – it’s too demoralising. So you think about the Battle of Austerlitz instead
- One night they forget to come and collect the dinner tray and lock you up. You walk around the room – “an ounce of freedom”
- Next morning, the cuffs go back on
- Two months in, one of your jailers brings you your keys and leaves them on the windowsill
- It’s not so easy to open handcuffs with another key after all
- Dark thoughts possess you, a “kind of rage” takes hold…”but the powerlessness of the situation puts a quick end to the outburst”
- They bring you a shirt – what does it mean? – probably just that the weather is getting cooler
- A piece of meat in your soup is a moment of bliss
- You tape a message for your captors to send to someone. They want a million dollars for your release
- One day in the bathroom, you notice the door has been left unlocked, and you escape, but they are waiting for you in the passageway, smirking. Cuffs on again
- You are moved to another location, and handcuffed to a bed. It is even less comfortable than a radiator, because your hand is above your head
- They lock you in a closet, but uncuffed – the first time in more than two months you’ve been uncuffed for more than half an hour
- You move again, and are cuffed to a ring in the ground
- One day you wake up and realise they have forgotten to cuff you – do you try and escape or sit tight and hope plans to negotiate your release are well advanced? It’s a huge dilemma….
You can find out what Christophe decided to do by ordering the book here.
For an excellent review of Hostage – “a psychologically rich look at one person’s horrific experience”, go here.
It includes the details that Delisle bought himself some handcuffs and took pictures of himself handcuffed to a radiator in his studio as “a good reference.”
In an extraordinary footnote regarding another of Delisle’s magnificent graphic novels, Pyongyang, on his Wikipedia page, “A film version of Pyongyang starring Steve Carell was cancelled in December 2014 after the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack.
Whatever could it mean?
Hostage is published in the UK by Jonathan Cape, £16.99.