TEN years ago my husband Paul and I were released from captivity in Somalia. After 13 months held hostage by a gang of armed thugs, isolated and fearing for our lives, our return to the civilised world was a second chance in life. We had learned a lot, overcoming deep despair, above all never giving up hope of returning to a land of freedom and democracy. All we wanted was to get back to being normal again. Forget the champagne and caviar. Most of all we enjoyed seeing normal people doing everyday things, meeting our friends and family, making plans, agreeing, arguing, laughing, crying – and not living at the wrong end of a loaded AK47 carried by a nervous youngster. Sound familiar (apart from the last bit)?
Seven months ago when the borders started closing around the world it felt a bit like déjà vu. We were on our small sailing boat in the Caribbean and it was a shock to find ourselves turned away from our usual safe haven in Trinidad. Fortunately we were allowed to enter the Grenadines as a temporary measure. Many other foreign cruising couples and families were in the same position, quarantined on their boats. We settled down into ‘hostage’ mode, thinking the end would soon be in sight. Most fellow stranded cruisers were cautious and calm, but a significant minority were twitchy and hysterical, suffering from a (recognisable to us) shock and disbelief at having all their plans disrupted – and also a chilling authoritarian streak, chastising anyone who didn’t believe we were all going to die unless we followed the ‘new normal’ to the letter.
We were lucky. Our temporary stay in the Grenadines lasted two months, where we were treated with tolerance and kindness by the people of Union Island. We had access to the internet so we could keep in touch with the world and watch, with increasing concern, as events unfolded in the UK and Europe. We were appalled by the horror show and narrow focus of the mainstream media coverage so sought out alternative sources, becoming avid readers of Lockdown Sceptics and followers of Ivor Cummins’s analysis. We were shocked by the sharp rise and quantity of deaths in April. But the NHS was coping and the death toll diminishing so surely we’d soon return to normal?
Many of our friends and family were shielding and understandably fearful of returning to normal life, but it broke my heart to hear them blaming those who choose to live normally, muttering darkly about ‘selfish people’. Why would they not accept that the spread of Covid amongst healthy people is the normal course of events? Why could they not see the damage lockdown was doing? The pollsters painted the same picture of myopia and fear across the country. How had this happened?
Alarm bells were ringing when we saw reports of how the continuing lockdown was being enforced and the extent of the coercive measures and policing. I wanted to believe that this was a temporary aberration but the hardening of ministers’ statements and threats to bring in the Army made me realise we had turned a dark corner. One of the most chilling revelations was the publication of Sage advice to use the media to ramp up the fear. The introduction of mask-wearing when the pandemic was over was just another brick in the wall.
Eventually we managed to leave our boat in a safe (from hurricanes) place and returned to the UK in August. We had been warned but the reality hit hard. We’d already had some experience of excessive mask-wearing and anti-social distancing measures but what little hope we had for signs of normality was soon dashed.
Going back to our experience in Somalia: we were the property of a gang led by Buggas, a cunning bully whose power depends on how much money he can raise. At the time of our kidnap the gang were a mixed bunch, some hardened veterans of Black Hawk Down, others less experienced and seeking their fortune. We were their prize and had to be kept alive for a ransom. From the beginning Buggas convinced the gang we were worth millions. His advisers – occasional visitors called the ‘translators’ – forecast huge sums. As the months wore on Buggas struggled to keep the gang under control. Some left to join other gangs, others had doubts but they had invested a lot of time in us and were reluctant to give up.
For our part, after our initial shock and anger, we settled down into reluctant acceptance of our plight though always hoping the SAS would come storming over the horizon. We were ill-informed as our only contact with the outside world was when we were briefly given a mobile phone and told to beg for money. We tried to communicate to the gang that we were not worth much but the catch-22 was it would be more dangerous if they believed us! Our health was a double-edged sword: scare stories were sent to our family to hasten the payout but equally they knew we were worthless if dead.
What are the parallels with today? Why has the UK evolved into a dystopian police state where the willing public ask for more restrictions without any thought for the consequences? I realise now that most of my generation, including myself, have become complacent and too trusting of our institutions. Apathy rules.
For me Boris has become Buggas, our captor and intimidator. Ministers are the gang members, too caught up in the narrative to see the writing on the wall. Witless and Unbalanced are the ‘translators’, unaccountable snake-oil salesmen working behind the scenes for their cut. We, the people, are the hostages, cowering and wondering how it will end. In the meantime our society and economy suffers irreparably.
How will it end? Eventually our captors gave up and accepted a much lower payout with Buggas losing a lot of face. We were alive but had lost 13 months of life. Our family and friends suffered enormously, not just financially but in myriad ways, including a toll on their mental health. I can’t speak for them but the good news is that we emerged stronger, determined to support democratic values and freedom of speech in whatever way we can.
Paul Chandler wrote of his experiences, ‘Captivity in Somalia Was Easier Than Lockdown’ in yesterday’s Lockdown Sceptics.