“These men cared nothing about what we thought. I know that there was not one of them in that unit who, if given the command, would not have immediately beheaded us.”
Former Special Envoy of the UN, Robert Fowler, kidnapped in December, 2008, in Niger, by an affiliate of al-Qaeda, was the guest of the Canadian Club of Morrisburg and District, on Wednesday, October 17, 2012. A large crowd was on hand.
The former diplomat was Canada’s longest-serving Am-bassador to the United Nations. He acted as foreign policy advisor to three prime ministers and, in 2011, was named Officer of the Order of Canada.
At the time of his abduction, Fowler was posted to Niger as a Special Envoy to Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. His task, in the increasingly unstable, desperately poor nation of 18 million, was to try and find a diplomatic resolution to the “low-grade” rebellion of the Taureg people. During three trips into the Taureg territory, he and his colleague, Louis Guay, had convinced the rebels to agree to sit down. What they could not move was the government of then president Mamadou Tandja.
Fowler now believes that Tandja harboured private ambitions to continue to rule Niger, depending on an ongoing state of “civil unrest.” It is Fowler’s stated contention that the president “arranged to send our itinerary to al-Qaeda so that these people could come after us.”
They were ambushed by men armed with Kalashnikovs on a highway well inside the capital region of Niger.
This was the start of a terrifying off-road journey into the desert as the kidnappers fled back to their desolate campsite, ironically nicknamed Camp Canada.
“The commander of our kidnappers, called Omar One by Louis and me, demanded our papers (probably to be sure they had got the right men). Louis produced his passport, but I had absolutely no papers on me. Omar furiously exclaimed that it was illegal to travel in Niger without documents,” Fowler told the audience sardonically.
Every day, the captives lived with the very real fear of being beheaded on camera. Hauled into a tent on two occasions to make videos, Fowler quietly recalled looking around “for plastic. The kidnappers don’t want blood getting on their few possessions.”
The gang ranged in size. But there were never fewer than three rifles aimed at the hostages.
“These were fundamentalists of the most extreme kind. Omar often told us, “We fight to die. You fight to go home to your families. How can we lose?” They were kidnappers and killers, but utterly dedicated to their cause. They absolutely believed in Jihad, absolutely believed that the moment they died, they would sit in paradise by rivers of milk and honey,” Fowler said.
“They exist in a 7th century bubble, but are festooned with 21st century cell phones and weapons. They hate democracy, liberty, freedom.
And any Muslim who espouses a view contrary to theirs is an apostate and should be assassinated.”
Sweltering in 52 degree Celcius heat, deprived of even basic resources, Fowler and Guay struggled to keep up each other’s spirits. They had no idea if anyone was even looking for them.
Fowler later learned that president Blaise Campaoré of Burkina Faso, through his envoy Mustapha Chaffi, had agreed to take on the complex negotiations for their release. (“Ironic,” Fowler commented, “as I had, the year before, called Campaoré an ‘international criminal.’”). Also stepping in to help was Baba Ould Cheikh, envoy of Mali’s president Touré: Cheikh made 11 perilous journeys into the rebel region on behalf of the Canadians.
“The government of Canada swears it did not pay any ransom for us,” Fowler said. “But al-Qaeda does not carry out humanitarian acts, such as releasing hostages. I truly do not know what was paid for us or to whom. Apparently it was ‘enough.’ In a way, I do not want to ever know.”
Finally turned over to the “good guys” after 138 days of captivity, Fowler said that he took five showers and still felt sandy. He also drank three cokes. “But I knew I was truly free when I asked for a beer, in a Moslem country, and eventually someone produced a room temperature LaBatts 50.”
Fowler, who is now with the University of Ottawa, was a riveting and thoughtful speaker. His address obviously struck a strong chord with the audience.
He was asked, at the end, how he and Louis Guay, stayed sane.
“We had these rules,” Fowler explained quietly. “No “what ifs.” No talking about bad stuff after lunch. And, if one of us fell into despair, the other was to haul him out of that pit.”