Freed at last: the BBC's Alan Johnston

After 114 days as a hostage, Alan Johnston, the BBC’s Gaza correspondent, was yesterday freed to unanimous cheers around the world.

In a televised appearance, the 45-year-old reporter, who was beaten but not tortured, said his ordeal was the most “appalling” experience of his life.

At times, he said, it was like being “buried alive,” not knowing if he would be killed, nor how or when he would be freed.

In a press conference just hours after his release, Johnston looked to the sky and said he wanted to do everything all at once, like sit on a beach, eat food and dine with friends.

Speaking later to the BBC, he said he was “OK” but admitted it would take a while, and a return to “obscurity,” before he could really tell if he’d coped with the “terrifying” experience.

Emotionally, he told reporters that his “activities” as a BBC journalist in the disputed Palestinian territories had always concerned his parents.

But putting them through his abduction, which took place on March 12, 2007, and the negotiations that followed, had ‘torn him up’ during his first month in captivity in Gaza.

Yet offering him a flicker of hope during his 114 days held hostage by the Army of Islam was a small radio, which Johnston had almost throughout his ordeal.

He told reporters of a guard that allowed him to listen to the BBC World Service, allowing him to keep up with international efforts to negotiate his release.

Johnston said it was a “huge psychological boost” to have an “extraordinary level of support” from people he’d never met, at home and overseas, as well as from his BBC colleagues.

His parents said the friends their son had made with people on the ground in Gaza became their flicker of hope, during his 16-week disappearance, in which they never lost faith.

In a joint statement, they said: “Alan had always told us of the friends he'd made in Gaza. We knew, in the end, they would be there for him.”

And disclosures obtained by Channel 4 News confirm reports by media freedom groups that Johnston was released thanks, in part, by the militant group Hamas, the controlling party in the Gaza strip.

Their decision to exert pressure on the clan behind the Army of Islam by threatening force, and the destruction of the clan’s neighbourhood, if Johnston was not freed led to his release.

Last night, the BBC reported Gordon Brown promptly acknowledged the “crucial” role the group played in returning Alan Johnston to freedom.

Reflecting on his release, Johnston said it is “just unimaginably good to be free,” and later joked that he would try to “stay out of trouble” in the future. Getting kidnapped again would be too embarrassing, he mused.

He added: “I often dreamed I was free and woke up to find myself still in that room. I cannot get over being free. I am very grateful to everyone, an enormous number of people, who worked with the Palestinians, in the British government, the BBC, from the bottom to the top, and all the BBC’s listeners.”


5th July 2007

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