Journalists return to France after 18 months in captivity
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Hervé Ghesquière and Stéphane Taponier have arrived back on French soil after 18 months captivity in Afghanistan. The pair were greeted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the First Lady.
Hervé Ghesquière and Stéphane Taponier knew that freedom was coming when the Taliban showed them a set of spotless white robes and told them to put them on.
“They had always told us that when we were released we would be given immaculate white clothes,” an emotional Ghesquière told reporters at the Villacoublay military airbase near Versailles, south west of Paris, where the pair were reunited with their families on Thursday.
Taponier, a cameraman, and reporter Ghesquière for state TV channel France 3, were captured in late 2009 while filming in the mountains of Kapisa, an unstable region east of the Afghan capital Kabul.
Their interpreter Reza Din was released on Wednesday along with the two Frenchmen. Two other Afghans, a fixer and a driver, had been released previously.
Harsh mountain conditions
Addressing the press shortly after being greeted by French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Ghesquière and Taponier described their 18-month ordeal.
Both said they were in good health and happy to be home, despite being locked up for more than 23 hours a day for 18 months.
The biggest threat to their health had been boredom - which they dealt with through physical exercise “to reduce stress”, talking with their captors and by listening to the radio.
The pair reported that they had not beaten or mistreated, although the harsh mountain conditions did take their toll. The food – typical Afghan mountain fare – was barely adequate.
But perhaps the most difficult aspect was their separation from each other – Ghesquière said that he spent eight months of his confinement entirely alone.
They were reunited for the final five months of their ordeal. Together they were able to keep each other’s spirits up in an environment where neither had a clue when, or if, they would be released.
“We knew that there would be a happy ending,” said Taponier.
‘An explosion of joy’
The news of Taponier and Ghesquière’s imminent return broke on Wednesday as supporters gathered in central Paris to mark their 18 months in captivity and to call for the hostages’ release.
Toward the end of the rally, as people were dispersing, senior editors at France 3 told the crowd that French President Nicolas Sarkozy had called the captives’ families to say that they were coming home.
“There was an explosion of joy,” reported FRANCE 24’s Mathieu Mabin from the scene.
Since their capture, posters of the two men have adorned public buildings across Paris, as well as in the two men’s hometowns of Bordeaux and Nantes.
Key anniversaries in their detention were marked with rallies and concerts in a bid to maintain awareness of their plight and to pressure the government into securing their release.
Ghesquière and Taponier’s 18-month captivity was the longest period of detention of a French journalist in the field since the Lebanese Civil War during the late 1980’s.
News of their release is being given blanket coverage by French networks – but this was not the case in the immediate aftermath of their capture.
For a mixture of political reasons and concerns for their safety, a media blackout was imposed in the first months of their captivity.
State-owned France 3, the journalist’s employers, took three months to release their names, while the French government’s initial response was to criticise the irresponsibility of journalists taking risks for “scoops”.
It wasn’t until the captors released a video of the two men calling for Taliban fighters to be released from Afghan and coalition custody were made public that the government softened its tone and supported calls across the media for their release.
‘No ransom paid’
Earlier in 2011, Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who has since been killed by a US mission in central Pakistan, warned France that the release of the two men would depend on France withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
Sarkozy announced last week that French troops would begin to withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of the year in line with planned US pullouts announced by US President Barack Obama.
It is unlikely that the details of any negotiation between the Taliban and the French government will be divulged, but French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé insisted that France “does not pay ransom” for hostages.