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Thursday, 5 July 2007

Freed BBC journalist: Captivity like being buried alive


NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Thursday, July 5th 2007

BY MATTHEW KALMAN
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

JERUSALEM - BBC reporter Alan Johnston stepped into the bright sunshine yesterday after being held captive in a darkened room for 114 days and proclaimed: "It is unimaginably good to be free."

Johnston, 45, was snatched from his car in broad daylight on a side street in Gaza City on March 12 and held by a radical Islamic group calling itself the Army of Islam.

He was released early yesterday after Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, threatened to storm the militant stronghold where he was being held and kill his captors.

The freed journalist told reporters he was kept in isolation, unable to see sunlight.

"It was the most appalling experience, on and on, like being buried alive, removed from life," said Johnston, looking pale and gaunt but otherwise in good health despite his nearly four-month ordeal.

He said it was "always frightening" and "occasionally quite terrifying."

"I just didn't know when it would end or how it would end," he said.

Johnston called his captors "dangerous and unpredictable," but said he developed a "surreal, 'Odd Couple'" relationship with one "extraordinarily moody guard."

"I dreamt many times of being free again and always woke up in that room.... The last 16 weeks have been the very worst of my life."

Johnston said the one silver lining during his captivity was that he had a radio and was able to listen to his BBC colleagues.

"How many kidnap victims are able to sit and listen to their friends giving them messages of support from around the world? I felt at one point as though all the journalists in the world were coming to the rescue," Johnston said.

The reporter said he owed his release to Hamas. "I'm pretty sure that if Hamas hadn't come in and turned the heat on, I'd still be in that room."

Immediately after his release, Johnston was hustled off to a meeting with former Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who briefly draped a Palestinian flag around the reporter's shoulders.

Israel and the rival Palestinian party Fatah called Johnston's release a stage-managed Hamas publicity stunt.

"They released Johnston without getting anything in return because they want to make a good impression on the world," said Israeli cabinet minister Gideon Ezra.

Fatah officials said Hamas had given the kidnappers cash and weapons for Johnston's release.

Johnston was expected to spend some time resting at the British Consulate in east Jerusalem before flying home to see his family.

In Scotland, his parents said they were "overjoyed" to get a phone call from their son.

"It's been 114 days of a living nightmare and just to hear his voice," said his father, Graham Johnston.

"All he said was: 'Hello, Dad' and I [said]: 'Hello, son, I hear you're all right.' He said: 'I'm a 100%.'"

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