Hostage International: Behind the Scenes

Ben Cooper & Lara Symons   •   January, 2019

Lara it’s great to see you again. For those that aren’t familiar with it, tell us a bit about Hostage International? 

Thanks, Ben, good to see you too. Well, as you know, Hostage International (originally Hostage UK) was co-founded by Terry Waite CBE and Carlo Laurenzi OBE in 2004. Terry had of course himself been held hostage for nearly five years in Beirut from 1987 to 1991 and after his release he had been approached by a number of families going through a kidnap and recognised the demand for support. Together with a few others, he had been assisting families of hostages for a couple of years already and he and Carlo realised that there was a real gap in provision here. They noticed that during a kidnap, everyone was focussed on the negotiations or efforts to get the hostage released, but no one was focussing on what the family were going through during this time or indeed afterwards when the hostage returned. The assumption was that in getting the release right, everything else would fall into place. Well, that just isn’t the case. So Hostage International was set up to help with all the other issues that families have to deal with, including just coping with the day-to-day fears and anxiety and the lack of information as well as practical issues like insurance renewals in the absence of the hostage policy-holder, financial difficulties or legal problems.

Okay, so Hostage International help with the emotional and practical issues but are not in any way involved with the negotiation or operational response to a kidnap situation?

That’s right, Hostage International plays no role in the resolution of a kidnap. That task is left to others who specialise in the operational response. Our role is to be an independent and free source of support to families who need someone to speak to on an open-ended, confidential basis, someone who is there only for them and who does not act on behalf of any other stakeholder, be it government, law enforcement, employers, kidnap response consultants or insurers. We provide families with a dedicated volunteer caseworker who understands what families go through in a kidnap and can be a non-judgmental listener and sounding board. We can also help families access pro bono professional support including legal, financial, medical and mental health.

What about support to the family after the kidnap, do you help there or only during the kidnap? And what about the hostage?

We help families at whatever stage they need us and for as long as they need us. That often means that we are providing them with support long after the kidnap has been resolved. We very quickly realised that release following a kidnap doesn’t usually result in a ‘happily ever after’. It is a process of re-adjustment to a new reality, which can often be fraught with difficulties for both the family and the released hostage. We offer support to both the family and separately to returning hostages to help them get through this difficult period as it is a time when most other support they have been receiving falls away. Where hostages are concerned, their period of recovery can be very long and is not necessarily correlated with the time in captivity. Also, they may not need support immediately after release, but may come to us some months or even years later. So yes, a lot of our support is in the post-release phase.

So who does get involved with the operational response to a kidnap? That is where your career started, wasn’t it? 

I spent many years working for the business risk consultancy, Control Risks, as part of the Crisis Response management team there. And yes, they are one of a number of consultancies that advise on the resolution of kidnaps, primarily around negotiations. These consultancies might advise the family directly or the hostage’s employers, often through an insurance arrangement. Whatever the case, if the hostage was employed at the time of the kidnap, their employers will likely be at the centre of the response. Depending on where the kidnap occurs, law enforcement and government, both local to the kidnap and back home, may also be involved. Hostage International works alongside these other stakeholders, but stays clear of getting involved in any discussions around ransom negotiations. We will help families prepare for meetings where operational details might be discussed, but we do not advise on these matters.

And do you only assist UK families and hostages or is your remit wider than that?

We have always been open to assisting families and released hostages wherever they are based, if we feel we can. This means that a portion of our casework year on year is non-UK based. We have assisted families in other European countries and in Australia, Canada, South Africa and in the Middle East. The fact that we were assisting American families in the period 2013 to 2015 ultimately led us to co-found a sister charity, Hostage US, in 2016. In order to reflect our international remit, we recently changed our official name from Hostage UK to Hostage International, though we still use Hostage UK as a working name in the UK.

What sort of people work for Hostage International and what does your caseload look like?

Hostage International is actually a very small charity. We have only two full-time employees, but a board of 12 impressive and well-connected trustees and 14 volunteer caseworkers (ten in the UK and four based elsewhere in Europe) who either have a personal experience of kidnapping or a relevant background in law enforcement, government or crisis management. We handle on average between eight and ten live cases at any given time, some of which we have been involved with over a number of years.

I recently re-read ‘Bravo Two Zero’ and because he was mentioned a great deal immediately read Gordon Turnbull’s ‘Trauma: From Lockerbie to 7/7’. Tell us about the kind of work Gordon and his peers do for Hostage International?

Gordon Turnbull is one of a number of professionals on our mental health panel. This panel is there to advise Hostage International staff and caseworkers on mental health issues generally, but also to provide advice directly in relation to certain cases or beneficiaries. Unsurprisingly, the mental health of both families and hostages is often adversely affected during and after a kidnap and we are acutely aware of the need to help our beneficiaries to identify their options for mental health care. Every case is different and it is impossible to know how a given individual will be affected by a kidnap. Experience earlier in life or their state of mind prior to the kidnap can affect how they cope and what the long-term impact will be. Hostage International recognises that this requires professional assessment.

Your experience in this area is vast, what do corporates usually get wrong or fail to excel in when it comes to the immediate and the long term response to a kidnap? 

Corporates and NGOs both have a duty as employers to ensure they do whatever they can to bring about the safe release of their kidnapped employees. Many of them do a good job of this and have well-developed crisis management plans around the operational response, but the area which seems to cause the most consternation is liaison with the family of the employee. I have heard some corporates talk about ‘managing the family’ and I think if you start off with that approach, you are bound to face problems. The employee’s family should not be regarded as a nuisance, but as an essential player – they can provide important information about the employee and sometimes play a role in negotiations, but they also need to be kept informed and to receive support. It is a two-way process that works best when the liaison is regular and honest. And in the longer-term, when the employee is released, employers have a mixed record in terms of the support they provide and the help they give to their employee in getting back to work. This is never an easy task, but if the employer has developed a good and supportive rapport with the hostage’s family during the kidnap, this can help them to identify the needs of their employee and how best to support them when they return.

We tend to think of journalists, NGOs, resources industries and the military when it comes to kidnap. Is this a misconception or do these four groups really make up the vast majority of the cases you work with?

Well, if we are talking about the hostages themselves, and given our cases involve people taken hostage outside of their home country, then yes, these four sectors feature regularly, but in a number of our cases the hostages have been abducted whilst in a country as tourists, visiting relatives or on personal business. And then it is often the hostages’ families we are supporting, and they come from all walks of life. And whether the hostage has an employer or not, our support to the family does not necessarily differ; in each case we simply respond to what that particular family needs from us.

Whats the best book you’ve ever read on the subject? 

Haha, well I have to be biased here and say it’s Taken on Trust, by Terry Waite. His book is full of amazing anecdotes about his life more generally, but also reveals the ability of humans to gain inner strength in times of tremendous adversity. The other book I would recommend is Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling. It is the only book on the hostage experience that has taken me uncomfortably close to having an inkling of the mental challenges that captivity creates. It is dark, but also full of hope and humour.

Lara it’s been a pleasure, I hope to see as many of the Hostage International Team as possible at Borderless 2019 next year. 

Lara Symons is the Director of Hostage International, a registered charity (no. 1161072) which assists the families of hostages and returning hostages and which provides training in best practice in family support and hostage reintegration.