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Kidnapped by the Taliban, Sean Langan kept sane by dreaming of kissing his sons goodnight

Kidnapped by the Taliban, Sean Langan kept sane by dreaming of kissing his sons goodnight

Author: Barbara Davies
Publication: Daily Mail
Date: June 27, 2008

For the moment, adrenaline is the only thing keeping Sean Langan going. A week ago, he was still in the hands of the Taliban, incarcerated in a tiny room in the tribal wilderness of the Pakistan mountains, unsure if he would be beheaded. 'I thought it would be a miracle if I got out of there alive,' says the award-winning war correspondent, who was freed last Sunday morning after three months in captivity.

Four days after finally returning home to London, into the loving arms of his family, he can hardly believe that miracle has happened.

The 43-year-old father-of-two has lost three stone and several teeth, his body has been weakened by dysentery and fever, his face is covered in a wild, greying beard, but Langan is excitable and fidgety, buzzing with joy that he is here at all.

When you are sitting there and death is at your door, everything else becomes meaningless,' he says. 'All I could think was how wonderful life is, and how I had never really appreciated it - and that now that I could, it was too late and it was all over.'
For now, he is trying to push the darkest moments of captivity to the back of his mind: the night-time visits from Taliban commanders, cloaked in black from head to foot, haunting moments when Langan thought he was seconds away from execution.

Or the time one of his smirking captors made him look at 'before' and 'after' photographs of a child suicide bomber - a boy of about the same age as Langan's sons, Luke, five, and four-year-old Gabriel.

Tormented by the fear that he would never again see his boys or his former wife, Anabel, Langan survived by retreating into an imaginary world.

'In my mind, I would be getting my boys out of bed in the morning. At night, I would bathe them. I'd wash their foreheads and their limbs and behind their ears and kiss them goodnight. I would try to will them to feel me and feel my love for them.

'I would say out loud "Daddy lives in your heart" and "Daddy is at your side" - but the one thing I couldn't bring myself to say is "I promise I will be home" because in my heart I didn't think I would be able to keep that promise. That was out of my hands.'

He speaks, too, of how proximity to death gave him an almost painful awareness of life. For weeks, his only window on the outside world was a tiny hole, the size of his fist, at the bottom of one wall of the room where he was held.

In his mind's eye, he can recall his microscopic view in perfect detail, the apricot on a tree which grew riper each day, the leaves on the branch, the raindrops on the leaves.

In the midst of the horror, he recalls the sound of a baby crying in the courtyard outside the small mountain home where he was imprisoned with his Afghan translator.

'It was such a wonderful sound,' he recalls. 'The most normal thing in the world.'

Mostly, he has been left humbled by his horrific kidnapping ordeal, and talks about death as if it were a visiting phantom, reminding him of what is important in his life.

'Death was at my door every night. It makes you see your life like never before,' he says. 'It shows you what you have done wrong and how to make it right. I no longer want to be known as a war correspondent; I want to be known as a father, a son and a brother.'

Langan travelled to Afghanistan in March to begin work on his third documentary about the Taliban for Channel 4. During his latest trip, he hoped to investigate long-circulating rumours that top-ranking Taliban leaders were hiding in remote tribal regions of Pakistan - an area from which foreigners are banned.

Langan, who has worked in Iraq, Zimbabwe and South America, is the first journalist ever to enter this remote area. His experience with the Taliban is unrivalled. Last year, his documentary, Fighting The Taliban, was nominated for a Bafta and won a Rory Peck broadcast journalism award.

Langan likens himself to Icarus, flying ever closer to the sun. This time round, he admits he got badly burnt. So remote was this trip that it was two months before Channel 4 or his family realised he'd been taken prisoner.

'When you get it right, you win awards; when you get it wrong, people say you were naive,' he says.

'I put myself in that position. I loved the excitement and adventure, and living life on the edge. But I always knew that if I got killed, people would say I was an idiot.'

Making contact with the Taliban was no easy feat. To get to the top, he had to go through middle men, whom he arrangedto meet in Torkham, a town on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan on the edge of the Khyber Pass.

These kind of negotiations were nothing new to Langan. When he was invited to join middle men on a ten-hour car journey into the snow-capped mountains of Pakistan, he didn't hesitate.

The night before he crossed the border, he wrote in his diary: 'Behind me is certainty: family, friends. Ahead lies the unknown, where death and kidnapping lurk.' He recalls now: 'I turned my back on certainty, knowing that I was putting my life at risk. As a father, I should never have done that.'

Langan was blindfolded for the ten-hour journey into the mountains, during which he swopped cars three times. 'It didn't seem strange that they were taking extra precautions because of where they were taking me,' he says.

Finally, Langan's blindfold was removed and he was shown into a small room in a mountain village house where he was given tea and bread and told he would be looked after until his translator arrived the following day.

That first night, March 28, he took a good look at the 9ft by 6ft room where - though he did not yet know it - he would be held for the next three months.

There were two narrow hard beds, blankets and a hole in the floor for a toilet. The only window was covered by a shawl pinned across it on the outside.The following morning, he was joined by his translator, and for the next three days the two men were told that everything was fine.

On the fourth day, a man Langan had never seen before walked into the room. 'He gave us presents: a radio, a shalwar kameez and some almonds. Then he spoke to my translator, who turned to me and said: "We've been kidnapped."

'I couldn't take it in at first. My emotions clamped down. I just kept thinking that I had to keep it together, to think about how we were going to get out of there. The adrenaline was pumping round my body.'

Langan and his translator were being held captive by a local tribal family, but a day later, the Taliban arrived to question them. He recalls the dark, sinister figures walking into the room.

'They said to my translator: "You are working for foreigners, so you are a spy." And they said to me: "You are a foreigner, so you are a spy." I thought we were dead for sure because the Taliban usually executes spies summarily.

'My translator was rocking backwards and forwards with his head in his hands. I was completely numb. All I could think was how to survive, how to get out of this. I knew my only chance was to try to bond with the guards somehow, but I knew that if I made my move at the wrong time, I'd be killed.'

The visits from the Taliban were weekly, and during the intervening days, Langan survived on strips of chewy meat, and tea and cigarettes brought to the room by guards. Soon he was suffering from dysentery and fever, and was covered in flea bites from head to foot.

Night fell at 3pm each day, and as he tried to sleep in freezing temperatures, rain leaked through the flimsy roof, soaking the blanket.

After the initial rush of adrenaline he experienced, he suffered a physical breakdown. 'I thought I was going to be killed,' he says. 'My body crashed and I slept a lot.

'Then, two of my teeth fell out and five others cracked. I wasn't getting any vitamins. I asked the guards for fruit or vegetables, and for cigarettes and antibiotics, and they brought them all to me.'

He started doing 100 press-ups every morning in a bid to keep up his strength, and he began keeping a diary as a way of expressing the vast emotions he beganto feel.

'I told my captors I was writing a film script,' he says. 'They were suspicious, but they couldn't understand English, so I knew I was safe.'

The radio he'd been given was a mixed blessing. At first, it was a lifeline to home. But after weeks passed and Langan heard nothing of his kidnapping on the radio, he began to despair.

'I reasoned that if I wasn't on the news, then no one was even looking for me. And yet, bizarrely, I never gave up.'

Mostly, he concentrated his efforts on wooing his guards. 'At first, they were very cold towards me, but gradually they became more friendly. I was rather a curiosity to them because I came from the West. I knew they were my best chance of staying alive.'

And yet, for the most part, Langan admits, he was sure he would die. 'I lay in fear of the sound of the door opening at night,' he says. 'My nerves were absolutely shredded.'

It was the not knowing that Langan found so hard to cope with. 'The door would be kicked in the middle of the night and they'd tell the translator that they were going to behead us,' he says. 'Or they'd say: "We know you're an innocent journalist, but we're going to kill you anyway as a warning to others never to come here." '

Internally, Langan was struggling to cope with the thought that he might never see his sons or his former wife, Anabel, again. The hardest day of all, he says, was Gabriel's fourth birthday.

'His Daddy should have been there that day,' he says.

'Afghanistan is five hours ahead, and I pictured him getting up that morning and being fussed over by everyone and going to bed at the end of the day wondering why his Daddy hadn't called him. That was painful.'

Each morning, Langan would get up at sunrise and pray while lying on his front, gazing out through the vent in the wall - his window on the world.

'I was praying: "Please save my life." Not for me, because your suffering ends with your life; but I was scared what it would do to my mother, my sons and Anabel.

'When death comes to your door every night, it changes you. I could see my life so clearly. I could instantly recall every detail, all my teachers from infant school onwards, the first time I met Anabel and what she was wearing and what we said, every argument I have ever had.

'I have looked into myself like never before. It was like a geographical survey of my soul. I tore myself apart.

'Facing death like that shows you all your past mistakes. I started thinking about the time I chose to stay on working in Iraq when Anabel was pregnant and I should have come home to be with her.

'You see how you can put your mistakes right, but the ultimate cruelty is that death says: "You won't get the chance to put them right. It's over now." '

Now, of course, he does have that chance.

The breakthrough came when, eight weeks into captivity, he persuaded the tribal family guarding him to make a phone call on his behalf.

They were given the number for the family of the translator and a carefully phrased message to pass on to Langan's family in London, which included the name of an Afghan journalist he believed would help.

In the end, it was this journalist who made contact with a top level Taliban commander a month ago and delicate negotiations to save Langan and his translator began. His family discovered he had been kidnapped only five weeks ago.

In those early days, Langan credits Alan Hayling, at film production company Renegade Films, with being instrumental in beginning negotiations for his release.

In the last fortnight, however, the negotiations became unbearably tense. At one stage, Langan was given a satellite phone and told to call Channel 4. He recalls: 'I couldn't get hold of anyone, and the Taliban commander laughed and said: "If you can't get through, we'll kill you." '

On another occasion he was allowed to make a call to his family. He called his older brother, David.

'We were both very controlled on the phone,' he says. 'He told me people were trying to get me out.'

Finally, at the end of last week, Langan and his translator were separated, and at 4am on Friday he was told he was being freed. Instead, he was taken to another mountain hideaway.

'They said that the negotiations had broken down and that I wasn't going home,' he says.

'It was pure mental torture. They put me in a room full of Taliban mullahs and three-year-old children who were watching a constant stream of Jihadi videos of people being beheaded and shot. It was sickening.'

Finally, after being moved once more, Langan was handed over to the Afghan journalist who had helped negotiate with his captors.

Langan cannot talk in detail about the events leading to his release. His translator was also freed, but is still at risk.

'All I can say is that people risked their lives to get me out of there, and I am utterly indebted to them,' he says.

Langan was driven to the British High Commission in Islamabad. He arrived back in Britain on Monday afternoon.

Waiting at Heathrow to meet him from the flight from Islamabad were his two sons and their mother Anabel, as well as his mother, Mina, his brother David and younger sister Natasha.

'They looked utterly haunted,' he says. 'I felt a whole wall of tears welling up, but I couldn't let them go in front of my sons.

'Just holding them in my arms and touching their skin after dreaming about it day in, day out, was unbelievable.'

He recalls how he tried to write a letter to his sons in his diary but kept putting down his pen.

'I didn't feel I had the right to tell them how sorry I was,' he says.

'When it's your life and you're single, you can do what you want. When it's two children, who didn't ask to be brought into the world, it's not fair.

'How could I write a letter saying how much I loved them when, if I was killed, they would grow up thinking: "If you loved me so much, why did you go?"

'I've finally realised I've been living an utterly selfish life. I love my family. I love Anabel and my two beautiful sons, and yet I turned my back on them for adventure. I have no right to put them through that again.

'I have had the most invaluable lesson of my life. I understand how fragile it is. Nothing matters more than family and friends. I've been given a second chance - and for now, that's all that matters.'

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