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Books

Comic book recounts aid worker's kidnapping in Chechnya

Freedom confronts us with difficult choices, says celebrated comic book artist and author Guy Delisle. His latest work, "Hostage," based on an aid worker's three-month ordeal in Chechnya, explores our will to survive.

In 1997, Christophe André left his regular office job to pursue a career at Doctors Without Borders (MSF). He was on his first mission in the Caucasus region when he was kidnapped by armed men and taken to an unknown destination. For three months, André was kept handcuffed in solitary confinement with little to survive on and almost no contact with the outside world.

He would later recount his story in the following words: "I spent the first three months of the mission sitting at my desk. And the next three lying down."

Close to 20 years later, award-winning cartoonist Guy Delisle recounts André's harrowing experience in "Hostage," an illuminating book about the deepest, darkest abyss of the human condition.  

DW: I was not able to find any detailed reports or articles about Christophe André's experience. How did you come across his story?

Guy Delisle: I first read Christophe André's story in a newspaper. At the time, there were a lot of stories about kidnappings and most of the stories painted a rather bleak picture of what happened when a survivor returned. For most survivors, the experience of captivity was mentally damaging, and apparently, they found it very difficult to return to a normal life.

Guy Delisle Olivier Roller, courtesy of Reprodukt)

Canadian comic artist Guy Delisle is best known for his travel works: "Shenzhen" (2000), "Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea" (2003), "Burma Chronicles" (2007), and "Jerusalem" (2011)

I was very moved by this aspect of such tragedies - how they follow us in our lives.

I mentioned Christophe's experience in "Schenzen," my first comic book. One day, I was visiting a friend who works for MSF and she told me Christophe was in the office. He joined us for lunch, and I was so curious about his experiences because there had only been a short article about it. When Christophe returned, he felt like he didn't owe anything to the press, he just wanted to go home and gain some weight again. He said he felt like a footballer who scored a last-minute goal and won the game. Six months later, he knocked on the MSF door again and asked for his next mission.

I thought he might not want to talk about his experiences, but he was very open about it, and I was fairly surprised when he agreed to do a book.

What inspired you to do a book about his experiences?

Well, I had access to him and he could provide details - that started everything. I have been fascinated by how one survives without freedom, without the freedom to take any decision. When you're kidnapped, time goes by slowly, and you don't know how long you're going to be in that situation.

Christophe thought his kidnapping would last a weekend, and then it was a week, and then weeks. I try to imagine that, and I think I would have gone nuts.

Christophe told me he had to rely on his imagination to survive. In the mornings, he would try not to think about his family because that made him feel depressed, so he would think of some historic battle that he knew by heart. I thought it would be interesting to illustrate that.

We wanted the book to be an immersive experience for the reader. I wanted to enter Christophe's mind and, and to the best of my ability, recreate what he went through. I guess I wanted to know what I would have done or felt if I had been in his situation.

This book is a departure from your familiar and funny travelogues. It addresses far more serious and intimate issues. How did you adapt your style to make it more suitable for this book?

Yes, the style was imposed by the story. The premise of "Pyongyang" and other travelogues is that I go around the streets of a hard-to-get-to country and try to make sense of what's going on.

Most of the humor emanated from me trying to understand cultural differences. There was no humor here. My drawings became a bit more serious and realistic. It was the same with the color - I wanted to keep it simple and minimalistic.

Everything had to be fragile, to represent how he was feeling.

It also communicates a sense of uncertainty, claustrophobia and emptiness.

The book is 400 pages or so, and most of it is set in one room. I tried to mention all the details that communicate the uncertainty and claustrophobia he felt. I talk about how he was held in the house of a family. He doesn't know this, but his keepers start to be friendly with him. They come in, they offer cigarettes - they are not bad people, necessarily. They are just paid to feed this guy. He thinks he might walk free soon, but he doesn't.

Then he hears this noise in the house. There is a kid playing football in the corridor, and it drives him nuts because it makes a lot of noise and he doesn't know what the sound is.

From what I gather, the accomplices of kidnappers often happen to be ordinary people, who are implicated in these horrible crimes for reasons other than ideology, such as kinship networks, lack of protection, etc. Is that right?

Yes, people often don't have a choice. Especially in Chechnya, there are a few clans and families and you are bound by their code. When André escaped, he was taken in by a family.

Fortunately, they were part of a different clan. When he told them he was kidnapped, they tried to help him. They knew helping him could result in a lot of trouble for them, and sadly, that is what happened. They were threatened, and they had to flee. One of them took a bullet for helping André.

They now live as refugees in France. And of course, MSF and André did whatever they could to help their application and resettlement.

How did André escape?

His kidnappers got lazy. Sometimes, they would forget to bring him food - which wasn't very nice. But sometimes, they would forget to handcuff him - which he was glad about. This one time, he got to sleep with his hands behind his head, and got to touch the wall which he had spent so much time staring at.

After three months of captivity, he was moved to a different room. He had grown tired and weak, so he was sleeping a lot during the day. Usually, the guards would unchain him so he could eat, and then they would chain him again afterwards.

He knew the door to the room did not have a lock. This one time, he went back to bed with the blanket on top of him, and the guards forgot to chain him again.

He woke up at around 4:00 pm, and waited until sunset. He spent two hours wondering: Should I do it, should I not, will they catch me, will they kill me, what will happen next? He didn't even know he was in Chechnya.

In the end, he realized that if he didn't do it, he would regret it for the rest of his life. So, he opened the door and left.

The story deals with broader questions about freedom and what it means to us. Was there a point in the story that resonated with you in terms of how you think about freedom?

Yes, when I was listening to André talk about the dilemma of opening the door and making his escape, I thought it was really about deciding whether he was willing to take a risk and win back his freedom. He was confronted by a choice: Do I open the door, or not? And that really struck me: Freedom confronts us with difficult choices.

It is good to be reminded of that, because we often take our freedoms for granted.

Were there any other moments where he was confronted by such choices, but chose not to take the leap?

There was a moment when someone was cooking and André realized that this guy's gun was nearer to André, and he thought maybe he could jump and grab it. He had six seconds to evaluate everything, and once again a million thoughts ran through his head: I don't know how to use a Kalashnikov. Could I shoot it? Could I kill a man? Then the guy comes back from the kitchen and he notices the situation. And he pauses to see what André would do, but André knew the moment had passed.

The hardest part of that is afterwards, because you have to convince yourself that you made the right choice.

"Hostage" will be released in late April 2017 by Drawn and Quarterly.

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