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Freed Sahara Hostage: "Life Will Return To Normal"

Kidnappers held Reto Walther and 13 other tourists hostage for over five months in the Sahara Desert until late August. In an exclusive interview with Deutsche Welle, Walther recalled his ordeal.

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Looking forward to everyday life: released Sahara hostage Reto Walther

Reto Walther was one of 13 tourists freed by their captors in Mali after nearly six months on August 19. Since the group -- including nine Germans, four Swiss and one Dutch national -- returned home, politicians in Germany have discussed the possibility of requiring the hostages to help foot the bill for the efforts to release them.

A total of 32 European vacationers were seized in separate incidents in February and March this year in southern Algeria, where they were traveling. Algerian commandos managed to free 17 of the hostages in May by killing their kidnappers, who belonged to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat Islamist extremist group. One of the hostages, a 46-year-old German woman, died of heatstroke on June 28.

In an interview with Deutsche Welle, 31-year-old Walther discussed his experience as a hostage.

Mr. Walther, how are you faring after the long period in captivity?

I'm quite surprised myself. I'm actually doing well. I'm healthy. I'm also happy to be home. I've still got an adrenaline high. I'm happy to be together with my wife and that keeps me full of energy.

Do you plan to seek professional help after this ordeal? You were part of the group that had to bury Michaela Spitzer in the middle of the night after she died of heatstroke, and you yourself held the eulogy. How are you dealing with the trauma?

I actually feel relatively strong, perhaps too strong for some people. But I've also been persuaded to get professional help. I'm looking for the right place. In any case, I will want to address this problem with professional help.

Mr. Walther, on March 19 the kidnappers gave you a radio and you were able to follow the progress of efforts for your release. Did this umbilical cord -- if you'll permit the expression -- help or did it intensify the feeling of powerlessness? You heard about search parties that may have been nearby, but you couldn't contact them.

That's right. Of course, it was a very, very difficult situation for the whole group. I can remember one evening where we heard that people were asking whether we had just got lost in the desert or whether we were the victims of a crime. And I also remember that the mood was very, very low that evening. Then later, when the radio -- Deutsche Welle -- reported that search parties were en route, that people were looking for us from the air, the mood naturally improved and expectations increased as well.

We were all very happy about the radio. That's how we heard about the war in Iraq and then also about the other group that had been kidnapped that was later freed. We heard that too. We were happy for them, but we were disappointed that the other group was freed and not us.

We only considered two radio broadcasters reliable, not just us hostages but also our kidnappers. Those were Deutsche Welle and I think a Moroccan or French broadcaster that aired in French. But we were always happy that we could receive Deutsche Welle at all because it broadcast really objective, good news. Hats off, really.

Did the kidnappers tell you why they took away the radio after three months?

They didn't give a reason. The order came from the group's highest leader. I think it was due to reasons of security.

There has been much speculation about the kidnappers motives. They were split into two groups -- the radicals and then there were those who slipped you food sometimes, who also apologized to you for the kidnapping. To what extent did you see the kidnapping as being political -- or was the main objective ransom money?

That's a difficult question that I can't really answer. My feeling says it is a politically motivated group that presumably just wanted money to buy something to be more mobile again with the help of this crime. I think ultimately we weren't a political motive. But that's an assumption and not really well-founded.

What will you do next? Will you start to work again soon? Will you travel to the Sahara again?

I won't travel to the Sahara for two reasons. For one, it's too unsafe there for me and secondly, my wife in pregnant. I didn't know that for a long time during the kidnapping. We are expecting our first child in November, and I will have an entirely new role as a father, which I'm very happy about. Life will return to normal. I will be able to work again next week, I hope. I think it's important for me to get back into everyday, regular life.

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