An engineer in Nigeria, two tourists in Ethiopia, an aid worker in Pakistan: all are German nationals abducted abroad in January. The number of kidnappings have been rising steadily over the past years. A new trend?
Certain countries are particularly risky for Germans
Fate can be ironic sometimes, or maybe Jürgen Chrobog was just unlucky. The German diplomat and his family were abducted in Yemen in 2005, only six months after he went into retirement. For two years he had been in charge of the Foreign Ministry's crisis committee handling abduction cases of Germans. But now this professional hostage liberator had become a victim himself.
"We were traveling in two jeeps. Suddenly a pickup truck stopped in front of us and several other cars sped towards us from all directions. Armed men jumped out and starting firing rounds into the air," recounts Chrobog. But in the end the Chrobogs had a close shave - maybe because they had good contacts. The abductors were friendly and took good care of them, releasing them after just three days.
Liberation can take years
The German manager Cordes was held hostage for 605 days
Germans are repeatedly abducted abroad. Not all cases are resolved speedily - crisis committees and the public can be on tenterhooks for months. As early as the 1980s, the abduction of two German nationals in Lebanon was making headlines.
In January 1987, the Muslim militant group Hezbollah abducted Hoechst manager Rudolf Cordes and Siemens technician Alfred Schmidt, to secure the release of a Lebanese jailed in Germany - without success. The group eventually freed Schmidt in September but kept Cordes hostage for 605 days.
The ordeal of Heinrich Strübig and Thomas Kemptner lasted even longer. At the time of their abduction in 1989 they were working for an aid organization in Lebanon. They were not freed until 1992, returning to Germany after 1,127 days in captivity.
Hostage-takers and the media
In 2000, the German Wallert family was kidnapped together with other tourists during their Easter vacation in Malaysia. The rebel group Abu Sayyaf took them to the Philippines island of Jolo. This case stood out because the militants repeatedly invited the media to their jungle hideout to film the suffering hostages and interview the abductors. Following their release months later, the Wallerts - thanks to the media - had become one of Germany's best known families.
It was a similar affair with Susanne Osthoff, a German national abducted in Iraq. She was released in December 2005 after being held hostage for one month. Only weeks later two German engineers were also kidnapped in Iraq: René Bräunlich and Thomas Nitzschke were detained for 14 weeks. A year later, in February 2007, Hannelore Krause and her son Sinan were abducted in Baghdad. The mother was eventually released, but the son's fate remains unclear to this day, rendering this the longest hostage-taking of a German on record.
Abductions of Germans on the rise
Susanne Osthoff was in the hands of abductors for a month
Over the past years the number of abductions of German citizens abroad has increased. In the 1990s, only four major cases were recorded, but in 2007 there were at least five and 2008 saw seven kidnappings.
And this year, in January alone, three cases were registered: a German aid worker in Pakistan – together with an Italian colleague, a tourist group in Ethiopia and an engineer in Nigeria. It is difficult to determine exactly how many Germans are currently being held hostage around the globe.
Could it be that Germans are particularly careless? With Chrobog for instance critics argued that he of all people should have known better. But he rejected all accusations: there were no travel warnings by the Foreign Ministry, his wife – the daughter of the Egyptian writer Youssef Gohar – speaks Arabic and both the itinerary and route were planned by the local authorities. "Nobody could have expected abductions in Yemen – those days were over," Chrobog said shortly after his release. Currently the German Foreign Ministry has issued travel warnings for 19 destinations, including Nigeria, Syria and Iraq. But security experts say it is impossible to rule out kidnappings in other countries.
The reasons for abductions are manifold. In the Chrobog case the hostages were used as bargaining chips to resolve a tribal feud in Yemen. The captors of the Wallerts were primarily after money. The Lebanon kidnappings were about blackmailing the German government – the same applies to the cases in Iraq. With regards to Osthoff it was said that the German government wanted to terminate cooperation with the Iraqi authorities. The abductors of the Krauses wanted Germany to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.
'We won't be blackmailed'
Chrobog (right) and his family were lucky
Can, should or must a government yield to the demands of abductors? German Chancellor Angela Merkel had only just taken office when Osthoff was kidnapped in 2005. She made Germany's position very clear in her first major policy speech: "This government – and I also think this parliament - won't be blackmailed." As the abduction cases of German nationals began to rise, the then government spokesman Thomas Steg said in 2007: "Our position hasn't changed. Germany won't be blackmailed."
Or as Jürgen Chrobog put it, the German state rejects an "all-encompassing insurance." At the same time, the German government is obliged to protect human life and not simply abandon hostages to their fate. Germany allegedly pays ransoms of about two million euros per person either covertly or indirectly but without fulfilling any direct demands of the hostage takers. The US allegedly pays a similar ransom, the UK less. However, this has never been officially confirmed by any government.
Author: Monika Griebeler / nk
Editor: Nicole Goebel