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The Forgotten Hostage

Another version of this story was published in J-Source on Jan. 11, 2011, and in The Tyee

By Claude Adams

In her final hostage video, in March 2009, Bev Giesbrecht of West Vancouver, her voice breaking, says this: “Either the Pakistani government or my own country, somebody’s got to move now, because my life is going to be over . . . Responsibility of this will be clearly on somebody’s shoulder. I’m pleading with you, please save my life.”

The terror is etched in her face. She clearly feared the worst from her Taliban captors—a grisly videotaped beheading. But that never happened. Instead, according to an Indian newspaper, Bev Giesbrecht died of a “prolonged illness” in October, 2010, while still a hostage. That’s 19 months after her video appeal, 19 months in which a Canadian citizen, working as a self-styled journalist, lingered in fear and illness in Taliban hands.

We couldn’t, or wouldn’t, save her. And the Canadian media paid only perfunctory attention to her plight. She was a Page 5 story, an after-thought. Giesbrecht got nowhere near the attention of two other Canadian women who were kidnapped by Islamic insurgents, Mellissa Fung and Amanda Lindhout, during this same period. Both were subsequently released.

Clearly, Giesbrecht was a complicated story, an anomaly. A woman who, in mid-life, suddenly converts to Islam, sells everything she owns, loses most of her friends, says nice things about the Taliban, and flies in the face of government policy. She calls herself a journalist, and ventures into one of the most dangerous places on earth—the tribal regions of Pakistan—looking for insurgents to film. Imagine that: a 95-pound middle-aged chain-smoking single woman, taking on the Taliban with nothing more than a camera, an attitude and quotations from the Koran!

She must have been crazy, or suicidal. At least, that’s what her critics were saying. “She made her Muslimah bed,” goes one Internet chat room comment. “Let her lie in it.” Vancouver journalist and author Terry Glavin was even harsher: “Batshit crazy play-acting,” he blogged.

But she wasn’t crazy, or play-acting. Her close friends, and people who worked with her in the field, say she was aggressive and opinionated and tireless, but perfectly sane—qualities that made her something of a phenomenon in B.C. publishing circles in the 1980s and 90s. As she described herself in her website: “I am not a ‘terrorist,’ a fanatic or mentally unbalanced. On the contrary, I am a level-headed, capable woman, a humanitarian and a contributing member of society.”

Her close friend, Glen Cooper, said she adopted Islam as a way of accessing a culture that she believed was misunderstood in the West. He says she wanted to help us to understand militant Islam better. A quixotic mission, maybe, and even foolhardy, but not without a certain nobility. “She was the bravest person I ever knew,” Cooper says.

Phil Rees, a British filmmaker who worked with her in Pakistan, told me Giesbrecht was “trying to give voice to people who she felt were not getting equal say in the swing of things. . . . She wanted to make films.” Her work appeared on Al-Jazeera, and Channel 4 in the UK. When she was captured, she was working on story she hinted would be a sensation in West.

But to the Pakistani government, according to journalists in Peshawar, she was seen as meddlesome Westerner-in-a-hijab consorting with the enemy, and they did little or nothing to help her.

How did this hostile attitude get in the way of Canadian efforts to secure her release? We don’t know, because Ottawa is saying nothing about her case, and neither is the RCMP, which was tasked with negotiating with her Taliban captors. Officially, they will maintain that silence until Giesbrecht’s death is confirmed. And, given the geography of where she was held, that could be a long time.

All we do know for sure is that Ottawa held firm to its uncompromising policy of not paying ransom money to kidnappers. Politically, that makes sense. But it’s a policy that needs to be examined from a humanitarian point of view: Maybe other concessions could have been offered, enough for the kidnappers to save face. Or why couldn’t some ransom money have been channeled quietly through private groups or individuals? (Lindhout was freed with private donations of $1 million.)

And there’s a good chance Giesbrecht could have been freed for far less than a million dollars. The Pakistani interpreter who was kidnapped with her (and released) said her captors were despairing of ever getting any money for her. She was ill, losing her sight, and becoming a burden. They were ready to let her go. A Pakistani-Canadian journalist who traveled to Peshawar told me that the word on the street was that a “few thousand dollars” would have been enough to secure her freedom.

Why didn’t this add some impetus to negotiations? Again, nobody will say. But it begs the question: how determined were the efforts to rescue an imperiled Canadian on foreign soil when that citizen was a vocal critic of government policy?

There is a slim chance that Giesbrecht may, in fact, still be alive. But if she’s not, simple compassion requires that she be mourned, and that we are given an explanation of why she could not be rescued.