‘It was hard rediscovering myself’: Judith Tebbutt on escaping Somali kidnappers – The Guardian

Freed 10 years ago after seven months held hostage, Tebbutt watched homecoming of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with joy and trepidation
Ten years ago on Monday, Judith Tebbutt walked onto a plane and out of the hands of the Somali pirates, kidnappers and murderers who had held her captive for almost seven months.
Her husband, David, had been shot dead by Tebbutt’s initial captors when they burst into the couple’s bedroom in their isolated, luxury holiday resort.
It was the dead of night and David, a finance director for the publishing house Faber & Faber, wrestled with one of the gunmen as they dragged Judith away: there were marks on his arms where he had attempted to fight them off. He was shot in the chest and died instantly. The couple had been together for more than three decades.
Over the next seven months, Judith, then aged 56, was passed from pirate band to pirate band.
She recalls the daily torture her captors subjected her to. She was starved – she weighed eight stone before her abduction and just five and a half afterwards – humiliated, and repeatedly subjected to mind games. One day her captors would tell her she was about to go home, that there was a plane waiting for her, and the next day that she was going to be murdered because the ransom money hadn’t arrived, or abandoned to die in the forest.
“This was every day,” she said. “When I was released, I was at the stage where I just didn’t know what to believe. When I finally got in the plane and it landed, I was met by government officials and I remember looking at this woman and trying to work out whether she was real. I actually said to her: ‘Are you real?’”
Tebbutt’s release was thanks to her 25-year-old son, Ollie, who, with the help of a private security firm, negotiated a ransom with the kidnappers. “He grew up overnight,” said Tebbutt, her pride, awe and sadness still evident a decade later.
Tebbutt watched the homecoming of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe last week with joy mixed with trepidation. “She’s got such a wonderful future ahead of her but she needs to take time,” she says.
“If I could go back 10 years, I would tell myself to just take it easy: don’t rush into things, don’t make any major decisions for at least six months. Tell your story to the people who you want to tell your story to because you need to tell your story but don’t feel pressurised by anyone.
“This is your life that you’ve got back, so you need to navigate and orchestrate how you want to to be and how you want to move forward because people do move forward,” she adds.
Moving forward, however, is hard work, she warns. “What’s happened has happened. You can’t go back. You can’t change the past,” she says. “You’ve just got to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
“That’s exactly what I did when I was in captivity: exercising my body in the dark holes they kept me in, and keeping my mind active too. And that’s what I’ve been doing the last 10 years, in a different way, and that’s what Nazanin and her family will do too, and gradually over time, the trauma and the pain of it will become manageable.”
Tebbutt said that although some might expect Zaghari-Radcliffe to slip back into normal life with relative ease, she knows from experiences that it is not that simple. “When you’re in captivity, you yearn for freedom but when I finally had my freedom, the future seemed really dark,” she says. “I didn’t know how I was going to get through it. But I did. I had my family and good people around me, but it was really hard work just rediscovering myself.”
Tebbutt said she couldn’t have recovered without Hostage International, a charity that provides a support network and to specialist care, free of charge, to those affected by kidnapping or arbitrary detention outside their home country.
Founded in 2004 by former hostage Terry Waite CBE and a group of former hostages and family members, the independent charity has supported more than 370 cases – around 30 each year.
“I spoke frequently to Nazanin online when she was under house arrest at her parents’ home,” said Waite. “I was astounded that I was able to – that’s never happened before in all my time helping hostages – but she and I were able to spend lots of time talking and I did what I could to help her stay strong and maintain hope.”
Tebbutt says that even with the help of Hostage International, it took her at least five years after her release to begin recovering. “Before that, I was constantly trying to pretend I was OK,” she says. “David and I had a great life together and great retirement planned out: our life was like a little jigsaw puzzle with the pieces all in the right place – and then someone came along and just threw the pieces everywhere. For years, it felt like I was looking for pieces of David.
“But I don’t need to look for those pieces any more,” she says, sitting straighter in her chair and shaking the hair out of her face. “I’m OK being me as a widow and me as a former hostage. It doesn’t define me any more. I’m just Jude. Moving forward, walking forward all the time.”