Held in solitary confinement, handcuffed, hooded and threatened with death, Alan Johnston spoke on Wednesday about his “frightening” ordeal in Gaza, saying it was like being buried alive.Deathly pale, but outwardly relaxed despite having lost a considerable amount of weight during his four months in captivity, the BBC journalist was asked, after crossing into Israel, about his worst moment.
“They talked about killing me and torturing me. I didn’t know if I had to believe them… (at one point) they handcuffed me and put a hood and took me out in the middle of the night,” he told a second news conference.
The reporter, who marked his 45th birthday in captivity, said he felt his life had hung in the balance during the ordeal but that he took inspiration from messages from other former Middle East hostages and never lost hope.
“If Hamas were to storm the hideout, I didn’t know how they were going to react. I wondered if they might use me as some kind of human shield.
“I thought there was a chance that they really might kill me.Â That they wouldn’t let Hamas get what they had come for. It was a kind of 50-50 thing, you had to brace yourself for the worst,” he said. “Instinctively anybody in that situation knows there’s absolutely no sense in giving up hope. You’ve got to believe that somehow, some day, some way its going to end, that you’re not going to grow old there,” he said.
The Briton, who was snatched on March 12 in Gaza City, described his captors as a “small jihadi group” with an anti-British agenda who had knocked him about and hit him in the last 30 minutes before releasing him to Hamas.
“They had a jihadi agenda, not so interested in Israel, Palestine. They were interested in getting a knife into Britain in some way,” he added. Johnston said he was moved between four hideouts and spent a long phase under a “quite relaxed” regime with access to a bathroom and little kitchen.
“They did threaten my life really a number of times in various ways… They chained up hands and ankles, but that only lasted for 24 hours… basically it was really grim.
“The last 16 weeks of course just the very worst you can imagine of my life. It was like being buried alive really, removed from the world and occasionally terrifying,” he said. “You were in the hands of people who were dangerous and unpredictable. And always frightening in that you didn’t know when it might end,” he said, expressing his “unimagineable relief” in getting out in one piece.
“I literally dreamt of being free again and always woke up in that room. It’s almost hard to believe that I’m not going to wake up in a minute in that room again,” he said.
Gazan food made him ill, but Johnston said his captors had treated him well, giving him very simple food such as cheese, eggs and potatoes.
“I had one lucky break in that I got hold of the radio and was able to listen to the BBC after the first two weeks onwards. I was able to see just how much extraordinary support was coming for me from around the world.” Johnston, a highly respected journalist who had been based in Gaza for three years, also voiced his frustration at not being able to report on the momentous Hamas seizure of the territory last month in battles going on around him.
“It was appalling, really, part of the wider nightmare not to be able to report on the extraordinary turmoil, events that I could hear going on, the fighting in the streets around the hideout for days on end,” he said.