When French television reporter Hervé Ghesquierè and cameraman Stéphane Taponier were released by the Taliban in Afghanistan yesterday after a year and a half in captivity, nobody knew much about anything except the fact that they were free and the French were on top of the world about it. It's great news! Well, now that they've arrived back in France, a whole lot more details are coming out about their time in captivity and the circumstances that led up to their release. Here's a look at what we now know about the men's long ordeal, and its conclusion.
They may have been traded for Taliban prisoners. The French government insists it stands by a principle of not trading prisoners, and said none were freed in exchange for the two journalists. But according to the Associated Press, the Taliban have released a statement saying the French did release its prisoners. "Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement that the French government was forced to release 'our high-ranking fighters and, with the help of Allah, the exchange of the hostages occurred.' He said French officials had tried to get the journalists released 'by force and power ... but their operations failed.'" Jean-Francois Julliard, the head of Reporters Without Borders, also said the government had released some prisoners. As for the French officials, "they remained silent about what triggered the hostages' release after 18 months of negotiations."
Their captivity was very unpleasant, but not abusive. "We were never threatened, never beaten, never tied up," Taponier said, according to the Christian Science Monitor. "But we were locked up 23 hours and 45 minutes [a day], with very little to eat, and always the same thing, 'Afghan mountain special.' It might sound stupid, food, but it's vital." The conditions were "very, very difficult," the two told The Guardian, but Tapioner said, "We represented something important for the Taliban," which gave them hope they would be released. Ghesquierè told the paper he passed the time by exercising and writing. "And he exclaimed in dismay in recalling that a year-and-a-half of notes he took were taken away before his liberation, because his captors didn't want any document released."
French public support reached one, but not the other. Broadcasters and other media outlets aired a constant stream of supportive messages, and banners with the men's photos have hung from city halls across France. The Guardian reported that only taponier was able to get the message:
The Taliban gave each journalist a radio at some point, they said. Taponier was able to listen to Radio France International, which was broadcasting regular messages of support to the two men in the hope they were listening.
"That warmed our hearts," Taponier said.
But Ghesquierè was only able to get a BBC signal, and said he was largely unaware of the large support campaign in France.
Troop withdrawals may have contributed to their release. From the AP: "Last week, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said the announcements of staggered French and U.S. troop withdrawals might help the cause of freeing Ghesquiere and Taponier. President Barack Obama announced the withdrawal of 33,000 troops by September 2012, and France followed suit, announcing it will pull out a quarter of its force of 4,000."
The two local fixers captured with them were freed earlier. Foreign Minister Alain Juppe spoke with Agence France-Presse. "'The two other helpers were freed some time ago, but this was not made public,' Juppe explained, citing the need for secrecy in resolving hostage situations."