x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Taliban kidnap victim recalls experience as 'gift from God'

A former French army captain explains how his kidnap ordeal gave him an unvarnished look inside Afghanistan's Taliban insurgency.

Johan Freckhaus, photographed on a recent trip to Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
Johan Freckhaus, photographed on a recent trip to Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

Johan Freckhaus did not know if he would live or die as he walked under the cover of night across the mountains of Afghanistan in the company of his Taliban captors.

"You could hear the helicopters and see the light of the drones," he told me during a recent visit to Dubai.

It was May 2008 and Freckhaus, a former French army captain turned project manager for construction projects in Afghanistan, had been kidnapped on an early morning drive from Kandahar to Kabul.

The Taliban fighters, dressed in police uniforms, did not immediately identify him as a foreigner. He wore the traditional salwar kameez of an Afghan, had a long beard and spoke fluent Dari. They only spirited him away after one of the Afghan engineers working with him cracked under pressure.

"They covered my eyes and took me away," he says. "The first group passed me on to another group and then the negotiations began."

His captivity would last three weeks, before French negotiators secured his release for either a ransom payment or prisoner exchange. He has never confirmed which.

His captors would shuttle him each night to a different farm, where a local Afghan would shelter and feed him. Freckhaus's legs and hands were bound by chains, but he was never mistreated. In fact, he put on weight during his ordeal because every villager he stayed with "thought tomorrow I might be killed, so they gave me more food".

The experience, which some would describe as harrowing, was a "gift from God", according to Freckhaus. It gave him an unvarnished look at the world of the Taliban, who Nato forces are still battling, nearly a decade after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"What I learnt was that all these issues - drugs, ethnic divides, religion - are secondary to the idea that Afghan people want the troops to leave," he says.

Freckhaus now believes Afghanistan needs a decentralised government that would devolve power to local provinces and install neutrality in place of "strategic partnerships" with India and the US.

"It may sound strange, but it should be like Switzerland, [which] has many languages, cultures and religions. Its people were warriors for hundreds of years, but now it is very peaceful. That began when it decided on neutrality."

While his time with his captors left him with a life-changing experience, it was the wisdom of one man that started his love affair with Afghanistan - Ahmad Shah Massoud, the commander of the Northern Alliance - who was killed by al Qa'eda on September 9, 2001.

Freckhaus left the French military in 1999 and sought a new adventure. His eyes quickly fell upon Afghanistan, which was then in the midst of a civil war among the Northern Alliance, the ascendant Taliban, al Qa'eda and others.

After arriving in the north of the country with a convoy of journalists, he sought an audience with Massoud.

"When I introduced myself, he was surprised to see me," Freckhaus remembers. "I told him 'I wanted to be useful to your resistance'."

The desire to join Massoud came out of his fascination with Central Asia, as told through the stories he read as a child about the famous conquerers Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Massoud dispatched him to his military academy to train commandos and then to the front lines of the Shamali Plains to assist his fighters. The French government would later try to persuade the Northern Alliance commander to stop working with Freckhaus because officials felt it reflected poorly on their diplomatic efforts. He, however, remained unfazed.

Sleeping at the home of Massoud's relatives and on the battlefield, Freckhaus developed a deep respect for the Afghan leader. He spent hours with him and his top commanders, drinking tea with "very sandy water".

"I found an extraordinary, extraordinary man," he remembers.

The stint lasted two years, ending abruptly when Massoud was assassinated by two al Qa'eda agents disguised as journalists while Freckhaus was on a trip back to France.

"I came back immediately, but then it was another story," he says. "The CIA was already there ... talking to the people I knew and asking them to join their cause."

But Freckhaus decided to leave his fighting life to concentrate on Afghanistan's reconstruction.

"In some way, I felt guilty to come to a country that did not ask me and to participate in a civil war," he says. "I did it just for my pleasure or adventure, and I thought I needed to give back four years to reconstruction for the two years I had been with Massoud."

Freckhaus developed a reputation for his intimate knowledge of Afghans and cool demeanour in stressful situations. Working for French and Afghan companies, he oversaw a variety of building projects around the country.

Then, in May 2008, he travelled to Kandahar to meet an officer in the US army Corps of Engineers who had been put in charge of the project Freckhaus was working on.

"Every time a new guy came in, they wanted to say 'enough with the old ways - now it will be different'," he said. He flew into the southern city for his meeting, but decided he did not want to wait for the next available flight back to the capital after its conclusion and made his own way back instead.

"It was tense when they stopped us," he says of the fake checkpoint manned by Taliban fighters.

The rules were simple in such a situation: cooperate and never try to escape. The penalty was made clear in a story told by the captors of two Afghan government officers that had been kidnapped by the men in the past. Their families had offered $60,000 for their return, but the men tried to escape and their captors killed them. After his release, Freckhaus spent some time away from Afghanistan at the behest of the French government.

"They did not want a story about a French man who they rescued getting captured again," he says. He would later return to Afghanistan to see his old friends and start new projects.

Lately, he has been working in Somalia, another troubled part of the world, where he has been employed on a short-term telecommunications project.

"I'm not particularly attracted by weak countries," he says, countering what might appear to be the narrative of his post-military life. "[But] there are good people in these places and they want to do something about their problems."

He's "no humanitarian" either, preferring to work for private enterprises.

"There's no such thing as non-profit," he says. "Businesses can [often] do more good than these organisations."

Beyond the next two months, he has no fixed plans. After returning to Somalia perhaps once more, he will look for his next project - possibly in Afghanistan.

"I don't know about my future, but I hope it will be interesting," he says.