'Fantastic to Be Free,' BBC Reporter Says

Alan Johnston celebrates his newfound freedom.

Alan Johnston celebrates his newfound freedom. Abid Katib/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Abid Katib/Getty Images

Alan Johnston, the BBC journalist released after 114 days in captivity in Gaza, is talking about his ordeal. Kidnapped by a group of militants calling themselves the Army of Islam, he was released to Hamas-run security forces in the Gaza Strip.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie, sitting in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Alan Johnston is a free man. The BBC's Gaza correspondent was released by his captors early today nearly four months after he was seized on a Gaza City street by a militant Palestinian faction. Johnston was the only foreign reporter based in Gaza and living there full time. Hamas had been calling for his release since it seized control of the region last month. Alan Johnston called his freedom fantastic, and his experience in captivity as occasionally terrifying.

Mr. ALAN JOHNSTON (Reporter, BBC News): It was an absolutely appalling experience. You can imagine 16 weeks of solitary confinement in the hands of people who sometimes talked about killing you.

MONTAGNE: Alan Johnston has now arrived in Jerusalem, and we go to NPR's Jerusalem correspondent, Eric Westervelt. Hello.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What more can you tell us about his release?

WESTERVELT: Well, Johnston called his nearly four months in captivity a horrible ordeal, as he put it this morning, Renee, in a brief talk with reporters when he was leaving Gaza. He said, quote, "It was like being buried alive, really. Removed from the world." He looked a little tired, worn and dazed, but he sounded sharp and said he was elated to be free.

He called his captors dangerous and unpredictable. The gunman who kidnapped him in March belonged to the shadowy Islamist group that called itself the Army of Islam. It's backed by a powerful Gaza clan, the Daghmash family. Johnston said the group had threatened his life several times during the captivity and that even in the last hours, he feared he might not get out alive.

MONTAGNE: And he elaborated about the conditions under which he was held.

WESTERVELT: That's right. He said it's been nearly three months since he's seen the sunlight, Renee. He said he was moved around several times during the ordeal, and for the last three months, he was kept in a small apartment. He said his captors were rarely violent and only physically beat him in the last hours of his captivity when they came last night and roughed him up before handing him over to Hamas' officials.

But he said he faced incredible mental stress, that during the ordeal he was occasionally chained and handcuffed and hooded - at one time, handcuffed for 24 hours straight.

Mr. JOHNSTON: I was lucky that I wasn't tortured. But, as I say, there was talk about killing me occasionally, and there was really huge psychological stress of that kind. There were periods that I did wonder how this was going to end.

WESTERVELT: Renee, Alan also said his captors let him have a radio several weeks into his ordeal, and he was able to listen to BBC News. And he said that was incredibly heartening because he could hear the support he was getting, that there were protests in Gaza and around the world calling for his release. And he could hear that friends and family and colleagues were indeed pressing hard to get him released.

MONTAGNE: But as it turned out, Hamas had a big hand in his release. What are the details that you know, and especially is there any knowledge of some sort of deal between his captors and Hamas?

WESTERVELT: Well, it's not clear. Hamas, as we know, took over Gaza - all of Gaza - by force three weeks ago, and they put extraordinary pressure on the Islamic Army and its main supporter, this Daghmash clan. Alan said this morning that his kidnapping might have lasted a lot longer had Hamas not taken control of Gaza. You know, and as we've reported, Renee, Hamas has made restoring order in the streets of lawless Gaza top priority.

Gunmen recently took up fighting positions around the Daghmash compound yesterday. They cut off electricity, we're told, to the area and really turned up the pressure on this family, including arresting several members of the Islamic Army.

But in terms of a deal, it's just not clear. Sources in Gaza tell us that both sides agreed to have a mufti, a religious leader who mediated, and he issued a religious edict, or fatwa, saying release Alan Johnston immediately. Hamas leaders insist that that was the main trigger, Renee, that there was no deal, no conditions, no ransom paid.

MONTAGNE: And Hamas has been making a bit of hay about this release, claiming credit for it. But the group is still quite isolated there in Gaza. Will Johnston's release have any political impact?

WESTERVELT: I don't think it's likely to, Renee. British officials today thanked Hamas for helping to free Alan Johnston, but we're not likely to see any change in the British boycott of Hamas. As for Israel, Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev today said he welcomed Johnston's release, saying Israel hoped for his safe return, just as we hope for the safe return of our own hostage, Gilad Shalit. He's the Israeli corporal seized in Gaza by Hamas and other militant factions more than a year ago.

MONTAGNE: Eric, thanks.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Eric Westervelt in Jerusalem, where freed BBC reporter Alan Johnston arrived this morning.

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