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I didn’t plan it this way, but this year is turning out to be the year of the hostage for me. In Iraq I interviewed half a dozen young Yazidi women earlier this year. All but one were in their teens, enduring nearly five years of ISIS captivity that included sexual abuse.
Later I interviewed a family with its own hostage saga. Their daughter has been missing since 2015. Their story at the present time is too sensitive to report in detail, but it represents thousands of families caught in the waking trauma that is meeting the day knowing one of your children has been sold to a terror group and made a slave.
Pick a Monday when you rise knowing your child is somewhere being raped, beaten, chained, and deprived of food, then imagine facing that same horror the next Monday, and the next, and the next, until there are about 150 of them—plus all the other days in between.
I’ve watched the mothers. As they talk, their hands extend as though they are holding or touching their child, an empty space where the mind won’t reconcile itself to her absence. When my own children were young and I first traveled overseas, my arms could ache to brush a daughter’s hair into a ponytail, and that was a separation measured in days.
Families and friends face a deepened isolation, as negotiations, particularly for Americans, are shrouded in secrecy.
Next, I sought out the parents of American Kayla Mueller when I realized their daughter’s known captors—with the exception of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—now are in captivity (or dead). Some, perhaps all, face possible extradition to the United States.
What I did not know was that Kayla’s hostage saga in many ways never ended, the only news of her death coming from the disreputable ISIS members who took her hostage.
Lingering questions and disturbing rumors have made closure impossible. When I asked Kayla’s mother what the United States should do with now-captured Islamic militants, she quickly waved the question away: “Others are better qualified determining what should be done to these ISIS people. It’s not my focus.”
Kayla Mueller maintained an abiding faith, which her parents hold also, but uncertainty brings with it a perpetual grief. For any parent that “1 percent chance” a child may be alive might as well be 100 percent. There can be no rest.
America’s hostage problem stretches back to the Barbary pirates, arguably the country’s first foreign policy crisis starting in the 1790s.
Forty years ago this year, 52 American diplomats and citizens were taken hostage in Iran and held for 444 days, still considered the largest hostage crisis in history.
For those who remember it, the crisis became a national obsession, as news anchors counted the days, highlighting the trauma of “America held hostage.”
Today Americans aren’t obsessing about hostages, to a fault. Media coverage is often intense but short-lived, yet hostages face more deplorable conditions than ever. Their families and friends face a deepened isolation, as negotiations, particularly for Americans, are shrouded in secrecy.
That secrecy can be important, but it can also diminish accountability. The Obama administration’s handling of the Mueller case, plus those of other American hostages killed in Syria, has left family members critical and many questions unanswered. Congress has not delved into these cases with hearings or debate. To bring the ISIS reign of terror to a lasting end, it should.
It should also reexamine U.S. hostage policy, including its rigidly stated no-ransom policy, which puts any negotiation at a disadvantage from the start. As Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, has said, the policy “undermines the value of the hostages, which is all that keeps them alive.”
Governments and families can hide their involvement, Simon suggests, using trusted middlemen. One of the untold stories of the ISIS period is how thousands of Yazidis escaped ISIS captivity because their families hired informants and ransomed their daughters. Such efforts have their own problem, to be sure, but this is war. And at the end of it, it’s better to interview hostages who survive than the family members who outlive them.