It was just past midnight on May 31, 2012, when the truck carrying Patrick Noonan stopped in the middle of the road.
He had been traveling since morning from an unknown location, changing vehicles twice. The people he was with told him he was going to Nyala, a town in Sudan’s volatile South Darfur province. But as the hours passed, he started getting anxious.
They promised me this before. They canceled the handover. I may be an exchanged prisoner, he thought.
But all those fears left him after seeing familiar surroundings — he was in the village where he had conducted assessments as acting head of the World Food Program’s Logistics Coordination Unit in Darfur, and outside the truck was the governor of South Darfur, whom he had met several times before his abduction in March.
It was his 86th day in captivity. And at 2:15 a.m., Noonan was, finally, a free man again.
“This time will stay with me as long as I live,” the British aid worker shared in an exclusive interview with Devex.
90 days maximum
Aid workers are no stranger to kidnappings. In 2013 alone, 134 abductions of humanitarians were reported, up 45 percent from the 92 cases registered the year before — and this doesn’t include hostages who died. The reasons can vary from political or economic, personal or professional, as well as ethnic or religious.
Noonan believes the motives behind his capture were both political and financial.
“I knew the motive for my kidnapping was not against me as an individual, but against the government of Sudan, to embarrass [them] and for the financial gain of the group who held me captive,” he said.
That is how the WFP logistics officer convinced himself during the ordeal that he would only be held for a maximum of 90 days — considered the usual for most aid worker kidnappings.
Noonan was particular with details. He noted instantly how many armed men were present during his abduction: six. He was able to keep track of the number of locations he was held in: three. And he registered in his mind how many times he was allowed to telephone and for how long: seven calls no more than five minutes each.
He recalls being given a bowl of water to wash every five to seven days. He ate about 10 oranges a day when they were available and used the fruit’s rind to clean his teeth. He was only handed toothbrush with toothpaste to properly brush his teeth after 15 days in captivity, which he used to comb his hair and growing beard. He prayed twice a day initially, and then four.
And the British humanitarian never forgot a key lesson learned from other similar cases: The first 45 minutes of any kidnapping are “the most crucial.”
“While we were speeding through the streets of Nyala and across [the] country, my thoughts were to remain calm [and keep control of my actions]. [I was] observing the route we were taking, and above all staying quiet, not speaking unless I was spoken to and not making any sudden movements,” he said. “My main thoughts were of my daughters and my grandson, with happy thoughts racing through my mind, ensuring that I remained calm and did not act aggressively toward my kidnappers, which was also going through my mind due to the stealing of my belongings.”
Prior to his deployment in Darfur, Noonan underwent two U.N.-led trainings to prepare him for the hostile environment. He took part in a four-day Security Awareness Induction Training course in Amman, Jordan, conducted by the International Organization for Migration, and a two-day Safety and Security Awareness in the Field Environment course handled by the U.N. Department of Safety and Security in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.
But his sharpness and attention to detail were no doubt developed during his 22 years of service in the British army.
Noonan enlisted in 1981 and served as a combatant in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Sierra Leone, on top of training exercises in Denmark, Germany, Norway, Oman and the United States. He was stationed in military garrisons in various locations, including in the north and south of England and West Berlin prior to Germany’s unification.
It was during these missions — in particular the bloody civil wars in Bosnia and Sierra Leone — that he felt inspired to join the humanitarian field.
“During these missions I witnessed the devastation to the families and children, including the destruction of property, witnessing at first hand the effect the conflict had on the communities. As my time in [the army] was coming to an end, I decided that my second career was to be a humanitarian, providing as much assistance to deprived communities in the remaining years of my life where possible,” he said.
That shift though didn’t change much in terms of the type of environment and work Noonan was assigned to. His first mission was a liaison officer with the U.N. Office for Project Services in Iraq. He then moved to become a logistics officer for the Danish Demining Group still in Iraq, and in 2010 he joined WFP in Sudan.
Noonan said he was always fully aware of the work he had signed up for, and the risks it entailed.
“I was under no illusion that at some point I may not be abducted due to the trend of kidnappings taking place in Nyala and the surrounding area. Due to the reduction of international staff within the humanitarian community [in Sudan], it was always at the back of my mind,” he explained.
After being set free, WFP gave Noonan three months of sick leave, which he used to undergo several U.N.-provided and private medical examinations and physiological interviews, and spent time with his family. Once his furlough was up, he returned to work, but after a while he decided to take a different job.
In November 2012, Noonan was transferred to a position as a field security officer for the same U.N. agency. According to his online profile, he was initially assigned to the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, but Noonan is currently deployed in South Sudan to ensure the safety of WFP staff in various field locations.
For someone who has been through so much, it was a bit of a surprise to find him taking on a job with even higher risk, but Noonan said the move was “a fairly straight forward transition.” In fact, he is using his experience to raise awareness and caution among colleagues traveling to potentially dangerous areas.
“When instructing on the SSAFE training in Dadaab, I found this was a form of therapy which relaxed me when telling my story to the participants on how I survived the abduction,” he said.
Over the years, the international development community has debated over the best way to protect aid workers on the ground. Some organizations opt for training, while others hire private security firms or even armed local militias. Other experts argue that to build trust with local communities, humanitarian groups should venture more often outside of the compounds guarded by high walls and barbed wire.
There is of course no silver bullet nor a universal solution to keep humanitarians safe. Noonan’s advice to aid workers in danger of getting kidnapped: stay calm, keep yourself occupied and gain the respect of your captors.
“But above all, don't make any sudden movement or actions to provoke the captors. I shadow boxed aggressively which scared them, which is why I was stripped naked and placed in chains,” he said.
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