Last week I chimed in about the seemingly never-ending quest to bring deposed Chadian dictator Hissène Habré to justice. To add to that sad story, it’s worth remembering how Habré first gained international notoriety: the 1974 kidnapping of French archaeologist Francoise Claustre, who was held for nearly three years before gaining her release through the intervention of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi. Known to the French as L’affaire Claustre, the entire kidnapping saga was a clusterfuck of the highest order. When Claustre’s husband flew to the Chadian desert in 1975 to negotiate with Habré, he, too, was taken hostage. Then the French government paid a multimillion-dollar ransom, only to have Habré pocket the money and hang on to his captives. By the time the ordeal was over, Habré was not only extremely wealthy by Chadian standards, but also a folk hero for outwitting the nation’s former colonial master. The year after Claustre’s release, he was named Chad’s prime minister—quite an achievement for a desert guerrilla.
What fascinates me about this case isn’t necessarily how it bolstered Habré’s political fortunes, though, but rather how Claustre managed to endure her long, terrible captivity. It was never easy:
She told one interviewer she contemplated suicide because her life had become so desolate. She told another the biggest treat she and her husband, who was kept in a separate enclosure, had was the camel meat that occasionally spiced up their diet of rice, vegetables and fruit.
Yet as an academic at heart, Claustre also did her best to keep learning while imprisoned in the desert:
While a captive, Mme. Claustre said, she taught herself to read and write Toubou, the language of the rebels, and performed normal cooking and cleaning chores done by Toubou women. “They understood my distress,” she said. “And I tried as much as I could to integrate myself into their family life.”
This may sound ghoulish, but I think there is much to be learned about human psychology by studying how people respond to traumatic circumstances such as extended captivity—especially in non-judicial situations such as the one faced by Claustre, in which the outcome is never certain. People have all sorts of different coping mechanisms, of course—I’ve always been struck, for example, how much Terry Anderson relied on religious faith to see him through his seven-year ordeal in Beirut. But those who survive the experience all seem to share one common trait: a notable lack of self-pity. That’s not to imply that they don’t feel bitterness, toward both their captors and those back home who seem to be sitting on their hands. But to pull through that sort of sudden, undeserved loss of freedom, one cannot dwell too long on what might have been.