Kidnapped in Yemen: One Woman’s Amazing Escape from Terrorist Captivity
by Mary Quin
Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh and London, 2005. Pp.240. Maps. Appendix. Illus. Hb. £16.99. ISBN 1-84596-018-1.
Hostage taking has a long tradition in Yemen. Sons of tribal leaders were semi-permanent ‘guests’ of early twentieth century Imams, held (and fed and educated) in the palaces of the Imams, partly to ensure the good conduct of their families. Under the Republic foreigners were kidnapped by tribes or villagers and used as bargaining counters in negotiations with the Sana’a government. Unfavourable international publicity would draw attention to the inadequate control the government had over the country, providing extra bargaining capital for the kidnappers. The promise of a road, a school or a medical clinic might be the outcome of negotiations and the hostages would then be released. There was an unwritten code of practice in the procedure. Hostages were well looked after. If they were held in a remote village they were free to move around that village, and households vied with each other to feed them well.
For the foreign captives, the uncertainty of the experience could be terrifying, but the procedure was well-established and even benign. All this changed in December 1998 when a party of western tourists was seized some 300 kilometres east of Aden. The central government sent a force to rescue them. The hostages were used as human shields in the armed confrontation. Four were killed and the other fourteen hostages released.
One of those rescued was Mary Quin, a senior executive of the Xerox company in the eastern United States, a New Zealander and an enthusiastic traveller in remoter corners of the world. She has now written an absorbing account of her experiences, describing how it affected her life, with the story of her own investigations into the background and motivations of her captors.
Victims of terrorist outrages continue to be victims after those outrages. They become symbols and pawns in a propaganda war, and it is refreshing to have one victim asserting her own individuality. Her cool account of just what happened when the tourists were seized is gripping. The tension and the detail of weaponry, the characters of her fellow tourists and (as far as she could determine) of the various captors, the intense drama of the shoot-out and rescue, the shuffle back to an abnormal normality – these chapters read like a thriller.
Mary Quin’s life changed. Survival of the ordeal gave her a fresh appreciation of life. But, through reading and internet surfing, she obsessively researched the background of the incident, tracing the links between Yemen and the North Finsbury Mosque, Abu Hamza and his son, and the captors. Her researches took her to call on Abu Hamza in London and back to the site of the scene, and to calls on senior Yemenis including the then Prime Minister, Dr Abd al-Karim al-lryani. The quest for enlightenment has a background of (or is the background to) a transformed life: falling in love and moving to Alaska.
Yemen is a fascinatingly complex country and Mary Quin is not deterred by its mystique. Her approach, uncluttered by the baggage of Yemen scholarship, makes her observations fresh and persuasive. She writes with modest confidence and her account is a unique contribution to studies of contemporary Yemen and the wider canvas of international terrorism.
Altogether a remarkable book.