Judith Tebbutt and her husband David were looking forward to a quiet break in Kenya when kidnappers dragged her away. In an exclusive interview, she recalls her six-month nightmare
Almost seven months after she was kidnapped from an island off the Kenyan coast, Judith Tebbutt stood in the bathroom of an opulent government building in Nairobi, wondering at her reflection. She had just been freed and was finally safe, but the woman in the glass was a¬†stranger. Her weight had dropped to¬†less than five stones (32kg), her veins protruded, and if she ran her hands across her middle, she could feel her internal organs. “There was no fat,” she says, “just folds and folds of skin. I¬†remember, vividly, looking and thinking: Who is that person? I could count my ribs. My breasts were flat, my¬†stomach was just a fold, my hips were sticking out.” When she tried to shower, she was left in tears. It was like being pelted with needles.
At dinner, she asked for a gin and tonic. When it arrived, she was too weak to lift the glass. Her hair had fallen out in clumps, and she didn’t resemble a woman, she says. “I just looked like a skeleton with skin draped over her.”That image of Tebbutt, thin and fragile, swept around the world on her release in March 2012, and I am slightly taken aback on meeting her now. Her hair is thick, shoulder-length, deep grey, and while she is still very slight ‚Äì at 58, she has always been slim, and has struggled to regain all the weight she lost ‚Äì she looks healthy and chic. She exudes the composure of someone capable, in even the most horrific circumstances, of holding on to hope¬†and a carefully protected sense of¬†self.
We talk in a light, airy room in the Faber & Faber building in central London. This is where Tebbutt’s husband, David, worked as finance director, and the company has just published her gripping account of the kidnapping,¬†A¬†Long Walk Home. The couple had been together for more than three decades, and Judith only loses her composure when his name comes up, as it frequently does. At these moments, our conversation falls into deep breaths and pauses, as she swallows down tears.