A LONG WALK HOME BY JUDITH TEBBUTT (Faber ¬£16.99)
Most of us fantasise sometimes about how we would cope in an extreme situation. But the mere outline of Judith Tebbutt‚Äôs story had me, for one, quivering with horror.
To go on a dream holiday in Kenya with your husband, only to be abducted in the middle of the night by Somali pirates and kept hostage in a filthy, insect-infested room for six months, knowing your beloved had in fact been murdered that terrible night‚Äâ.‚Äâ.‚Äâ.
Yet Judith Tebbutt‚Äôs story is inspiring, and leaves you with the feeling that if this woman could show such fortitude, then so might we all. Her story of terror, despair and survival is as gripping as any thriller, yet told sparely, with no self-pity. It is a testimony to the resilience of the individual spirit but also to the strength of family love.
On September 10, 2011, Judith (a trained social worker specialising in mental health) and her husband David (the financial director of publishers Faber and Faber) left their safari in the Masai Mara to fly to a small, exclusive resort on the Kenyan coast, for a lazy beach holiday. Both keen, intrepid travellers, they shared a deep love of Africa. But Kiwayu was just 40km south of the Somali border and from the outset Judith found its isolation unnerving. There were no other guests. A single photograph of Judith asleep in a hammock conjures up an idyllic holiday of a lifetime. The reality of what was about to happen makes the classic snap cruelly ironic.
Their comfortable beach hut had no lockable doors or windows, which made Judith uneasy.
But on that first night she put on pyjama bottoms and a vest top and got into bed. She was woken by a shout, saw David struggling with an intruder, then felt herself dragged from bed by two men with guns. Screaming, she was dragged along the beach and into the sea, slapped, thrown into a boat – banging her head – and taken away. Soaked, shivering with cold and terror, she found strength in her passionate faith that her husband would raise the alarm and find her. That belief in the man who had been at her side for 33 years sustained her until the terrible moment, after one month of captivity, when their son Ollie, who was coordinating ransom negotiations, told her on the phone that David had been murdered, shot dead as she was dragged away. Judith realised that her fate now depended on their 25-year-old son.
In one of the most moving moments she describes how, sitting alone in the small, hot, filthy shed that was her prison, she experienced the blackest despair. For the first time she abandoned hope – but then ‚Äòfelt the gentle pressure of a clasp on my hand, and in my head I heard David‚Äôs voice, true as life, as clear as my dreams: You‚Äôre going to do this. I know you will. You‚Äôre much stronger than me.‚Äô She said: ‚ÄòI had felt a presence, strongly, undeniably‚Äô which told her ‚Äònot to give up, no way, but fight on‚Äô.
There can be no doubt that Tebbutt‚Äôs experience of working with people with severe psychiatric problems (even to the point of being under threat of violence) gave her the mental powers to survive her terrible ordeal. Each day (until she became too weak) she paced her cell, counting the steps, imagining that she was walking home. This small, slight woman, whose life had been blighted by heart problems and deafness, discovered a physical toughness that seems miraculous.
Despite her inner rage, she still made the effort to address her captors as human beings, identifying those who were more sympathetic, and gradually learning key Somali phrases to communicate. Half-starved, eaten alive by insects, unwashed, huddling on a wooden bed in punishing heat, Judith knew she had to be ‚Äòregimented, resolved and cold‚Äô in order to survive.
There were moments of kindness. She was given an exercise book and later a radio on which she could pick up the BBC World Service. A Somali woman called Amina, who cooked for the pirates, gave her a change of clothes, once brought her samosas, and offered a bottle of Sprite on Judith‚Äôs birthday. Thinking that somebody should feel enough guilt to wish to help her escape, Judith realised that the whole community saw kidnapping and piracy as their meal ticket. A very real fear was that she would be snatched by a rival pirate group, intent on that ransom.
On March 21, 2012 the end of Judith‚Äôs physical suffering came, although she will bear the mental scars for the rest of her life. The account of her rescue reads like the film script this astonishing story should surely become. Ever resolute and mature, Ollie had co-ordinated her release with a private security firm, but all details about the sum involved and how the rescue was arranged must, she says, remain secret.
Nevertheless, Judith‚Äôs account of the aftermath of her rescue, her horror at seeing her emaciated reflection, her reunion with her son and the agonising return home alone to David‚Äôs clothes and possessions – all is vivid and detailed enough to place you firmly in the shoes of this extraordinary woman. In search of some sort of closure she has made herself relive her ordeal – and permanent agony of grief for her husband – to write a book which is a passionate affirmation of life.