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Johan Gustafsson on The Men Who Held Him Hostage

Johan Gustafsson is back in Sweden after almost six years as a prisoner of an Islamic terrorist organization. While most Swedish and European media outlets have reported on his release in both breaking news and follow up news stories, Blankspot has been granted unprecedented access to Johan’s observations in terms of his kidnappers and AQIM. In a long-form exclusive with Martin Schibbye, he tells the story about the people who held him prisoner.

It’s the day after the press conference. Johan Gustafsson, who was held hostage by terrorists for 2,039 days in Africa, has just walked out of a morning news TV studio. He hasn’t yet had a chance to look through the daily newspapers, which are full of interviews, and all Sweden’s radio and TV-stations are broadcasting his safe return, on repeat. They have all honed in on his conversion to Islam.

“It was a strategy to survive and since I was forced to convert, I don’t consider myself ever having been a Muslim,” he says as we sit down to talk.

The long beard Johan had when he first arrived has since been shaven off and he looks rested, his eyes alert and friendly.

After he “converted,” Johan felt safer. The act gave him a sense that the sand in the hourglass had stopped. That the countdown for his execution had, if not stopped, at least slowed down.

“We then lived under the same conditions as our prison guards, which meant daily life in a war zone in a desert. A merciless desert that was also enchantingly beautiful.”

If converting to Islam was an act of survival, it also brought some other benefits. The regular prayers became a way to compartmentalize the day and became a way to mark time during the day.

“We were assigned certain jobs between the different prayers.”

Life as a converted Muslim was somewhat freer, and enabled Johan to study his kidnappers. He watched how they took care of the lambs that were tied up and transported to the camp. From the beginning, the lambs desperately tried to flee but after a while they got used to the men who fed and watered them. They became so tame that they ran toward the guards when they came to slit their throats.

“I didn’t want to turn into one of those lambs and felt as if the very same thing could happen to me if I didn’t constantly remind myself of my situation,” Johan says.

He is cautious. He thinks before he speaks. Maybe he was like that before he was kidnapped. Calm, observant. Or maybe the years held hostage in the desert changed him.

When 36-year-old Johan Gustafsson drove into Mali on his motorcycle in the late fall of 2011, he was more worried about traffic accidents than being captured by terrorists. The risk analysis seems reasonable. It was still a few months before the northern parts of the country imploded.

With a loose group of friends, meeting and joining other motorcyclists along the way while driving down through Europe and then across the African continent, Johan began his dream trip of traveling from Sweden to South Africa. While in Mali, other travelers urged him to visit Timbuktu. Little did he know that beneath the surface of tourists shopping and dancing, a complex mess of factions fighting for independence and newly-formed local-recruiting terrorist organizations was simmering.

Unaware of the danger, Johan checks in to a hotel along with Dutchman, Sjaak Rijke, and Stephen McGown of South Africa. One night Johan heard commotion in the courtyard, where his motorcycle was parked, and as he rushed outside, he was greeted with a Kalashnikov. There he saw Rijke and McGown, who had been forced outside and dragged onto a truck. A German man was there too, but he jumped out and they heard two shots, then knew he was dead. Bound and covered with a net in the flatbed, Johan and the others were taken out in the desert in a brutal 24-hour-long ride.

Life as a hostage for almost six years begins. Johan was constantly moved between different camps, mostly in the desert, where he was forced to learn to live outside, no matter the conditions, somewhere in the enormous desert.

Mali is Africa’s seventh largest country and has long been plagued by internal turmoil between different ethnic groups in the southern regions, where the economic and political power is located, and, the minorities in the north, mainly the Tuareg. For the last 20 years, several rebellions have shaken the country, which was a French colony up until 1960. Most of the time, the unrest has been rooted in the north, with people citing human rights violations and discrimination.

Just a few months after Johan arrived in Mali, one of those rebellions spread southward. Tuaregians, who had had enough, protested against the central regime in the south, proclaiming an independent state, naming it “Azawad.” At the same time, military officers seized power in a coup d’état and Mali was near collapse. The president fled into exile and the north half of Mali fell into the hands of rebels. The vacuum gave Al-Qaida in Islam Maghreb (AQIM), a radical Islamic militia, an opportunity to fight against secular forces and they seized the historical city of Timbuktu. AQIM forbids music, alcohol and TV in all areas they control. It didn’t take long before different religious extremists groups controlled nearly all of northern Mali.

Johan describes the first few months as complete confusion. He and Stephen McGowan and Sjaak Rijke were kept in chains and moved from location to location in order to avoid detection. When the kidnappers asked Johan if he had done military duty, whom he voted for and what kind of education he had, he understood that they were gathering information they would use against him, as potential reasons for him being their prisoner.

Six months into captivity, a film crew from Al-Jazeera interviewed Johan. On camera, the kidnappers assert that the hostage is treated well and when Johan is asked what he thinks about AQIM, it is the first time he has heard of the organization.

“I don’t know what he’s [the Al-Jazeera reporter] talking about, so I start talking about Al-Qaida, about what it really is. In my view, it’s something abstract almost like a ghost the US created to scare people with after the attacks of 9/11.”

Now, back home safe and sound, Johan still has a hard time with the term “Al-Qaida.” To him it’s a vague definition of something that has been built up in order to instill fear.

“Out in the Mali desert there is neither Internet nor telephone lines and from there they communicate with Afghanistan, which isn’t the world’s most well-connected country either. I think we can also assume that the communications in these areas are pretty well-covered in terms of surveillance,” Johan says.

If you add the cultural differences between Mali and Afghanistan, the language barrier and the poor communication, as well as the fighting factions of both countries, Johan reasons, it is pretty easy to see that Al-Qaida is a loose network that is united only under a common flag.

“To me it’s all about marketing. An outward image.”

Johan never heard any of his kidnappers talk about AQIM or Al-Qaida.

But who are the men keeping him hostage there in the desert?

Johan describes the leadership as a small and hardcore religious sect, in which most members have backgrounds in the Algerian AQIM.

For more than a decade, they silently infiltrated Mali and by the time Johan was kidnapped, had managed to get close to religious families in order to link linguistic and cultural ties, without which a local recruitment effort would have been impossible.

He learned from his kidnappers that when members first arrived in the country, food and money had been scarce and they avoided populated areas. But once those who came from Algeria had established contact with the Arabic families in Mali, whom welcomed them, they could advance. One brother recruited another brother. Another recruited his cousins. As the organization received funding via donations and ransom money from kidnappings, logistics became a major challenge.

“Both us kidnapped and the kidnappers were kept away far from the locals.”

The foot soldiers in the group, the guards watching Johan were originally mostly Arabs from northern Mali, but with time also Tuaregians and, in some cases, young black men fleeing the southern regions of the country, were recruited. At times, relations between the Arabs and the Tuaregians were tense.

“The Arabs didn’t like them very much. When I chose to study Tuaregi, I was told that it was a ‘bullshit language—why do you want to learn their language? You have to learn to speak Arabic.”

The Tuareg, on the other hand, saw themselves as the people of the desert.

“They were proud people, and had more humor,” Johan says.

Among the recruits were also young adventurous men, who had traveled from North African countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania.

“They were educated and inspired by international figures like Usama bin Laden. They had all read the same stories on the Internet and based their anger on the Western world’s oppression of Muslims.”

Even though they didn’t know very much about life in the desert, from the beginning these men were passionate and loyal to the group and cause, but quickly ended up in conflicts with the local recruits.

Shortly after Johan Gustafsson’s kidnapping, AQIM occupy the historical desert city, Timbuktu.

In another documentary aired by Al-Jazeera, the people of Timbuktu are interviewed. One woman says that Al-Qaida gives her food and its members come with clothes for her children. Others describe Al-Qaida’s presence like being a prisoner in your own city. An older man says that they already had “one type of Sharia, one we appreciated, but this new Sharia law is nothing we recognize—or want to live by.”

According to Johan AQIM’s official claim was that they had big support in villages and cities. The leadership in Algeria described their relationship with the people as good. And when the organization seized cities, it was immediately evident in terms of many new recruits.

“It was easy to join then. Otherwise, how do you find these groups out there in the desert somewhere?”

When AQIM had no presence in the cities, recruitment stagnated.

“Out there, they only got ‘desert types’ and they weren’t all that useful.”

To run a well-organized terrorist faction with illiterate members must be hard. All communication must be done verbally. At the same time, it is also a challenge to keep the recruits they gain in the cities faithful to the cause.

“Those who joined and jumped into the trucks, giving up jobs and studies, realized later when they were chased out into the desert that maybe it wasn’t so fun after all.”

A life in the sand, without Internet, cellphones or TV, wasn’t exactly what they had envisioned, and eventually Johan learned some recruits had left the organization.

“After a while, many thought it was a bullshit life, and they actually told us hostages what they felt.”

They told Johan and the others that when they walked into Timbuktu, they paid for support by giving away food and providing free electricity.

“But as soon as they left the city, there were stories that the people of Timbuktu had partied, dancing naked on the roofs, playing loud music and drinking liquor,” Johan says.

In contrast with the desert, the people who make up the cities in northern Mali are a mosaic. This is where the black Africa meets the Arab world, which turns the metropolitan areas into a culturally diverse melting pot.

Timbuktu’s Imam, Abdulrahman Ben Essayouti, welcomes Margot Wallström, Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, to the Djingareyber Mosque, January 2017. Photo: The Swedish Armed Forces.

Some accusate the Mali regime of being more afraid of a political secular independence movement in the north, than foreign relations, which is why they have looked the other way instead of acting upon the many kidnappings that have happened in the region. Some critics have even gone so far as to claim that Mali’s counterintelligence does not want to give up a “hen, laying golden eggs,” in terms of the ransom money paid to AQIM.

But what was the kidnappers relation to the regime in Mali? What did Johan see and hear?

“When Mali’s army move in the north, they aren’t welcome by anyone,” Johan explains. “Everyone hates them. If there is anything unifying the different peoples of the north, both Islamists and secular groups, it’s the hate for what they have endured by Mali’s army.”

Many of the recruits told Johan what the army had done to them.

“One of them said he was orphaned. He said his father had been shot and burned on the stakes. He told me that as soon as he saw a ‘Bambara,’ the largest black African group in Mali, a group that holds the highest political positions, he would grab a club and it would turn into a fight.”

When the other Arab kidnappers heard the story, they butted in that one needed to remember they were a religious movement. “We don’t beat up Muslims, do we?” While Bambara practice traditional rituals and honor their ancestors, they are mostly Muslims.

AQIM’s leaders was trying hard to establish the impression that their movement is the only power that could unite Mali and ease the tension between the different groups making up the country. Johan got the feeling that the real motivation with the recruits wasn’t so much religious convictions and dreams of a caliphate but rather rooted in racism and hate for the powers-that-be in the south.

“I perceived the religious motivation as a very small driving force, especially with the Tuaregians.”

One of the secular organizations fighting in the same region as AQIM is the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA,) a rebel fraction founded in 2011, mainly made up by the Tuareg, who are demanding independence in the north.

“During a time when we were kept up in the mountains, carloads of Tuaregians arrived to join the AQIM. They weren’t given Kalashnikovs, but simpler and older rifles stolen from army bases,” Johan says.

The new recruits also puzzled the AQIM leaders.

“They didn’t know the simplest of verses from the Koran, which is obligatory for a Muslim. So they were sat down, just like me, to memorize.”

While Johan and these newly recruited Tuaregians nervously sat in a circle, studying, the faction’s stout leader often put his hand on his forehead, making faces, clearly annoyed by the low level of knowledge.

“Here they were, the true elite, the Mujahedin [Guerilla fighters], and now they had gotten stuck with these worthless people, they seemed to think.”

But to Johan, the new recruits helped ease the mood in the camp.

“They were fun to be around, lighthearted and loved to play around in the desert, while the leaders were hard-set with the attitude, ‘We are not here to have fun! We should be suffering. Everything is haram [forbidden]. We are Islamists!’”

Things could also change on a whim.

From the beginning, Johan asked for a board game—Backgammon. He thought it was a game with roots in the Middle East, and maybe therefore would be approved. In response he was told it was forbidden. When they moved to a new camp, and there was a new man in charge, Johan got his Backgammon game. For a while, one Algerian commander even allowed them to play soccer.

“He threw us a ball and said: ‘Go ahead, play soccer.’ So we did and the kidnappers were rolling in laughter, they thought it was hilarious. Many of them had never seen soccer before and didn’t understand the concept of scoring a goal. They just wanted to run for the ball and kick it away.”

But they ran into a problem. The soccer ball often flew into thorny trees and bushes and no matter how hard they tried to patch it up, after a while it was beyond fixing. Then the soccer games were forbidden again, and everything game became haram.

“It was back and forth,” Johan remembers.

Johan Gustafsson in one of the videos released by the kidnappers.

While in the desert, Johan and the other hostages, were forced to participate in videos. From the beginning, they thought this meant they were about to get executed. But after a while, making the films become routine. The kidnappers usually tried to look tougher than they were. They put chains on the hostages, for show, and after the filming was done, they would go back to socialize as usual.

During one recording the prisoners were forced to wear orange Guantanamo prison garb.

“We had to sit on our knees and beg for our lives.”

When that ordeal was over, Johan asked the person he believed to be the leader why they were holding them, saying: “We aren’t Americans.”

The leader misunderstood Johan’s question, thinking that he was comparing what he was going through with being a detainee of Guantanamo.

“I tried to explain to him that I am Swedish and we also think that Guantanamo is criminal and very counter productive.”

Johan also tried to explain that he knows Muslims are violated by both Western and Arab governments. And, that comparing what he has just experienced, the video filming, pales in comparison.

“We weren’t tortured, just kept prisoners, and had to live like them. I can’t even imagine what people go through at Guantanamo.”

At one interrogation Johan asked the leader what they were being accused of, what motivated the kidnappers to keep him and the others against their will?

“I wanted to understand. I thought that Sweden, with our support of Palestine and vocalization against the invasion of Iraq, or at least not supporting part of it, would make some kind of difference.”

But his questions didn’t lead anywhere. The accusations were lofty and things didn’t add up. Johan was first kidnapped, and then accused, not the other way around.

“Sometimes their motivation seemed to be the invasion of Iraq, other times the Mohammad cartoons, and the war in Afghanistan. It gave me the impression that there was no particular reason.”

At the beginning of 2013, French soldiers and fighter planes were sent to northern Mali and together with the Tuareg guerilla of MNLA, they managed to push back the Islamists.

When Sweden, much later, sent troops to Mali, it was never shared with Johan.

“Though I am very sure they were very well informed about that.”

Swedish troops in Mali. Photo: Gustav Dahlgren/Swedish Armed Forces.

IS gained presence in Iraq and Syria, which Johan and the others learned from the kidnappers, who showed them their organization’s well-produced films. They were also told every time a new city fell under the control of the IS. At night in the camp, a member from Mauretania showed the films but they weren’t shown in chronological order and some cities that were seized later appear to be lost.

“It was impossible to get some understanding of what was going on,” Johan says.

When a new caliphate was announced, many of the kidnappers expressed that even if they’d sworn their loyalty to Al-Qaida, they had their hearts with IS.

“They were very impressed by what they saw, and often times they told us, ‘Soon IS will take Bagdad.”

Even if pure propaganda, the films did offer small highlights about what was happening in the outside world.

Johan will never forget the first time he saw a video of a hostage execution.

“We are sitting there watching an American, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, who is begging for his life and talking about his brother. Then they slit his throat.”

There are mixed messages. His kidnappers also told him, “We don’t make those kinds of videos.”

With time, the kidnappers speak less and less about IS. When Johan asked how they were doing—whether they had seized Bagdad yet—he learned that they were now in a dispute with IS. And not long after that, more and more of his keepers started openly speaking negatively of IS. Then there were different videos shown.

“We see long films in which the leaders are discussing everything that is wrong with IS. And, how they are no longer considered Muslims.”

For the hostage, it is a relief that IS fails to seize more cities, and that the disunion of the organization appears to grow.

“It was the best that could happen, from our perspective,” Johan says. “For all the young guys watching propaganda films around the Western world, the question was no longer if they should join the fight, but for whom? I envisioned that wondering who was most radical kind of took the juice out of many.”

Johan Gustavsson watching photos of his kidnappers. Here, while interviewed by Blankspot’s Martin Schibbye.

Two of Johan Gustafsson’s kidnappers carried out suicide missions.

From the beginning, Johan shared a hut with a young man from Libya. The Libyan was a quiet and well-educated man, who taught the Koran to the others. Johan had just converted to Islam, and being a quiet person himself, they get along well, sharing water during rations. But when Johan wanted him to teach him Arabic, the Libyan wasn’t helpful. He mostly wanted to discuss religious issues.

One of the students in the Libyan’s Koran teachings was a vivacious man from Guinea. He was illiterate but pretended that he could read, which created conflict. The Libyan teacher and the Guinean constantly got into arguments, and the Guinean told Johan in private, “He doesn’t know anything! He does everything wrong.”

When they were in class, sitting around in a circle, the Guinean would criticize the teacher, saying things like “This is how I was taught, by the masters.”

“So he sits there and corrects him over and over again and it turns into: ‘This is how it is.’ ‘No, it’s like this!’ And the teacher reads again in a loud voice: “That is what is says here.

Angry, the Guinean stomped off and sat down outside the circle. It was just one verse and no big deal to Johan and the others, but for the Guinean it was a matter of prestige, and he kept on reciting the same verse, over and over again. He became loud and disruptive for the rest of the students, but he didn’t stop.

“He had memorized passages without really understanding them, since he was a child, and now someone told him he was wrong,” Johan remembers.

The Libyan teacher looked tired and Johan guessed he was asking himself why he would wast his time on them. The Libyan burned all bridges in his native country, and joined the cause wholeheartedly, but life in the desert was probably not what he expected—the daily chores, the simple people.

“The desert men are hard-bitten and conservative, they do things their own way. They don’t know much outside their small world, but they know everything about that life. They can’t read, only speak the regional language and are very suspicious about everything outside of that,” Johan explains.

In the desert, if you don’t know the fundamentals— cars, wells and camels, you won’t survive, no matter how many books you’ve read.

“So even if the Libyan was so much more educated than the desert men, he was treated as if he knew absolutely nothing,” Johan says. “All he knew was how to read, but had no idea how to extract water from a well, or pitch a tent. So he didn’t have a very appreciative group of students.”

A few months later, Johan saw yet another video, this one of pretty poor quality. But despite the blurry and jumpy footage, Johan recognized the man in it and was surprised to find it was the Libyan, holding an automatic rifle and a long cartridge belt.

“He looked just as tired as I remembered him. Tired of living, it felt like. Then he starts firing, every single bullet, the whole cartridge belt. Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! This is usually a favorite pastime the desert guys, but he is just firing into a pile of rocks until he runs out.”

He gets into a car and drives toward a small sand fort somewhere in a distance.

“He drives straight into the fort, we see heavy smoke, and it’s over.”

To Johan the video feels more like a regular suicide, than someone who’s just about to die, honorably, for his cause.

View over Telly, a village in Mali.

Johan learned that those who carry out suicide missions were outsiders.

“During my almost-six years there, I never heard of a suicide mission being done by any of the local recruits.”

Another of the outside recruits, Abu Leith, was from West Sahara, something that puzzled Johan.

“When I asked if he had been active in The Polisaro Front, and fought against the Moroccan occupation, I could tell it was an uncomfortable question.”

Abu Leith told Johan that he wasn’t impressed with the Polisaro.

“He said, ‘They are just fighting for their own country,’ and grabbed a handful of sand, ‘I fight for the religion.”

Abu Leith was a little older than the others. Most local recruits were in their 20s, those from the outside commonly 30 and up. Before Abu Leith joined, he worked in a restaurant. One of his skills was knowing how to bake bread in the desert, without filling it with sand.

“He cut a barrel in two and made an oven out of it, then he greased up a metal plate and baked an amazing piece of bread.”

To Johan and the other hostages, the bread was an amazing treat, but the leadership didn’t appreciate Abu Leith’s talents whatsoever.

“The car he was assigned was also in amazing shape. He saw the value of money and wanted to care for a car he would never be able to afford, as if it were his own.”

When they were transported somewhere with Abu Leith, they weren’t allowed to hang their water bottles out the window (which kept the water cooler) because the bottles might scrape the car paint.

The other kidnappers saw the cars as war loot, or something that was bought by money donated to the cause—throwaway things. But Abu Leith came from poverty and was particular with every little detail. Over time he was mocked for his meticulousness.

“Keeping up with things in this world was frowned upon, to them everything was about the afterlife,” Johan says.

This didn’t stop Abu Leith. He continued to take care of everything in the camp meticulously, all while the leader, who at that time was from Algeria, drank tea and watched. Abu Leith also held prayer and recited the Koran in a mellifluous voice. This wasn’t appreciated either.

“After a while he began adjusting, he purposely tried to be sloppy, drive carelessly and in different ways trying to show that he wasn’t stuck in the world we live in now.”

Abu Leith also began spending more and more time with Johan and the others in the hostages’ tent. One time when the kidnappers feasted, he brought them a large bowl of fresh dates.

“It was hard not to like him,” Johan says. “And when he was with us, he could relax a little.”

So when Johan learned that there was a video of Abu Leith’s suicide mission, he was puzzled again. Him? Of all people?

In the video, Abu Leith gets into a truck and says, “It’s not everyone that chooses this path.” Then he drives the car toward a camp of Ecowas soldiers outside of Timbuktu. The pickup holds a barrel of explosives. A song comes on. Johan thinks is about when one chooses Jihad—that’s when everyone is a stranger.

“He starts singing and drives off. Born and grown up under the oppression in West Sahara, he works hard and does right, then he joins this organization.”

There are also those who changed their minds.

One of the kidnappers in Johan’s camp backed out of a suicide mission and told him about it. How the others had been completely delirious, singing “Jannah, Jannah!” (Heaven, or Paradise) and when they heard that he was out, they were completely shocked. “What?” they asked. “You don’t want to go to Heaven?” He told them: “Um—Yes, of course I want to end up in Heaven. I want to, but my soul doesn’t have the courage.” The other men in the mission insisted: “But if you want to go to Heaven, all you have got to do is this, and you will end up in paradise, guaranteed. Why do you want to stay in this world? It’s just a bunch of hardship. Cold, hot, and the women stink. Now we’re going to Jannah, where beauties await us. You are sure you don’t want to?”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this man became a problem after backing out. And it didn’t get better after everyone viewed the video of it all.

“I mean, what kind of use did they have for him? A black person from the south who didn’t know how to get water from a well, who didn’t know how to take care of a camel, and who didn’t know the language.”

This man too, spent more and more time with the hostages and the leadership treated him worse and worse.

“The Arabs spent the wintertime in nice tents that were insulated on three sides, myself and Steve (McGowan from South Africa, who was kidnapped at the same time as Johan) lived in a minimal hut, so small that our legs were on the outside when we lay down. Luckily we had blankets to wrap ourselves in. The black recruits from the south had to huddle under the trees in the cold.”

The man who failed his suicide mission was among those freezing beneath the trees.

One time, the segregation and racism was even more glaring, as a sheep was slaughtered and they removed its liver, which according to faith, should be shared equally.

“Even us prisoners got a piece, but he didn’t,” Johan says. “He was so angry that he shook.”

Screen shot from the Al-Jazeera documentary, “Orphans of the Sahara.”

In the documentary “Orphans of the Sahara” made by Al-Jazeera, several Al-Qaida leaders in Mali are interviewed. Johan immediately recognizes several of them in printed screenshots.

“There he is,” Johan says, then goes quiet.

He is holding a shot of the man who drove him to the camp after he was kidnapped in November 2011. Ironically, it is the same person who drove him to freedom nearly six years later. Since 2011, he has grown in the ranks and become a leader.

“This man is smart. We called him the “taxi driver.” He didn’t like me at all, saw through me.”

After Johan’s conversion to Islam, his act to stay alive, the leader recognized his new status as a Muslim, but didn’t say another word about it.

“He is shrewd. He knew exactly that it was a game I played, and he played his, which usually were minimal actions for effect.”

The “taxi driver” was arrogant and self-confident. One time when Johan walked circles around the camp, for exercise, he mets the leader, also on foot.

“All of a sudden he pulls around his Kalashnikov, which he is carrying on his back, cocks it and fires off a round right next to me.”

Another time this leader participated in a raid, getting ready to attack a city out in the desert.

“He writes the numbers ‘34’ and ‘35’ in the sand. Then he crosses out 35. Signaling that he isn’t afraid to die, that he wasn’t counting on coming back.”

Johan also describes the leader as a man with ambitions. His family hailed from Libya and he told Johan that if he had stayed at home, he would have become clergy.

“So here we have an ambitious man, interested in power, that’s my interpretation of him.”

How does Johan feel about the “taxi driver” now that he is home in safety, but has this unique experience—nearly six years in the desert coexisting with terrorists?

“Anger is a human instinct that isn’t very productive, if you ask me. You don’t think clearly when you are angry. Rage and anger may be good reactions if you are defending yourself against a grizzly, but in this case it’s about a person you want to stop, the enemy,” Johan says, looking at the image again.

Johan says that he is not a violent man, and is unsure if he is capable of killing someone, but a part of him thinks that if there would have been an opportunity to flee, or some kind of resistance by the hostages and there was shooting, he wished that leader would have been one of the targets.

“He is very, very dangerous, to many people, that man,” he says. “And he is not someone you can convince to change with words.”

After nearly six years as a hostage, the “taxi driver” is in charge and it was he who drove Johan to freedom. Johan was told that he would be released, but didn’t dare to believe it. Instead he assumed he was being moved—again—and was angry that he wasn’t allowed to bring his tent and few belongings.

A lot happened during the five years and seven months and before Johan and the “taxi driver” finished the last leg of the journey to Timbuktu, they sat down for a rest.

“We talked a little bit and he explained that I was supposed to be delivered to the other cars.”

While he was in no way convinced he was traveling toward freedom, Johan mustered up the courage to ask: “What did all this amount to? What did you gain by keeping me?”

The leader starts talking about Qatar and Johan thought that maybe a ransom had been paid for his release. It was at the tail end of Ramadan and Johan wondered if Qatar had ordered his release since there is a tradition of charity, and good deeds handsomely rewarded during holidays.

The leader said: “Your family is in Qatar, right now.”

“But that was a lie, my family have never been in Qatar. He lied to me and that gave me hope that they had let me go without paying any money.”

They bid farewell. After more than 2,000 days together, Johan left the kidnapper behind, following instructions to walk in a direction where supposedly, there were cars awaiting him. In the distance there was a cluster of Land Cruisers and pickup trucks—and Swedish authorities.

For years, Johan had fantasized about what this moment would feel like. To just put one foot in front of the other, knowing that every step was one step closer to freedom.