Missing in GeorgiaPeter Shaw has written a book about his experiences at the hands of kidnappers in Georgia. He meets up with Guardian Abroad to talk about his captivity and its effect on attitudes to international safety.
On first encountering Peter Shaw, I instinctively peered over his shoulder to locate the grim and untidy scrawnster in the photo I?d seen, face as pinched and eyes as large as those of a starved marmoset, taken mere hours after the end of his ordeal. What greeted me instead was a man of means and grooming, all ruddy health and easy equilibrium. But then, it had been four years.
Shaw has written a book, Hole: Kidnapped in Georgia, about his experiences at the hands of a gang of mercenary kidnappers in Georgia, from whose clutches he escaped ? ?or was released,? he interjects. ?It has become clear since the event that after the combined pressure exerted on my kidnappers by Eduard Shevardnadze and the EU, they decided I wasn?t worth the bother.?
For a good half an hour this gent?s spry table manner (we?d decided on the nearest coffee shop) and wickedly glinting eyes distracted me from the gruesome tale he was there to tell. The conversation slid naturally from the casual brutalities he suffered to views on Libby Purves (very positive), his beautiful young wife and his sons? careers. We were a world away from an underground cell in rural Georgia, where he spent 119 days shackled round the neck by an iron chain, covered in chicken shit and left to go mad in the dark.
The web of circumstances surrounding his kidnap, one wet Tbilisi evening in 2002 as he drove to the pub for his own farewell party, are described in the book. As are the harrowing events that followed it: violent abduction, attempted escapes and fearsome beatings, and then the real horror: a four-month wait for redemption in an underground pit, during which time he dealt with his desolation by counting slugs, chatting to dead people and trying to kill himself. I nod a lot, pretending I can relate.
Shaw is an aficionado of the expatriate life. It turns out he was an international mover and shaker before the kidnap took place. He?d worked in 11 different countries for the European Commission and the World Bank, and considered himself something of a nomad. I asked if this had changed since his ordeal. ?Not at all. I?m in Wales all the time these days, but that?s because my wife and children want me to stay at home. Very soon after I was released I went on to do contractual work in Kazakhstan and Ethiopia. It never occurred to me to be afraid of continuing to work in foreign countries.?
Similarly, since his ordeal his affection for the country and people of Georgia hasn?t dimmed. ?I still love it like I always did. I made such good friends while I was there. My wife Diana is Georgian and I?ve been back there once. In fact, since my book came out a bookshop-owning friend of mine has invited me over for a signing, and I like the idea.? I ask him if he isn?t afraid of some kind of ?retribution? attack ? by family members of his dead kidnappers, for instance. ?Not at all,? he insists. ?What else is there to do in life but just get on with it??
Very few of the world?s hundreds of thousands of international employees have any great knowledge of the social and political minefields they?re walking in, or even what value they might have as a hostage to who knows what cause. I ask him if he thinks his kidnapping has made a difference to the way international corporations, organisations and governments approach the safety of their staff.
?I was captured towards the end of a glut of kidnappings. There were the Spanish businessmen and the Red Cross workers who suffered the same fate as me only a few months earlier in Georgia. Additionally an EU staff member was bludgeoned to death. You could say mine was the straw that broke the camel?s back. Suddenly Neil Kinnock and Chris Patton ? and even Bono ? were getting in there, flexing their muscles on my behalf with Eduard Shevardnadze and the Georgian government.? And soon after that, even Peter Sutherland, Chairman of British Petroleum, laying a pipeline through Georgia, was demanding to know how his staff could be protected.
Obviously, no one can be prepared for something like a random kidnapping, and if someone is out to get you, the chances are they will, however safe you try to be. But if you think you might become a target, there are precautions you can take.
- Get friendly with your neighbours: encourage good feeling towards you by being open and generous. You never know when you might need their help. Peter would let the Georgians in the neighbouring apartments siphon off his electricity supply illegally. It made no difference to him, and fostered positive feeling among his day-to-day acquaintances.
- ?Don?t stay in the same country for too long,? says Peter, ?especially if your job is high profile and involves large amounts of money.? Peter was in Georgia for six years and feels it made him too much of an easy target. ?People knew my routine, and where I went to listen to jazz. They must have known I was leaving the country within a few days and that they had to act fast; they knew where I?d be.?
- If you work in the higher echelons of international businesses, the chances are you have a driver. There are pros and cons to this. ?I drove myself everywhere,? Peter says, ?which in retrospect was stupid and made me more vulnerable. But even if you employ drivers, the likelihood is they can be bought.? If it is your fate to be chauffeured everywhere, one idea is to always sit in the passenger seat, next to the driver. That way, you won?t look quite so important.
- Make sure you are completely au fait with local current affairs. It?s not something you?d need to investigate minutely ? after all, who knows what goes on in the corridors of power back home? ? but be more aware of the political climate and who your assailant might be. Consider how the public see you and your role, and keep an eye on the regional news.
- Dramatic kidnappings make the headlines, but petty crime is still the main hazard while you?re working abroad. Reduce the price above your head by leaving the laptop at home, looking as though you know where you?re going and keeping your hands free to protect yourself. 'Stay away from unlit areas at night and don?t get too pissed,? says Peter.
In truth, there isn?t an enormous likelihood that what happened to Peter Shaw will happen to you. But that isn?t the reason you?d read what he?s written anyway. He?s in a league of his own, this man; made great by extraordinary experiences. His book is a heads up for international workers, and entertaining to boot. It takes an unblinking look into the abyss and at the courage inside you when there?s nothing to hope for.
Hole: Kidnapped in Georgia by Peter Shaw is published by Accent Press Ltd at £7.99 and is available from all good bookshops.
Further informationThe British Foreign and Commonwealth Office website (www.fco.gov.uk) have a list of downloadable leaflets on international safety and what they can do for you when things go wrong. Click here to view them.
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