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HOSTAGES

"When we converted, we were no longer hostages; we were brothers"

Roque Pascual spent nine months as Mokhtar Belmokhtar's hostage in Mali

Left to right: Albert Vilalta, Alicia Gámez, Roque Pascual with their captors in the desert. Ampliar foto
Left to right: Albert Vilalta, Alicia Gámez, Roque Pascual with their captors in the desert.

When he arrived, all the pageantry got in motion. The men got moving, guerrilla training began, target practice got underway, and so on." "

He" is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a 40-year-old Algerian terrorist who recently orchestrated the greatest kidnap operation in history - involving nearly 800 hostages - at the Tigantourine gas plant in southeastern Algeria. The strike, led from somewhere in northern Mali, resulted in the death of 38 civilians and 29 terrorists.

The man who is talking about him is Roque Pascual Salazar, 53, one of the few Westerners who has personally dealt with Belmokhtar - much to his regret.

For nine months Pascual was held prisoner in northern Mali together with two fellow Catalan volunteer aid workers, Alicia Gámez and Albert Vilalta. They were part of a caravan of humanitarian aid sent by the Barcelona non-profit group Acció Solidària. All three were abducted in Mauritania by one of Belmokhtar's units on November 29, 2009.

For Pascual, seeing his former jailer on a video claiming responsibility for the massive kidnap operation in Algeria brought back vivid memories of his own time in captivity.

Moved by the memories of his own ordeal after watching events unfold at Tigantourine, Pascual has accepted, for the first time ever, to talk about his own experience in the desert. Unlike most of the Europeans who have been kidnapped in the Sahel area - four of whom were interviewed by EL PAÍS - the five Spaniards who were abducted there between 2009 and 2012 had so far refused to talk to the press.

Pascual is a cordial man who exudes humanity. The experience does not seem to have ruined his life. He is sad because between his forced absence and the economic crisis, the public works company he built over the course of 25 years, Gecoinsa, has been forced to shut down, and its 157 workers sent home. Now he is trying to start another business in Santa Coloma de Gramenet (Barcelona), but he faces the same financing difficulties that so many other entrepreneurs are coming up against.

His story, told over the space of several hours at a Barcelona hotel, is a fascinating journey into what General Carter Ham, Pentagon chief for Africa, described as the most powerful and wealthy terrorist group in the world, thanks in no small measure to kidnap ransoms. Since March, these terrorists and their Tuareg associates have become the lords of northern Mali, a sparsely populated territory that is as vast as Spain and Italy combined.

The caravan was moving slowly through Mauritania when a four-wheel-drive vehicle approached. Its occupants pointed their weapons at Pascual, Vilalta and Gámez while another car bumped them lightly from behind. This car overtook them and forced them to stop and get out. Using the car radio, Pascual had time to alert the other members of the caravan, but they were too busy listening to a Barça-Madrid soccer match through a RNE station in Las Palmas.

The attackers were screaming in Arabic while the Catalans held their arms in the air. One of them appeared to speak French. Albert Vilalta turned his head to ask: "Qu'est-ce qui se passe?" (What's going on?). That slight movement was enough for one of the young men to pull the trigger. Three rounds lodged themselves inside Vilalta's leg, and a cartridge case superficially wounded one of Alicia Gámez's feet.

It was the beginning of a nocturnal flight through the desert darkness, with the headlights off, on their way to Mali. Vilalta was in the front seat with his leg held straight, and the other two were in the back, covered with blankets.

"We even drove past a Mauritanian Gendarmerie station," recalls Pascual, who lifted a corner of the blanket to take a peek. It was only on the third day of the trip that a man named Bilal, allegedly an Algerian doctor and "the best-looking man in the desert" according to former German abductee Marianne Petzold, cured Vilalta's leg wounds. Soon after that, Belmokhtar made his first appearance.

Pascual does not suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. He repeats over and over again: "They were all bad, real bad." Even so, Belmokhtar was not the worst. "He came to see us every three weeks and on the odd occasion he stayed with us for up to a week," he recalls. "He slept in the open air, a bit off to one side."

And what did he do when he came to pay these visits? "It may sound unbelievable, but he actually gave us encouragement. First thing he said was to take it easy, that we'd be in his hands for four to eight months, that we shouldn't think about our release, since it would arrive in due time, and that in the meantime we should not worry but try to have as pleasant a stay as possible." Belmokhtar spoke in Arabic and this was translated into French, which Vilalta speaks.

"Sometimes it seemed like Belmokhtar understood French because he would add to what his interpreter was saying. He is an educated guy. He spoke softly and his conversation was marked by deathly silences. Nobody ever argued with him except occasionally one of his fathers-in-law [the terrorist chief has four wives], Omar Hanane." In 2011, this latter individual joined Muyao, a new terrorist group whose debut operation was the abduction of three aid workers, two of them Spanish, at the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf (Algeria).

From time to time, Belmokhtar would briefly join one of the chats between the hostages and their jailers, especially with Hanane, who is trilingual. "Many talks versed on Al-Andalus [the portion of the Iberian peninsula under Arab rule until 1492], the promised land, which they want to reconquer," says Pascual. "Belmokhtar used to stress the role of [the city of] Toledo, whose history he was familiar with."

During these visits, Belmokhtar did not confide in them, but during the long hours of desert conversation, some of his followers did talk a little more than they should have. "I don't know whether they were just being boastful, but back then they were already saying they had the capacity to hit gas exploitations in Algeria," he recalls. Three years still remained before Belmokhtar's forces would take over Tigantourine. Meanwhile, in 2011, the group helped itself to new weapons from Gaddafi's arsenal, which they used for the attack on the gas plant.

The first moments of captivity were the hardest. All three Catalans shared a hideout with three cots; Vilalta remained inside for two months because of his leg. "I was his nurse," Pascual recalls.

But Pascual suffers from high blood pressure, and the lack of medication also took its toll on him. "I was out of it for a few days, and it was them who took care of me."

Pascual began to get better with the medication provided by Mustafá Chafi, an advisor to the president of Burkina Faso whom Belmokhtar always chooses as a mediator. Chafi arrived at the hideout blindfolded, but bearing a case of medicines and vitamins courtesy of the Spanish Army.

"I found Pascual in a bad state and it was hard to convince him to take the pills, because they were not the brand he regularly used but one made in Algeria, with the same composition," said the mediator in a telephone conversation. "He was afraid we wanted to poison him."

But the medicine also brought its own set of problems. Pascual was taking Seguril, a diuretic that gave him sudden, powerful urges to urinate. Everyone except Vilalta had to relieve themselves in a faraway dune, but one day Pascual could not hold it that long and he used a can that Vilalta used for the same purpose. "They took it the wrong way and slapped my hand with a ruler, just like at school," he recalls.

On another occasion, Pascual thought he had time to reach the designated dune, but ended up relieving himself at a nearer dune instead. "You have no idea how pissed they got! They made me move all the earth around, as though an entire mountain of excrement had to be buried. So I had no choice but to stop taking the Seguril."

The hostages were keeping abreast of the news through RTVE's foreign service, Radio Exterior de España. "We could only listen to news and soccer matches. Music was forbidden. One day I was a bit slow turning off the radio after the newscast and we heard a few chords. Our punishment was to have the radio taken away for two weeks."

Besides the radio, there was another type of entertainment. "On Saturday nights, there were movie sessions," recalls Pascual with a laugh. "Someone who acted as a communications chief of sorts for Belmokhtar would show up with a computer full of videos of jihadist feats in Afghanistan, Algeria and so on. The amount of killings we were forced to watch! They were especially fond of combining a promotional video about an armored vehicle that was supposed to be bomb-proof and a home video of the same vehicle blown to bits after one of their attacks."

The third punishment imposed on Pascual was due to a scream by Alicia Gámez in the middle of the night, which made their captors erroneously conclude that the nearest man to her had attempted to feel her up. For a while he was handcuffed at night.

Everyday coexistence with nothing to do in a faraway, inhospitable place was not always easy. In order to make life more comfortable, "Albert wanted to spend the entire bloody day talking about Mónica and their three children, about his family, about our families. This was very painful to me, I could not stand it. I wanted to set a schedule to talk about these things, and then move on to something else."

On December 28, 2009 they were forced to cover dozens of kilometers - "I suspect they brought us into Mauritania" - so they could telephone their families. Pascual heard the serene voice of his wife, Isa, telling him from their home in Santa Coloma de Gramenet: "Keep the faith, Roque, everything will end well." She and other relatives had undergone previous training by psychologists to help with the call.

Pascual also remembers how his fellow hostage Vilalta was chief engineer for the city of Barcelona, where he himself was a contractor, meaning they'd worked together before embarking on the African trip. "Albert is the best captivity mate I could have had," he says. "I can still remember the near libidinous way he would stare at a four-wheel drive vehicle that was parked there with the keys in the ignition. He dreamed of getting away. I had to say: 'But we don't even know where we are or which way to go when you get behind the wheel.' In the five months we spent at the hideout, all we saw go by was one camel with two riders."

In order to fill the long days, Pascual learned how to make bread in the mornings with his kidnappers. "In exchange, we showed them how to grill meat, because they were cooking everything. They would hunt gazelles and we would prepare them together. It's a tasty, non-fatty meat. I suggested opening a business together in Spain, selling gazelle meat," he jokes. Alicia Gámez, who had studied theology, was the first of the three to yield to their jailers' relentless attempts to convert them to Islam. Once she became a Muslim woman, they decided to protect her and they hung pieces of cloth inside the hideout to separate her area from the men's. Her conversion was partly why Alicia Gámez was freed first, on March 10, 2010, after 102 days of captivity, according to the press release which Al Qaeda sent EL PAÍS that same day.

Pascual and Vilalta held on for seven months before answering "yes" to the question that Belmokhtar asked them every time he came to visit: "Have you converted to Islam?" Meanwhile, his followers kept explaining the virtues of their religion, including their version of heaven, where virgins await pious men. They were given a Koran in French.

"Look, Roque already knows how to pray," Vilalta told Belmokhtar one day. After his ablutions, Pascual prostrated himself to fulfill the second pillar of Islam, prayer. The terrorist Belmokhtar "cried with emotion," recalls Pascual. "I also saw him smile. From then on we were no longer hostages; we were brothers."

Conditions suddenly got better - the food, the water, their freedom of movement. "If there is one thing I regret, it is not converting from day one of my captivity. Everything would have been less painful."

The release finally came on August 23, 2010. They were transferred to Burkina Faso, where Spanish intelligence agents were waiting for them with fresh clothing and food, including Iberian cured ham. Islamic practices were being quickly left behind. Pascual still hesitated about shaving off his Islamic beard, fearing reprisals. "You don't really want your wife to see you like that, do you?" an agent said drily.

In exchange for the release, Al Qaeda got one of its people out of jail in Mauritania and eight million euros in cash, plus commissions for the mediator and other agents. But even that is a small fee compared to what terrorists are asking for hostages in the Sahel these days.