He’s Home! Now What?
3 women talk about reuniting with their loved ones after a wrongful detention.
By Katie Symansky- Hunter, April 2023
*The names of individuals and countries are changed for the sake of confidentiality.
When your partner is taken away from you, held in a prison cell in a hostile country, and held for no other reason than to be used as a pawn in a political game, you find yourself lost in a desert with no road signs telling you where to go or who to talk to. You end up dedicating months, or even years, of your life searching for the next scenario that will get them released, putting everything else on hold while you arrange meetings with officials in Washington, speak with strategists, manage the household finances, take care of the kids, and ultimately spend every waking moment hoping for their safe return. Then, one day, you get the call. The call that you’ve been dreaming about. The one that tells you that your partner is on their way home.
I spoke with three women, who we will call Jane, Katherine, and Naomi, although these are not their real names. These women unwittingly took this journey, and thankfully, received the call that their partner was coming home. I wanted to hear their side of the story, from the moment they received the call, through the weeks, months and years that followed, to understand how their lives were ultimately changed forever. What I’ve learned, or perhaps I should say, been reminded of, is that human beings are amazing and resilient creatures. We face situations that we thought we would never be able to tackle and somehow come out the other side, seeing the world through a new lens. Captivity changes not just the person who was held, but all of those who worked so hard for their release. The toll on families is not insignificant, but eventually, with support and guidance such as that provided through Hostage US, a new life begins.
Those first few days following the return home are a whirlwind of emotions and activity. There are debriefings with government officials, medical check-ups, media inquiries, and a mile-long list of logistics to sort through. The most immediate concerns for returnees are about their health. For Jane, her husband’s heart was in atrial fibrillation during his flight home, and there were times when they didn’t know if he was going to make it off the plane alive. When the family finally saw him, he was dazed and unable to walk unassisted. Once they got him on the stretcher, which was waiting for him on the tarmac, he looked up and realized that Jane was there. “We had a good long hug and then got into the ambulance and rode together to the hospital.” As a nurse by training, Jane watched the EMTs, nurses, and doctors at the hospital, saw that they knew what they were doing, and finally felt assured that everything was going to be OK. Katherine, on the other hand, said that she just felt this sense of disbelief that he was finally by her side after months of separation. She explained that one of the more challenging aspects of his return, for her, was that she didn’t have the luxury of being able to process her emotions while she was actively fighting for him. Afterwards, once he was safe, there was a real mental shift which made her almost speechless when they were reunited.
The days that follow are a rush of friends and family calling to check in on you, and the outpouring of love is almost overwhelming. Eventually though, the hype dies down as phone calls become less frequent, the media outlets move on to another story, and you and your partner are left to continue your journey through life. Jane and her husband chose to take a two-week hiatus and stayed at a friend’s Airbnb in the countryside. She said, “we ate good food, and he was given whatever he wanted!” Given her husband’s proclivity to eat only healthy foods, this turned into a joke between the two of them. The two weeks was a time to heal and spend quality time with one another, but soon it was time to return home, and as it is for all families, a new reality eventually emerged.
Jane’s partner returned home a few months prior to me speaking with her. She and her family are still reeling from the effects the wrongful detainment had on them. Jane finds herself trying to forgive him for what he put them through, knowing that his intentions never included hurting her or their kids. He just really loved his work and the country in which he did it. She says it’s still a struggle, and they talk about it regularly. As we spoke, her husband had just returned home from spending time in another state with his daughters, answering their questions, and trying to bring peace back to the relationship. We should point out that the family did not want him to go to work in this particular country in the first place, specifically because they worried about his safety. When he was wrongfully detained, the mix of emotions included terror, sadness, worry and anger. This is not a case of “hostage shaming;” rather, it’s a more deeply rooted issue the family had been struggling with prior to his departure and one that surfaced during his detainment.
Naomi’s partner returned just over a year ago, and when I ask how things are going, she starts by saying how great everything is. I should preface this by saying that prior to her partner’s wrongful detention, they had only been dating for a couple of months. Most of her friends didn’t even know that she had a boyfriend. So, while most relationships start with date nights and weekend day trips, theirs started with Naomi spending every waking moment working for his release. The few times they were able to speak to one another, it consisted of short 5-minute conversations on a smuggled phone. It wasn’t until the final weeks of his detainment that they managed to speak with one another for longer periods of time. Now, a year later, they look back on those conversations and see how they ultimately built the foundation from which their relationship has grown. “You learn to be partners really quickly, because he was relying on me to speak for him.”
This is not to say that their lives have been easy since his return. She talked about how exhausted she was when he came home because she had just spent months doing everything she could think of to get him released. Meanwhile, he returned and was ready to get back to work. “He had all this energy, and I was burned out, exhausted.” She said that the hardest part was a few months after his return, because at that time everyone is expecting you to simply move on with your lives. It’s no longer the pressing issue it once was. For Naomi, a year since the release, she’s still feeling the effects of the wrongful detention. She says that she feels guilty, and wonders if she is being selfish because after all, “nobody tortured me.” The reality is that her experience was a nightmare, and it will take time before she can live her life without the paranoia that arises if he comes home 10 minutes late, or the anxiety she feels if they are apart for too long.
The hope is that they will get to the place that Katherine and her husband are now. Fifteen years after his release, Katherine says that the kidnapping is no longer the defining moment of their lives. They have children now, and although it has taken time, she says that other moments have eclipsed the experiences surrounding her husband’s kidnapping, not so that it has been forgotten, but so that it has become a part of their history, and not their present story. She told me that her husband used to reach out to everyone who helped him and his family on the anniversary of his return home. Then one year, he realized that he had forgotten that it was the anniversary, and just like that they realized that their lives had moved forward.
Having a loved one return home is supposed to be the most joyous of joyful celebrations. Most people envision that when their loved one comes home, there will be tears of joy and laughter, and while holding hands, you will return to the home that you had built together and live happily ever after. While this certainly may happen, the part that you don’t think about is how your relationship is forever imprinted with the effects of the trauma which you both experienced, albeit in very different ways. How do you, as a couple, move forward from that? What I learned is that you do move forward, and with time, the event that engulfed your life for so long fades into the past, becoming less and less of the thing that defines you. However, getting to that point is a journey in itself.
Hostage US exists so that families don’t have to take that journey alone. Our Support Coordinators work closely with families, both while their loved one is detained, and during the months or even years that follow. They help with everything from organizing meetings, talking through problems, assisting with financial hardships, arranging for pro-bono professional support, and quite simply, being a friend who is there to talk through the struggles and to find solutions. Together, a new normal will emerge and the journey that follows will showcase just how strong you are.