Hostage US Article: Life after Detention: Adjusting to a New Normal at Home

By Katie Symansky Hunter, July 2023

In our last quarterly article, we focused on how a wrongful detainment or hostage situation affects family dynamics from the perspective of the one left behind. The partner who is still at home trying desperately to get their loved one home, while also managing the obstacles that make up everyday life.

That article can be found here.

This time we will do the same, but from the perspective of the partner who was detained, plucked from society and walled off from all things normal, while life continued without them back home. What was it like to reemerge from a cell block, into a world that you no longer recognize? How do you rejoin your family, whose dynamics may have changed during your absence? Where do you go to find yourself again, and how do you adapt to this new reality?

For this article I have interviewed 3 men who have returned from being wrongfully detained by foreign governments. I will not use their real names, or the names of the countries where they were held, for purposes of confidentiality. I started each conversation by asking about the moment when they learned that they were being released, and in all three cases, the answers were quite similar: a renewed sense of hope mixed with skepticism and fear. Sahil, who was held for 4 months, said that the last few hours were the hardest because so much could go wrong. He was in the middle of an extreme high security area, and although the plane had arrived to bring him home, there were 6 hours of very anxious waiting between the time the delegates landed, and when he was actually released. A lot could have gone wrong during that time period, a lot could have gone wrong during the drive from the prison to the airport, and it wasn’t until he was on board the plane that he could finally relax.

For Max, who was held for 3.5 months, the government officer broke the news to him the night before he was to be released; however, Max didn’t trust him, so he didn’t believe him. Even when he was being driven to the airport and told over and over again “you are safe now,” he didn’t believe it. And for Joseph, who was held for 5 years, it was a complete surprise. He says that he knew they would be released eventually, but when he was woken up at 5:00 am and told to get dressed, he started to put on his prison uniform. The officer said, “no, no, no, you’re going home! Put on your civic clothes and you’re gone!” He didn’t believe it, he thought maybe he was going to be transferred to house arrest, but when he was put in an armored truck that started driving toward the airport, he knew it was real.

Each of these men, along with their families and friends, joined together in a collective sigh of relief; but this wasn’t the end of their stories, instead, it was the beginning of the next chapter in their lives, and moving forward meant something quite different for each of them. For Sahil, it was to pick up the reins and get back to work to get his friends released, who were left behind in that prison cell. Within weeks of his return home, he was on a plane to meet with government officials from his cellmates’ respective countries, advising them, and delivering letters to their loved ones. He was a man on a mission to bring everyone home.

Max and Joseph on the other hand, took time to settle back into their respective lives. “Having been given the liberty to not work for a few months lessened the impact of external challenges,” says Max, who was given a 7-month sabbatical by his employer so that he could heal.  He said that some things have been challenging, but he’s been able to adapt, so that the impact isn’t too great. For instance, he has found it stressful to communicate via email and WhatsApp, but he has been able to back away from those, and that has helped him to sort through other practical matters.

Joseph came back to a world that he did not entirely recognize. “At the beginning I felt lost,” he said. While he was able to take time to heal, he also wanted to get his life back together, which proved difficult, when he found that the world had changed in the 5 years he had been gone. “When you get out, it’s like a time machine. Everything has changed. I didn’t even know how to handle a phone. I forgot.” This is common for a lot of former detainees. Activities that were generally regarded as second nature turn into challenges that the brain must relearn. On top of this were the after-effects of the Covid pandemic, which changed so much of the way we work and interact in public. Joseph tells a story about how he went to get his driver’s license renewed when he first got back. He said that he walked into the DMV not wearing a mask, and “the lady started yelling at me! I had no idea what she was yelling about!”

Covid has uprooted all of us, but he was also gone for 5 years, so it wasn’t just about rebuilding his life, it was about learning to live in a new world. He returned to a family that had been reshaped by the deaths of his mother-in-law, and of his aunt, who was like a mother to him, and by the birth of a new grandchild. The family dynamics had also changed. Joseph told me “My wife was always depending on me. I was the guy who made all the decisions in my house, and at some point, she realized that she was alone, that she had to survive, and that she had to support me. My wife is now independent. She does her own everything. If I want to help her, she says “no no no no no, stay there, I know how to handle things!” He says that while this is different, it’s actually for the better, although it was really hard at first. “I would try to do something, and she would say, “nu-uh, not that way!” He says that it has been a process, but with the help of a therapist, they are learning to give each other their own space so that they can move into that next chapter in their lives.

All of these men have now been back home for a matter of months. Sahil has been home for about 16 months, Max for eight, and Joseph for ten. Each of them is still trying to find their “new normal,” and navigating their way through challenges such as nightmares, flashbacks and persistent exhaustion. Sahil is still working on behalf of others, and he acknowledges that he hasn’t taken time to process his own story. He’s fortunate in that he has a partner with whom he can speak, and this has been his saving grace. “Being a hostage is a really weird experience, you’re completely reliant on [your captors].” He said when he first came home, he would think about how he would almost feel guilty “that they (the guards) would go so far out of their way to let you use the toilet,” and it wasn’t until he was home, and speaking with his partner, that he realized how wrong this was. “I was held hostage, that’s the worst crime there can be against you”, yet he was grateful to these people for giving him his basic needs. It’s a mindset that many hostages experience, and being able to let go of that is a process in itself. Sahil knows that he will have to unwrap his experiences eventually, and when he is ready, Hostage US will be there to support him. Max said that he feels good and is encouraged by the progress he has made over the last few months. He said, “I know I haven’t “Arrived”, but I am on a journey that will lead to a very positive ending for me.  I am very grateful for my dear, supportive family, mentors, counselors, and grateful for the help of Hostage US.”

Joseph said that “Hostage US has been so important in helping me reintegrate into this new world.” He said that he had to ask himself, “what do I want to do with the rest of my life? The world is so different, and I have to find myself again. What I learned is that you need to seek help, and Hostage US has been there for me during this process.” Joseph is now working with other families who have a loved one wrongfully detained abroad, and he’s decided to dedicate much of his time to speaking about the issue, so that people can understand what it’s like.  “People don’t understand what it is to be a wrongful detainee, I want to speak out and change that!”

Finding a new path in life is never easy, but doing so while also trying to navigate a world that you don’t understand or recognize is that much harder. Hostage US strives to lessen the burden and provide tools so that former detainees can rebuild their lives when they come home. No two stories are ever the same, but what is a constant is the need to accept help, understand that getting back to “normal” is a process, and know that Hostage US will always be there to pick you up.