A Season in Hell by Robert Fowler – book review

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 by Edith Cody-Rice

The title of this compelling account is from a Rimbaud poem about despair and desperation, an apt description of  the ordeal faced by the author and his colleague during 130 days of captivity by Al Qaeda in the Sahara. In late 2008, Robert Fowler, whose career as an influential Canadian senior civil servant had included stints as policy advisor to three prime ministers, Deputy Minister of Defence and Canadian ambassador to Italy, was sent by the United Nations as a special envoy to Niger, along with his colleague, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade veteran Louis Guay, to try to broker a peace between the government of Niger and Taureg rebels.

Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were kidnapped by Al Queda in the Islamic Maghreb on December 14, 2008, from the main road in a safe district near the capital of Niger. Robert Fowler’s gripping account of nearly 5 months in the Sahara, 1000 kilometres into the desert, is a chilling tale. He and Louis Guay were held in the open, bedding down under thorn trees, if they were lucky, and existing on a diet of rice and powdered milk,. They were every day afraid for their lives and particularly wary of tents which were erected for “proof of life” videos. They could also be used for beheadings, a fear all too realistic, given the beheading of British tourist Edwin Dyer about a month after Fowler and Guay’s release.

Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were not held with any other hostages and appear, in a way, to have been fortunate in the “katiba” or cell that took them. The leader of the cell observed Islamic principles, providing them with the same access to food and water that his own men had and allowing them a precious tarp against the rain because they were the weakest members of the group and Islam demanded it. The leader, called Jack by the hostages, apologized abjectly for some cookie crumbs that his followers had eaten from a damaged package intended for Fowler and Guay but, as Robert Fowler wryly noted, would have beheaded them without a second thought.

How lucky they were became evident when they were about to be released and saw the female hostages who were released with them from another “katiba”. The women were in appalling shape, so appalling that even the leader of Fowler and Guay’s cell was shocked.

Robert Fowler gives the kidnappers their due, allowing credit when kindness was shown, but their ordeal is the stuff of nightmares. Mr. Fowler says the fear was so intense it caused physical illness and at one point, thinking their captors were digging their graves (it turned out to be a desert shelter), they struggled with what they believed were their impending deaths and made peace with themselves.

Fowler tells the tale as it unfolded with all the intensity of an uncertain future. Even the reader is not sure that they will survive, although, objectively we know that they did.

Louis Guay emerges as a hero. Practical, picking up bits of this and that for possible use and repairing shoes and clothes, making bags, and deeply spiritual, he seemed more at peace with himself from the account than Fowler, who indirectly drew strength from his colleague’s spirituality. Guay, unlike Fowler,  was able to enjoy the spectacular sunsets and shooting stars, even in capivity, although it was he who attracted the greatest emnity from his captors and would have been killed first had it come to that. And it nearly did come to that. On the drive to freedom out of the desert, a hostage negotiator representing the president of Bukina Faso told Fowler that he had been ordered out of the Al Qaeda camp after stalled negotiations, but he stuck around to wait for the mood to change and, as a result, the negotiations came to a successful conclusion. Had that negotiation not come to fruition, Guay, and then Fowler, would have been beheaded in macabre ceremonies.

This is a compelling read. Indeed, as the title of the book states, it was a season in hell and  the fact that these two men came out alive is something of a miracle. Fowler, while complimenting the UN and the Canadian government for massive efforts to secure their release, has little good to say about the senior management of the RCMP. They were inept and didn’t seem to understand that the Sahara is not western Canada and that the mindset of his captors was not something  they could understand. On the home front, while lower ranking officers behaved in an exemplary fashion, senior management refused to brief Mrs. Fowler and Mrs. Guay in a timely manner. Although the RCMP knew the men were alive within 5 days of capture, they refused to relay this to the wives and only after Mary Fowler had approached Ban Ki Moon, then Secretary General of the UN, did she find out, 48 days after the kidnapping that the men had survived the “grab” although a “proof of life” video had been in the possession of the RCMP since shortly after their capture.

A senior RCMP officer, when asked by Mrs Fowler,  whether AQIM had made ransom demands, told her, at the end of a pointed finger, that “As long as I am in charge of this investigation not one cent will be paid for the release of these high muckety-mucks”. This to the wife of the high muckety-muck in question.

Fowler also castigates DFAIT for allowing the RCMP to run the investigation with little interference. They were cowed or unwilling to intervene in the appalling treatment of the families.

We have heard much about Al Qaeda in the Islamic Meghreb and elsewhere, but always from the outside. This book is about as close to the inside as we westerners will get, and it is cautionary. These are 7th century warriors, with a literal interpretation of a 7th century Koran, and they live in a world of their own, a world which may have enormous repercussions for us, but which we cannot enter. They hate us with an enduring passion.

A Season in Hell is available at Mill Street Books in Almonte and Read’s Book Shop in Carleton Place.