Hostage Shows What It's Like to Be Held Captive
How a Frenchman working for Doctors Without Borders became a target for Chechen rebels
It was barely morning on July 2, 1997, when Christophe André was pulled from his bed, handcuffed, dragged into a car, and driven across the border from the Russian republic of Ingushetia to Chechnya. As a Frenchman working for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), he was a target for Chechen rebels with ransom demands.
Hostage, a graphic nonfiction book out this month from Drawn and Quarterly, chronicles the 111 days André spent in captivity following his kidnapping in the Caucasus region. Guy Delisle, the French-Canadian cartoonist and animator, is known for books that document his international journeys, including Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, and Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City. In his latest, he illustrates the story of André, whom he met through a friend in 2003, interviewed, and then included on every step of the process to make sure the book was an accurate reflection of lived experience. Delisle brings readers into the room with the hostage and, more importantly, into his state of mind.
The book traces André’s thought process, starting with his surprising calm at the beginning, when he thinks he’ll simply be asked to empty the organization’s safe. After he’s taken to a different location, he assumes that the procedure MSF has in place will kick in and he’ll be freed in just a few days. André methodically counts the days to stay grounded, but as they pass, it dawns on him that negotiations have stalled—or, worse, never started—and that freedom isn’t coming anytime soon.
More than two months pass before André finally gets confirmation from MSF that they are actively working on negotiating his release. But even then, he is overcome with guilt that they might have to pay the million-dollar ransom to the rebels—money that MSF then can’t use for its humanitarian mission.
André arrived in the region just after the end of the First Chechen War (1994-1996), during which Russia tried to reverse Chechnya’s bid for independence, and ahead of the second one (1999-2009), which ultimately forced Chechnya back into the Russian Federation. Because André’s abduction fell in the period between the wars, and because Aslan Maskhadov, the leader of the separatist movement, spoke out against kidnappings, André determines that he is being held by a “bunch of thugs who want to make some cash.”
Since André and his captors don’t speak the same language, communication is nearly impossible. Alongside André, the reader latches onto each new bit of information and each inference he makes based on his interactions with his kidnappers. What does it mean when they take his photo? What does it mean when one of them offers him a cigarette? Why does he get meat in his soup today? He becomes reliant on certain sounds and occurrences to make sense of the day, time, and place: the “crick” of the handcuffs unlocking before his meals, the “click clack” of the bolted door opening, and, seeping through the walls, the Chechen murmurs he doesn’t understand.
Graphic novels and nonfiction books can be sensory feasts, action-packed and visually dazzling. But Hostage is about a man who spent day after day in a sparse room staring at the radiator to which he was chained and at the one boarded window through which he couldn’t look. So Delisle uses muted shades of blue and gray and a pared-down style to stress the monotony of being held captive. The simplicity and redundancy of the scene, combined with André’s obsessive counting of the days, highlight the emotional toll the captivity takes on him.
To cut through the repetition and helplessness of his situation, André takes refuge in his thoughts. Worried about the possibility of a mental breakdown, he avoids thinking of family, friends, and colleagues—and all the things he’s missing. Instead, summoning his inner military history nerd, he spends his time envisioning battles he’s studied and plotting out the various steps of engagement. “A as in Austerlitz. The Battle of Austerlitz, 1805. B as in Borodino. The Battle of Borodino, Russia campaign, 1812. C as in Cambronne. Pierre Jacques Etienne Cambronne, General of the Empire”—this atypical abecedarian exercise distracts from his reality and keeps him from spiraling into depression.
The panels that replicate these battles break up the monotony of the captive’s account, both offering visual excitement and suggesting the possibility of André’s eventual escape. When he finally is able to steal away—thanks to his kidnapper’s carelessness—Hostage starts to feel like a classic comic book. In a short burst of pages, Delisle switches up the paneling, style, and pacing to fit the turn in the story. Seizing his one opportunity to flee, André talks himself through his own battle strategy—how he’ll make it out and how he’ll maneuver his way back to safety in an unfamiliar country.
André had only been in the field for three months when he was abducted, and he was held hostage for the same amount of time. But that grueling experience didn’t deter him: Six months later, he returned to work for MSF—and kept at it for the next 18 years.
The images in this article have been excerpted from Guy Delisle’s book, Hostage.