Former al-Qaeda hostage recounts bitter return to France

2016-04-22 21:26
Serge Lazarevic. (AP)

Serge Lazarevic. (AP)

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Paris - The back of his shorn head still bears a deep scar of his al-Qaeda jailers' beatings, although he has regained the weight that sloughed off during more than three years of captivity.

Most of all, Serge Lazarevic is angry.

Not so much anymore at the men who abducted him and his friend Philippe Verdon, but at the indifference of his own French government which, he says, has no idea how to cope with him or other victims of Islamic extremists. The Franco-Serb's homecoming in December 2014 was met with a joyful celebration, but that was largely the fruit of his daughter's own efforts.

Lazarevic and Verdon were scouting to build a cement factory in Mali in November 2011 when they were abducted from their hotel. Verdon was shot to death in mid-2013, at the height of France's air-and-ground campaign to oust al-Qaeda-linked extremists who had taken over a vast expanse in northern Mali.

As the 54-year-old Lazarevic recounts in his book From One Desert to Another, which is coming out next week, the months that followed his return became a nightmare of a different sort as he tried to reclaim his life.

He learned that he'd been widely reported to be a Serbian agent, the result of a mix-up with another man years older who shared his name. Suddenly, the beatings, the torture, the incoherent allegations of his jailers made horrific sense, he said.

Still suffering 

"I lived in incomprehension of why I was being tortured, why this was happening to me," he told The Associated Press in an interview Friday. "I think they didn't want to kill me, but they wanted to make me suffer. And they succeeded. I was poisoned, tortured. Everything was done so I would suffer enormously. And that's still the case. I am still suffering. I no longer have a normal life."

Lazarevic, who wears a heavy leather jacket with a patch emblazoned "war veteran", is a thickset man with bright blue eyes that rarely blink. He lost 20kg in captivity, sustained on bread, water and sometimes insects.

He returned without any of the crutches that are essential to modern life in France. No bank card for an account that was emptied by recurring charges, since it was never suspended during his captivity. His French passport was somewhere in Mali three years ago, could be anywhere now. His pay stubs and work history were seized when French intelligence agents combed through his Paris apartment for clues - but now he says that paperwork is missing. That same apartment, whose rent went unpaid during his years of captivity, was emptied, with only some of his stuff put into storage.

What he wants for hostages like him, he says, is more kindness and support from authorities.

Moved from place to place

"Clarity and a methodology. When you come back after being a hostage for two or three years, you don't want to deal with paperwork, administration. You don't want to fight to get your ID papers back," he says "No - you want a little corner where you can rebuild yourself."

When he and Verdon were kidnapped, the Saharan nation of Mali had not yet fallen under the control of the al-Qaeda extremists, nor had the French military campaign begun. The two hostages were separated after about 15 months, but Lazarevic encountered other European hostages as he was moved from place to place. New captors were rotated in constantly.

"I must have seen 500 people, maybe more. Every 10 days they changed," he said.

Lazarevic was freed in exchange for four al-Qaeda prisoners, according to Mali's government, although he said he's never heard that directly from French officials, who deny paying ransoms or taking part in exchanges.

When he returned to be debriefed by French intelligence agents, he said he recognised none of the men shown in photos.

"They showed me older people and my jailers were kids," he said.

He links his al-Qaeda captors to the broader extremist movement, including the Islamic State attackers who killed 130 people in Paris on November 13 last year and the men who attacked Paris' Charlie Hebdo paper and a kosher supermarket in January 2015.

In Mali, the kidnappings continue.

On Friday, extremists in Mali freed three staff members of the International Committee of the Red Cross who were kidnapped last week.

"I don't know what they want - a country, power?" Lazarevic mused. "Taking hostages, it's to get noticed. These terrorist attacks, they're also to get people talking about them."

Read more on:    al-qaeda  |  france  |  mali  |  abductions

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