A group of European tourists and their guides spent 10 days in captivity after being kidnapped in Egypt and taken to Sudan by a band of criminals. They returned home on Tuesday. The group, which included five Germans, five Italians and a Romanian as well as their Egyptian guides, had to withstand extreme heat in the desert and experience an emotional roller coaster ride as the their kidnappers negotiated a ranson. After Egyptian security officials killed six of the kidnappers in a shootout, the remaining kidnappers decided to release the hostages -- allegedly without the exchange of any money.
Kidnapping victim Bernd. L. told his story in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE conducted after his return to Germany on Tuesday.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Welcome back to Germany, Mr. L. We're happy your rescue went off well.
Bernd L.: That was not a rescue, what complete nonsense. After we were kidnapped in the Egyptian desert, a group of guerrillas took us to Sudan. There, the ransom was supposed to be transferred. Some of the kidnappers watched over us hostages there, and another part of the group stayed in Egypt. The Sudanese army attacked the group in Egypt on Sunday, killing six of them. Those who survived then started making their way toward us.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So how did you escape?
L.: On Sunday, at about 7 p.m., the kidnappers arrived at our desert encampment in jeeps. All at once, there was a huge kerfuffle in the desert. They took away our watches, our tools and all of our equipment. The kidnappers' leader then went to our Egyptian tour guide and said: "You killed our people, but we will not kill you. We're setting you free!"
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Had you expected that?
L.: No, never, it was a huge surprise. The first few minutes were hard -- we thought, now they're going to kill us. The whole time we were in the encampment our biggest fear was that the kidnappers would be attacked and would then retaliate by killing us.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Can you tell us more precisely how you were kidnapped?
L.: On the third day of our trip we got stuck in a sand field in Egyptian territory, 150 kilometers north of the Sudanese border. I was in the first jeep, which already became unstuck and we drove on. When the other car didn't follow, we turned around and then other black specks started coming toward us. But they weren't our other jeeps -- they were black cars. The kidnappers, armed with machine guns, forced us to get out of the jeep and hand over our mobile phones and cameras. They robbed us of everything right down to our underwear. Then they took us to Sudan, where we remained until we were set free.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did the kidnappers treat you?
L.: They were nice criminals, they never used force. They only wanted money and had no ideological or religious background. Our Egyptian tour guide even cooked meals together with them. The worst was the heat. At midday it was 60 or 70 degrees Celsius (140-158 degrees Fahrenheit) and there was no oasis around -- only desert.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why do you think they freed you?
L.: After 10 days, we were slowly becoming a burden on our kidnappers. Aside from that we owe many thanks to our tour guide, Ibrahim. He always stayed calm and he cleverly negotiated with our kidnappers. He saved our lives.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Was it really just deft negotiating skill -- or did the government buy your freedom by paying a ransom?
L.: No, I don't believe that. No money was paid. One of the hostages asked at one point how much they were demanding, and one of the kidnappers answered, "six." Later, he said that Germany only wanted to pay "two." But we didn't know what currency they were talking about. And it appears that nothing happened.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Egyptian government claims their army killed six kidnappers and arrested the rest.
L.: That is absolute nonsense. None of the kidnappers were arrested. They all just headed off in our jeeps.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did you get back to Cairo?
L.: The kidnappers took everything from us, including my GPS device and three of our four Land Rover jeeps, and sped away. All 19 of us had to squeeze into one jeep. Then from 8 p.m. until 2 a.m. in the morning, we just drove around, lost in the desert.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Nineteen of you were packed into a car made for seven people?
L.: Yes, hysteria reigned in the jeep -- the younger people cried the whole time and we were almost out of water. If we had broken down or gotten stuck, we would have died.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And no-one was looking for you?
L.: In the middle of the night we heard a helicopter over us. But we didn't know if it was a friend or an enemy. I thought to myself, you will know in 10 seconds at the latest. But nothing happened. So we stopped the motor and waited until the next morning.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What happened then?
L.: We decided to drive on in the other direction. And at some point behind a hill tents came into view. We drove closer. Then men in cars came upon us, with weapons of a type I'd never seen before. They forced us to lie on the ground.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Who were the men?
L.: They were Egyptian soldiers who lived in a military camp in the desert. Luckily, the camp had been equipped by the German Federal Relief Agency (THW). There were even showers there. We were given a nice reception, we were fed and doctors examined us. Several of us were put on IVs -- including myself because I my blood pressure was too low.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And then you were flown to Cairo?
L.: Exactly, a military transport brought us to Cairo. First we were examined at a military hospital and during the evening we were invited to a reception at the German Embassy. That's where I saw BND (Germany's foreign intelligence service) and GSG-9 (elite anti-terrorism police force) officials for the first time. There were about 25 men from special units at the embassy. We ate and drank champagne and wine together.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: We met up today at your travel agency. What are you doing here?
L.: The next trip to Brazil begins in a few days, and I also want to fly. I already paid for the trip and it's too late to rebook. "Kidnapping" isn't recognized in the fine print as grounds for a cancellation.
Interview conducted by Christian Fuchs.