Family of kidnapped Canadian shares new video, clings to hope as anniversary of abduction approaches
Joshua Boyle and his American wife were taken hostage in Afghanistan nearly five years ago. Now, the Boyle family is sharing a video they received.
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Linda and Patrick Boyle are the parents of hostage Joshua Boyle.
That’s how they identify these days. And that is what has become of their lives, moving in circles they never imagined: meeting diplomats, former spies and soldiers, academics, consultants, others who inhabit war zones with undefined roles, cops, journalists and negotiators; struggling to comprehend the geopolitical landscape, mind-numbing bureaucracy and government-speak; learning about the group that has held hostage their son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons for five years.
That’s the milestone they mark next week with the anniversary of the day Boyle, 34, and his American wife Caitlan Coleman, 31, were kidnapped after foolishly crossing into Afghanistan on a backpacking trip.
The couple’s sons, 2 and 4, were both born in captivity. According to letters home, they hid the second pregnancy and Boyle, with a flashlight clenched between his teeth delivered his son, surprising their captors.
A “proof-of-life” video last December showed the Boyle’s grandchildren for the first time. The blond boys squirmed on their father’s laps, the eldest picking his nose and giggling at someone, or something, off camera, as their sombre-faced dad pleaded for release.
There are many people trying to help free the young family —a story that cannot be fully told until their release, for fear of jeopardizing negotiations.
Since 2012, the kidnappers have released eight videos and a handful of letters. For Boyle’s parents, the videos elicit a range of emotions: relief, worry, optimism, despair. Every tilt of head, lilt of voice, every word is studied for clues about the couples’ mental or physical state.
The family is never sure what they write reaches the couple. But earlier this year it was clear one did, with the help of intermediaries.
The Boyles have shared with the Toronto Star a video, sent privately in January, a reply to letters that the Boyle and Coleman parents had sent.
“The letter was received very quickly seemingly, since we received it on January 4th and you apparently wrote it on January 1st,” Boyle says to the camera, adding that should put “Canada Post to shame since I can’t get a letter to my grandmother that fast when I’m in Canada.”
“God willing,” Boyle later says, “this all wraps up soon and doesn’t inconvenience anyone any more than it already has.”
Coleman looks around nervously and rocks her youngest son, who is concealed in a blanket. At the end of the two-minute video she addresses her father, telling him she has “become more of a Belle than an Ariel.”
The reference to Disney heroines may have been lost on the kidnappers, or some of the officials working the case. Ariel from the Little Mermaid is rebellious, defiant of her father. Belle is the dutiful daughter from Beauty and the Beast.
Linda Boyle, who has humble roots and is most comfortable baking or volunteering to deliver lunches to those who need them, says the experience has taught her she can do anything.
On one recent trip to an embassy in Ottawa — in the hopes that the country could exert influence with the captors — Linda panicked about her appearance. “I honestly do not know how to put on make-up,” she laughs. She reached out to a friend who sells Avon but was quickly overwhelmed by the thought of mascara. They decided instead that tinted Burt’s Bees lip-gloss from Walmart would suffice. “Patrick kept calling me a tart.”
Laughter to tears, tears to laughter and back again. This is how they try to cope, and most days they do.
One of the greatest frustrations is that while they try to do all they can, there is also not much they can do since the captors’ demands have not been made to them, but to governments — Canada, the United States, Afghanistan.
They are being held by the Haqqani network, a powerful Afghan group with ties to the Taliban and a history of taking Westerners hostage and holding them for years before release. Their highest profile hostage was U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured after leaving his base in Afghanistan. Bergdahl was held for a little less than five years, and freed in May 2014 in exchange for five Taliban prisoners detained in Guantanamo Bay.
On August 29, an Afghan court sentenced Anas Haqqani, the son of the powerful Haqqani network’s founder, to death for his role in raising funds for the network. That coincided with a video uploaded to YouTube where a despondent Joshua Boyle, who appears to be reading from a script, says that if the Afghan government did not stop executing Taliban prisoners, his family would be killed.
Near the end of Ramadan this June, Patrick and Linda Boyle posted their own video, addressing the captors. “We’ve done the best an ordinary Canadian family can do. I’ve personally written to several of the most senior government officials in Afghanistan, those with great power over the execution of your brothers,” Patrick says, his voice breaking. “We understand your frustration and impatience as we too are frustrated and frightened. We’re a modest family but our efforts have resulted in some success. Your family members are still alive.”
“We’ve done what you’ve asked of us, we’re now respectfully asking you to show mercy to our family members in return. Please.”
There has been wild anticipation and devastating disappointment. Asked if she can believe it has been so long since her son was taken, Linda Boyle answers quickly, “Oh yes. It feels like more.”
“Patrick and I keep saying we don’t know if our inability to do things is because we are just naturally aging, or how much of it is the stress.”
Patrick turned 60 last month, and Linda turns 60 next week.
Linda knits clothes for her grandsons and then donates them, knitting more in larger sizes. The family tries to look after each other — there are five Boyle children and many relatives — by taking comfort in traditions and humour . Dark, dark humour.
Coleman and Boyle met online as teenagers on Star Wars fan sites, so the Boyles honour them with a cake every May 4th — Star Wars Day: May The Fourth Be With You. One of their daughters once baked a “Sorry your son is kidnapped by the Taliban” cake for Mother’s Day. Last year, Patrick, a federal tax judge, got a Father’s Day card from another daughter saying “Well Nobody’s in Prison. Way to go Dad.” Inside she wrote, “technically.”
This May 4th was the first time they didn’t make a cake and they didn’t celebrate Josh’s birthday. It was the first Christmas there were not presents for him under the tree.
“For each of my kids when they were 3, I would make them a special Christmas stocking,” says Linda. She made one for her oldest grandson and hung it alongside ones for Coleman and Boyle. “But then I had to take them down. It was just too hard to think of another year without them.”
“It is an unspeakable ordeal. Joshua, Caitlan, and their two children born in captivity are victims in the truest sense. Our thoughts are with Patrick and Linda Boyle and the rest of their family. I have met the Boyles and I can tell you Mr. Speaker their strength is remarkable,” said Alghabra, the parliamentary secretary responsible for Canadians held abroad.
“I want to say this to the Boyle and Coleman families: Know that Joshua and Caitlan’s freedom remain a priority for our government. Know that we are working with all relevant authorities here and abroad to bring them home safely. Know that we will not stop until that goal is achieved. It is a truly difficult anniversary, but also know this: Canadians stand with you and are united in our determination to seeing your loved ones back in your arms.”
Every Wednesday night, the family talks with the officials from Global Affairs Canada (GAC) and the RCMP tasked to the case. The names and faces have changed over the years with maddening regularity that only underscores just how long the kidnapping has dragged on.
“Held Hostage,” an eight-part Star series last year investigated what happens behind the scenes when a Canadian is taken hostage abroad. The stories of victims and their families, along with interviews with nearly 50 witnesses, government, military, intelligence officials and private security consultants, revealed a system ripe for overhaul.
Last month, Patrick traveled to Geneva to stand with representatives for Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (LRWC) as they addressed the UN Human Rights Council, urging Ottawa to fix how they handle hostage-takings.
Linda’s sister, Kelli O’Brien, had launched a social media campaign to make sure Boyle, Coleman and their kids were not forgotten, urging politicians to #saytheirname.
There have been small improvements recently — Alghabra’s statement Wednesday among them. On Thursday the prime minister’s office acknowledged that the report from LRWC and said it was being “carefully reviewed.” Also on Thursday, parliamentarians held their first meeting to review how Ottawa helps Canadians trapped abroad.
The Boyles also recently began working with consultant Andy Ellis, a former senior member of Canada’s Security Intelligence Service who retired in 2016 to form the ICEN Group. It has helped to have someone who was once on the inside, they say.
Canada, like the U.S. and most Western nations, maintain they do not negotiate with terrorists — but negotiations always occur in kidnappings.
Canadian Colin Rutherford was released in January 2016 after five years held hostage on “humanitarian grounds” thanks to Qatar’s involvement in the negotiations. Trudeau offered his personal thanks to Doha.
The days when other hostages are released is a hopeful time for the Boyles. That optimism soared after Rutherford returned and the Canadian government sent two psychiatrists to their home — an American and a Canadian —to help prepare them for the psychological needs of their son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren.
Officials said the timing simply coincided with a conference being held in Kingston, but it was hard to not get excited, even though getting their hopes up makes the pain more intense when those hopes come crashing down from such a height.
That was two years ago.
There have been other times when they sensed something might be going on, and then later had those suspicions confirmed.
In June 2015, a former U.S. special forces officer testified that Coleman, Boyle and one other American and a Canadian hostage (presumably Rutherford) were to be freed with Bergdahl but that the deal collapsed due to bureaucratic infighting. “I failed them. I exhausted all efforts and resources available to return them, but I failed,” U.S. Army Special Forces Lt. Col. Jason Amerine told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The news — even belatedly — that they may have been so close, was heartbreaking.
With each new development, each trip that someone from Canada’s hostage team makes to Kabul, or Doha or Washington, each news report or rumour, officials in Ottawa are careful not to raise the family’s expectations, saying they don’t want to give the family “false hope.”
The Boyles understand. And yet: “I say, ‘Look. All we have is hope,’ ” says Linda, “‘so don’t take that away from us.’”
It has been five years.