'I was still in shackles, still woozy': Freed hostage Joshua Boyle recounts captivity in Afghanistan

In an interview with CBC News, Joshua Boyle describes his kidnappers’ apparent motives, the conditions of his confinement with his family and the final moments of their rescue on Wednesday, five years after being taken hostage in Afghanistan by a Taliban-linked militant group.

Canadian tells CBC News captors thought they would get ransom quickly, asked who he was working for

Joshua Boyle speaks to the media after arriving with his wife, Caitlan Coleman, and three children at Toronto Pearson International Airport, nearly five years after he and Coleman were abducted in Afghanistan by the Taliban-allied Haqqani network. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

They are free and safe, but the scars from five years held hostage by a ruthless group linked to the Taliban run deep and raw.

Joshua Boyle, his wife, Caitlan Coleman, and their three children are now sheltered in Boyle's parents' home in Smiths Falls, Ont. In an interview on Sunday, Boyle described their kidnappers' apparent motives, the conditions of their confinement and the final moments of their rescue last Wednesday.

Boyle, a Canadian, and Coleman, a U.S. citizen, had been married just a year when they embarked on a backpacking tour of Central Asia in the summer and fall of 2012. Of his decision to go to Afghanistan, Boyle said he felt propelled by a sense of mission — to help people, "to fix things."

Why he wanted to go to Afghanistan

Boyle: "I'm not sure that 'want' is really the correct word. There are things we do in life because we want to do them. I want to eat chocolate for breakfast. But there are also things we do in life because we are compelled to do them by ourselves, that we have a compulsion or because it is the right thing to do. Or we do it because we see that no one else is doing it and it needs to be done.

"You don't want it to be you. Nobody wants it to be them who has to step up to the plate and sacrifice and work, and take risks, even if  everything works out. There is no benefit to you. You don't want that but some things we do in life."

"I'm not sure I ever did want to go to Afghanistan any more than I wanted to do other things in life. Everybody's done things they feel a calling to do, or they feel a responsibility. Or sometimes they even don't think it should be on them or that someone else should be doing this but no one else is doing it, so I guess I have to."

Why did you want to go to Afghanistan in 2012?

6 years ago
Duration 1:45
'I'm not sure I ever did want to go to Afghanistan,' says Joshua Boyle. 'Everybody's done things that they feel a calling to do'

They ended up in the hands of the Haqqani network, a militant group closely linked to the Taliban that is based in North Waziristan, a region of northwest Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan. The group, which was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. in 2012, has a long and brutal record of kidnappings for financial and political gain. 

Coleman was pregnant with the couple's first child in October 2012. They had travelled to an Afghan village where they felt mostly safe except for the unwanted attentions of one man who targeted them.

What his kidnappers wanted

Boyle: "Initially the reason we were kidnapped was because somebody's bright idea on seeing a heavily pregnant woman. My wife was seven months pregnant at the time. But one man had the bright idea if he kidnaps a heavily pregnant woman from the United States, the United States will be forced to pay any amount he wants immediately. Because otherwise she will be forced to give birth in prison and he was of the opinion that there was no way a civilized country would allow that, so he would be rich very fast."

"And he was very disappointed to learn that it wasn't true. He was not going to get his money within six weeks. And we were very disappointed to learn that our home countries were not as civilized as we would have thought they were."

What did the kidnappers want?

6 years ago
Duration 1:02
What did the kidnappers want?

Boyle said, after such a long time being held prisoner, he trusts no one.

He said he was interrogated many times. The first time, his captors wanted to know one thing before making their ransom demands: who was he working for?

On the interrogations

Boyle: "The very first time they came in to interrogate me and they said, 'Who do we contact that will pay for you? Tell us who you work for. Tell us, are you ICRC? And they will give us money and you'll go home. Are you army? Tell us they'll give us money and you'll go home. Tell us who you work for.' And I said, 'I have bad news for you, because the first is that I only work for God, and God doesn't have a briefcase of cash to give you."

Boyle describes being interrogated

6 years ago
Duration 0:31
Boyle describes being interrogated

Over the course of five years, now with young children, the family was moved between 23 different locations, sometimes stopping only for days. All of the places were within 50 kilometres of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and they spent time in both countries.

Often, they were transferred in the trunk of a car and frequently drugged with the anesthetic ketamine. They were held in kuchi huts, abandoned homes, one-room underground dungeons or homes purpose-built for Haqqani guards.

'We had to sleep leaning against the wall'

Boyle: "I was telling somebody that one of the ones we were in for a few weeks, it was the size of a public bathroom, and he said 'OK, I can picture it.' And he starts describing sort of the size and I said 'No, no, you don't understand it's the size of the handicap stall in the public bathroom and we were there for weeks."

"We  had to sleep leaning against the wall, just holding the children on our lap and there's water dripping from the ceiling. We had blankets but they were covered in mold. We had pillows but they were covered in mold. We had food but it was covered in mold because 10 minutes after anything enters a dripping dungeon it's just going to be completely rotten. And a blanket that's wet and covered in mold is not really going to keep you warm at night."

'We had to sleep leaning against the wall, holding our children on our lap': Boyle describes conditions while in captivity

6 years ago
Duration 0:56
'We had to sleep leaning against the wall, holding our children on our lap': Boyle describes conditions while in captivity

Coleman has remained private since the family arrived back in Canada. Boyle told CBC News that his wife had been raped, an allegation he first made soon after touching down at Pearson airport in Toronto Friday.

In the interview with CBC, he clarified that his captors had forced an abortion, authorized at the highest levels of the Haqqani network. He vigorously dismissed Taliban claims on the weekend that he and Coleman were never separated.

Boyle rejects Taliban claims

Boyle: "I have read their report and quite frankly, I think that anybody who reads their actual report with a critical eye that it is essentially a confession. They have not tried to make a plausible excuse. They have not tried to put forward a plausible defence."

"I know exactly what city we were in, I know exactly which commanders were there when we were separated. I can tell you the exact dates these things happened."

'They have not tried to make a plausible excuse': Boyle rejects Taliban claims that he and his wife were never separated

6 years ago
Duration 0:31
'They have not tried to make a plausible excuse': Boyle rejects Taliban claims that he and his wife were never separated

Boyle described in the interview how last Wednesday, guards came for them and bundled the family into a car — parents in the trunk with their infant daughter, separated by a partition from their two boys, ages two and four respectively.

Boyle was given the news that they were going to be freed almost five years to the day of their capture. But as they approached a checkpoint in Pakistan, guards asked to open the trunk and the captors' car sped away with several vehicles in pursuit. A gun battle followed.

On the 'incredibly tense' rescue

Boyle: "So at this point we started praying and some of my prayers were for myself, but most of my prayers were for my children. I knew that they could survive if I was killed. But I was pretty sure that if they were killed … I'd already lost one, so it was suddenly incredibly intense."

"We were listening at all of the shouting and the shooting trying to recognize voices, who's dead, who's not, who's run away."

"Inside the trunk?" CBC senior correspondent Susan Ormiston asked.

"We're still inside [the trunk] and one of our major concerns — we couldn't really see our two sons. The chaos had broken loose when they were screaming 'Kill the bandees, kill the prisoners.' The one who wanted to do that was grabbing the children to pull them outside and kill them.

"Were they with you in the trunk?" Ormiston asked.

"They [his sons] had been on the other side of the divider. But then they were not on the other side so we only had our daughter with us. We were frantically trying to figure out, can you hear the boys? Because at this point there had been bullets going through the glass, through the metal. I have a little bit of shrapnel in my arm from it. It feels more like a burn than a stab but I didn't care about that. I was just really hoping my sons were OK. 

"Of course," Ormiston said.

"The whole thing was over in 20 minutes but it seemed like an eternity, especially when you don't know where your kids are. And what I thought was to be the happiest day of my life was now looking like it would be the worst day of my life. But then another reversal of fortune, and it turned out this actually was a good day. Pakistani special forces, having put the criminals to flight, took us out of the car. I was still in shackles, still woozy from the ketamine, and they took us out of the car and said 'You're safe, brother, you're safe. It's all good."

'It was suddenly incredibly intense': Boyle describes gun battle during rescue

6 years ago
Duration 2:41
'It was suddenly incredibly intense': Boyle describes gun battle during rescue

Boyle says he is deeply grateful for the Pakistani special forces who helped save him and his family.

"They really were amazing," he told CBC News.

His three children are now being showered with love at their grandparents' home in Smiths Falls, he said. Over the weekend, Boyle wrote to CBC that his youngest, Grace, is being cuddled by relatives, "discovering a half dozen new founts of love." 

A still image from a video posted by the Taliban on social media on Dec. 19, 2016, showing Coleman and Boyle and their two sons. (Taliban/Twitter via Reuters)


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.