Czech women released after two years in captivity say it is hard to believe they are finally free

Antonie Chrástecká, Hana Humpálová, photo: CTK

Two Czech women who were kidnapped in Pakistan in 2013 returned home on Friday after the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation IHH secured their release. The good news reverberated around the country, but even 48 hours later, no details have emerged as to who held the young women captive or where they spent the past two years.

Antonie Chrástecká, Hana Humpálová, photo: CTK
It was news that the Czech Republic had practically given up hoping for – on Saturday morning radio and tv news anchors reported that Hana Humpálová and Antonie Chrástecká who were kidnapped while travelling through Pakistan’s western Baluchistan province in March of 2013 had been released and were now back in the Czech Republic. Czech Television ran parts of an interview with the two women made in Turkey at the Humanitarian Relief Foundation which secured their release. They appeared on camera wearing headscarves and long gowns, looking drawn and exhausted but without apparent injuries. Hana Humpálová tried to explain her feelings:

“Actually at the beginning we were not sure we were going home and when we got here it was – I do not know how to describe it – it was a new world, a new life and a hope that we could start living our lives in a different way again. For example, when I first saw the sun, or saw somebody smiling at me it was amazing – such a basic thing, but something you do not see there.”

The two friends who set out on a trip to India via Iran and Pakistan, were 24 year-old when gunmen took them off a bus in Pakistan’s western Baluchistan province and they disappeared without a trace. Hanka recalled the day that radically changed their lives.

“We were really scared. It was my first time seeing a gun close-up and seeing people who looked like they could use it.”

“We were on the bus and a group of men stopped the bus and ordered us to go with them, to give them our passports and all our things….Actually we do not know anything about them. They never introduced themselves to us. So we don’t know the name of the group, we don’t know anything about them. They did not explain anything to us….The beginning was the worst time for us because it was a big change and we were really scared of them. It was my first time seeing a gun close-up and seeing people who looked like they could use it. We also heard bombs and gun fire, so we were really scared at the beginning.”

The Czech government immediately launched diplomatic efforts to try to secure the young women’s release but there appeared to be little progress and, as the months went by, hopes started to fade. In 2014 the girls’ captors released two videos on Facebook –one on June 26 and another on October 30 in which they asked the government for help saying their lives were in danger. In one of the videos the women read a request for the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist serving an 86-year sentence in a U.S. prison. In another Hana and Antonie said they had been separated and knew nothing about each other’s fate. Antonie begged the Czech authorities to do everything in their power to bring them home, while Hanka said she did not know how much time she had left and explained where she wanted to be buried. Since those two videos, there had been nothing, despite the fact that the authorities professed that everything possible was being done to secure the young women’s release.

Hana Humpálová, photo: CTK
The announcement that they were free came like a bolt from the blue. It later emerged that two months ago the young women’s families had turned to the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation for help feeling that all other avenues had been exhausted. The organization promised to do what it could and two months later it was able to report success. However the IHH released no details as to how it had secured their release or who their captors were. IHH foreign relations coordinator Izzet Sahin told Czech Television:

“When I first saw them they were just tired –spiritually they were very strong, but physically they were tired, because it was a long trip for them. We dealt with a representative of the armed group in Pakistan which had kidnapped the girls and we did not try to go behind that. It was not our target to go and search for who they are.”

The Czech authorities, who say they have received relevant information with regard to the case have refused to disclose any details. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said the important thing was that the young women were home same and wished them a quick recovery and a return to a normal, peaceful life. There were indications that the IHH was involved in trying to secure other hostages and did not want to jeopardize its chances by revealing information about this particular operation as well as unconfirmed claims that the women’s health condition required long-term medication which had helped to secure their release.

Antonie Chrástecká, photo: CTK
Deputy Prime Minister Pavel Bělobrádek came closest to giving any specific information when he told Czech Television that the young women were lucky they had not been held by terrorists but by criminals out to make money from their ransom. However no one has confirmed that a ransom had been requested or paid and responding to a direct question Interior Minister Milan Chovanec said the Czech Republic did not negotiate with terrorists not pay ransom money.

If there is one thing all Czech officials are united on it is the merit of the IHH in securing the young women’s’ release – both Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and the Czech President Miloš Zeman gave the agency full credit for saving the young women and expressed their gratitude on behalf of the Czech Republic.

Antonie Chrástecká –known to her friends as Tonča - said she could not believe she was finally free. Here are her first words for reporters in Turkey upon her rescue.

“I still can’t believe that I am free. I am afraid to go to sleep, because I fear I could wake up and find that it was all just a dream.”

“You cannot imagine how I feel now. I can’t believe that we are free and that we will finally meet with our families. I waited for this for two years, for two years in one room. I only thought about meeting with my family again. I am a little nervous and tired, but I am so happy. The hardest thing was being separated from my family and from the first moment I thought only about reuniting with them. I still can’t believe that we are free. I am afraid to go to sleep because I fear that I could wake up and find that it was all just a dream.”

Today the young women are undergoing medical tests and are in the care of a psychiatrist. According to Czech officials they are housed at a secret location and have been given heightened security in order to protect them from prying eyes and excessive media interest as well as to give them time to recover from the ordeal in a safe environment. They have reportedly met with family members, who are also refusing to speak to the press. Officials have repeatedly asked the media to respect the young women’s and their families’ privacy saying that it is up to them to decide when or even IF they want to talk about their deeply traumatic experience in captivity.