When Lieutenant Colonel (retd) AKM Sufiul Anam was told by his captors early August that imminent freedom awaited – negotiations had come to full fruition and that he was about to be moved to the "mediator's" house, Anam did not quite believe them.
And for good reasons. It was the umpteenth time Anam and his fellow four Yemeni colleagues and hostages had been told this by the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) captors.
Hope had abated. "But when they asked us to leave our belongings behind," it inspired hope, Anam told The Business Standard at his Bangladesh residence on 15 August 2023.
This time, Anam and his colleagues were again on a vehicle and travelling through roads they could not recognise.
Anam reached a house. "It was air-conditioned, and carpeted," where a man claimed that "you can consider yourselves free men."
There Anam found hope, but also confusion. Because after nearly 18 months to the date since he had been abducted from a makeshift check post on their way back to the base in a 4-vehicle convoy – a lot had transpired.
Also read - It felt like they could kill me any time, says UN official abducted by Al-Qaeda after returning to Dhaka
On the third day, they were moved to the mediator's house. And from there, they were handed over to security forces – marking the final transition to freedom. Anam was moved to the UAE first, and at a hotel room in Abu Dhabi, he met a representative of the Bangladesh government for the first time.
"It was the NSI [National Security Intelligence] official who let me call my family" Anam recalled. It was 8 August.
"My first call was to my wife."
"I remember hearing a scream from the next room," recalled Sakeef, Anam's son. Sakeef found his mother in a state of delirium, joy and relief. A phone call she had waited for since 12 February 2022, when the UN informed her of her husband's abduction.
When Kazi Nasreen Anam heard her husband's voice for the first time since the abduction, "I can't explain in words what I felt at the moment."
"She was wailing," said Anam.
Anam was working as the Field Security Coordination Officer (Head) of the UN Department of Safety and Security in Aden at the time of his abduction. Since 2005, after retiring from the Bangladesh Army where he had served since 1977, Anam has been working at the UN.
Dynamics in war-torn Yemen have become extremely complicated and dangerous as a result of a "multilateral" civil war which began in late 2014. From tribal leaders, coalition forces, Houthi rebels, and the Yemeni military to Al Qaeda and ISIS factions fighting in Yemen – abductions and rescues have become dangerously multi-layered.
Anam and his team went to Abyan for a security assessment so that humanitarian efforts can reach the province.
"I became the first victim," said Anam.
Held hostage by AQAP
Over the 18 months of captivity, Anam and his four colleagues were shifted between different locations. "We would come to call these places shelter rooms – because that's what they were, a room," explained Anam.
"We labelled these places with unique identifiers," said Anam.
They were moved multiple times between "Rooster" (the first shelter), "Tokyo", (a bird would call out every day in the morning and it sounded like "let's go Tokyo"), "Scorpion" (a scorpion was found on a bed once), "Cobra" (sighting of a cobra snake), "Lizard" (another sighting of a large lizard), "Tent" (when they were kept in the middle of a desert), "Sheraton" (the most luxurious site, someone's house) and finally "Rig" (the mediator's house).
There were times when the hostages were kept for a few days in one site before being moved again. And there were long stays as well. The hostages once spent 3.5 months at the Rooster (a one-room shelter with small holes for windows), about 7 weeks at the Tent and then again about 8-9 months at another Tent. They also spent about two months at the Sheraton and 1.5 months at the Lizard (someone's house).
By far, the Tents were the most difficult legs of the hostages' journey. And every time they were moved between locations, Anam and the other hostages were blindfolded.
It was during last year's Eid-ul-Azha, that Anam spent his first stay at the Tent. By then, the captors were running low on funds to keep the hostages – meaning food ration became increasingly limited. "[For instance] we were given one egg for three people, bread that was burnt, one piece of meat for three people," remembered Anam.
This was also the time when the captors stayed at a Tent adjacent to theirs. "The sandstorms were the most intense part of the stay. There were about 2-3 storms daily. The thrust of which was akin to if you were to let a tap of water run at full speed," said Anam. "It was hot. The space was cramped. We would lie down on our backs bare-chested. And keep praying."
Prior to this, the captors provided its hostages with proportionate meals and medicine, "and anything else we wanted like chessboards, prayer mats, electronic tabs [without Internet connection but with games and propaganda materials], fruits, tea, etc," said Anam, "they [captors] said they will keep providing for us as long as they have the funds for it."
"And they were well-behaved. They told us they won't kill us. They would keep telling us to have sabr [patience] and that negotiations are underway for our release," recalled Anam. "We lived counting days and relatively in an okay state but always locked in."
Anam and his colleagues also gave names to their captors such as Mr Nice, CID (who asked them questions), Security, Romeo (a young boy who served them food), Mr Nice 2, Driver, Mr Smart (a young man who would fix light switches etc). There was also a rude driver, who they named RD.
There were days when Anam noticed that the captors were becoming frustrated. Negotiations were not running at the pace the captors would have liked, who were hit with phases of limited funds to keep their hostages well-fed and moderately healthy.
"The first video released by AQAP was filmed in August last year," said Anam, where he read out a scripted letter pleading for his life to authorities. "I had no idea who these videos were sent to."
The first video was released in September 2022 and verified by the SITE Intelligence Group – an American NGO that tracks the online activity of white supremacist and jihadist organisations.
Following this, TBS published its story on Anam in the same month. At the time we reached out to the UN for their comments to no avail.
Anam's 2-month stay at Sheraton, which was someone's house, was the most comfortable stay. "I remember seeing news on television of the Queen's death, Rishi Sunak becoming the prime minister and the World Cup Football news. I looked for news about Bangladesh but could not find any. My colleagues watched Yemeni news," said a clean-shaved Aman, who would time and again run his fingers through his hair which run below his chin.
But in November last year, they were yet again filmed when the captors said it was for "proof of life." This happened a few times. And every time, it gave Anam a semblance of hope because he knew well that it's the UN's policy to ask for proof of life during hostage situations.
On 14 November 2022, Anam and his colleague were again moved to a Tent. "This is when we were reunited with three other colleagues [the captors separated and reunited the five hostages multiple times]," said Anam, "and I saw my colleagues' ankles were chained and fitted with explosive 'drums.' It could be remotely detonated."
Anam and his colleague were also fitted with similar ankle chains. This is where and how they were kept for 8-9 months – the longest stay at one location over the course of 18 months.
Another video was filmed with a script. This was released in June 2023. "We were again first told we will be released before Ramadan, then they said before Eid, then they said before Eid-ul-Azha," remembered Anam, "like last year but no freedom came."
Tensions and frustration were running high – reaching a point when "we [hostages] had to tell our captors to have sabr," explained Anam.
"We were scared," said Anam.
Throughout the 18-month ordeal, the captors always made sure to keep their faces masked, "only their eyes were visible to us."
"I remember our convoy stopped at a makeshift check post. We were returning from Abyan. My driver said something is going on ahead. I was looking at my GPS on my phone. Then I saw our men getting down from the vehicle [the one in the lead of the 4-vehicle UNDSS convoy]. It's the armoured one. I could not understand what was happening. Why would they get down?
And then two young men came up to my vehicle window. A young man in his late teens perhaps, wearing the traditional turban, told me to get down. I firmly said no. That's when he showed me a grenade and dangled it in front of my eyes – insinuating he will throw it inside our vehicle if I did not comply."
Anam noticed that a group of about 12 men were surrounding the convoy while about 3-4 men were getting people down from his convoy. A total of five men were ultimately captured. Anam was first loaded in a pick-up.
"A blank shot was fired," said Anam, which made his other colleagues think he was shot dead.
After being driven for a short while, Anam was reunited with one colleague and also blindfolded. They were then on their way to Rooster.
It would not be until after Eid Ul Azha last year that Anam would be reunited with three of his other colleagues when they were moved to Rooster from their first Tent stay. And it would not be until August 2022 that Anam would learn that his captors are members of AQAP — as per the script he was handed for the first video the world watched in September last year.
For security reasons, further details about his captivity and rescue will not be disclosed.
Reunion at last
Sakeef had received a call from the UN in early August, which informed him that there has been a new development. "I asked, is it positive news?" recalled Sakeef, "to which they said, no comments."
Within three hours since Sakeef heard his father's voice on the other end of the phone call, he, along with his mother, boarded a flight from Toronto to Dhaka. Sakeef's wife and baby son were already in Dhaka.
Anam's daughter, unfortunately, could not board the flight and remains in Toronto due to passport paperwork.
Anam landed in Dhaka around 5:30 on 9 August, where he was received by NSI and other security agency officials. At the airport, a press briefing was held where NSI Director Emrul Mahmud said: "It was a long process to rescue our Sir. Finally, our efforts were successful. The kidnappers demanded [a ransom], but we did not pay any money."
And then Anam made his way to his residence. A few hours later, Anam was again on his way back to the airport. "I had to meet my wife and son." Law enforcement officials escorted Anam.
"I could not sleep on the flight at all. I honestly cannot explain how my mind and heart were racing. My body was giving in," explained Nasreen.
In the following days, the family met the Prime Minister and the Chief of Army Staff. "The PM was very concerned and was well-informed about the case," said Sakeef.
Now nestled in their home residence, Anam says, "I thought of them [my wife and children and grandchild] so often through my captivity. What would happen to them?"
Anam had no knowledge of what was going on in his home country to secure his release. "It was definitely a concerted effort – from the diplomats, foreign ministry, NSI, the Army, the UN and more," said Sakeef.
Anam's case is unique in many ways – one being it was the longest-held captivity by AQAP on the record.
"I remember, in the beginning, how I learned that the latest abduction [prior to Anam's] lasted 3-4 months. So I used that as a benchmark and patiently waited. But months passed and no news. Then I looked up the lengthiest captivity – it was 13 months. So I waited again. But again months passed surpassing that benchmark," explained Sakeef.
The joy was palpable and so was a sense of fatigue in the house. The wife and son, although extraordinarily happy to have Anam back home in good health, were in fact walking in tired bodies recuperating from a unique turmoil.
"It's one thing for people to mourn death. But it is another thing altogether to know your loved one is abducted and held hostage at an unknown location," said Anam, "my wife's a woman of great stealth, as a wife, mother and woman. And my children as well."
Did you fear for his mental health? "I was half expecting him to be doing as well as he is doing. I remember in the beginning after the abduction happened, someone from the UN told me, 'We are not worried because it's Anam. If anyone can handle this situation, it's him," replied Sakeef.