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Caitlan and Joshua: adventurers caught in Taliban trap

Updated October 13, 2017
Caitlan Coleman (L), Joshua Boyle (C) and their two sons in a picture released in December 2016. ─ Reuters/File
Caitlan Coleman (L), Joshua Boyle (C) and their two sons in a picture released in December 2016. ─ Reuters/File

WASHINGTON: She was a small-town American woman yearning to explore. He once married a Guantanamo inmate’s sister.

Together they backpacked into war-ravaged Afghanistan, were taken hostage, and bore three children in captivity before their shock rescue.

Caitlan Coleman and her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle’s ordeal has remained largely a mystery, and one of the strangest hostage dramas since the day they were snatched by a Taliban-affiliated group in 2012.

Five years after their capture, during which a 2016 hostage video showed Coleman pleading for an end to “the Kafkaesque nightmare in which we find ourselves,” the family is free.

But little is known of the couple’s reasons for striking out to Central Asia in the first place, with seemingly no endgame in focus.

“Only God knows exactly where it will lead or what all can be accomplished, seen, experienced or learned while we travel,” Caitlan wrote in an email in July 2012 on the eve of her departure, according to Caitlan’s neighbour Holly Otterbein, who wrote an article for Philadelphia magazine last year. “So we put ourselves in His hands.”

Their adventures took them to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan, where they befriended locals in the countryside and joined caravans with other travellers. They sent postcards home chronicling their adventures.

Coleman grew up in the tiny community of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. She is described by friends as soft-spoken, individualistic, an all-American sweetheart.

In September 2012, one month before her capture, she wrote to friends to describe her joy in “getting to know some of the most unique, quirky people I have ever met, and learning from them. It really gives you a different perspective on the world”.

Boyle was raised in Ottawa. They met as teenagers online, shared a passion for science fiction and the Star Wars movies, and got married in 2011 during a trip to Central America, according to Canadian press reports.

“How did a self-described ‘pacifist Mennonite hippy-child’ from rural Canada end up as a prisoner of the most brutal terrorist group in Central Asia? Not even his family is sure,” Boyle’s friend Alex Edwards wrote in a blog post in 2015.

“He was a rebel, an iconoclast, a Robin Hood. I hope he still is.”

Boyle was drawn to politics, extremist personalities, and justice issues surrounding the detentions in Guantanamo, according to Edwards.

Boyle’s parents were given occasional glimpses of their son’s and daughter-in-law’s life in captivity, in correspondence delivered through intermediaries.

Boyle recounts in one letter how he helped deliver his second son in the darkness, with a flashlight between his teeth.

“Ta-da!” he wrote to his parents, according to a September 2016 report in the Toronto Star. “The astonished captors were good and brought all our post-partum needs, so he is now fat and healthy, praise God.”

In two videos from last December and January that the hostages’ families shared this year, the couple’s two sons appear healthy but dishevelled.

Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2017