SMITHS FALLS, ONT.—During his years as a hostage, 4-year-old Jonah Boyle was terrified to close his eyes.
This wasn’t just the protest of a child who didn’t want to nap or go to bed. “Even if you tried to play peekaboo with him, he would scream, he would panic,” said his father, Joshua Boyle.
The fear began one evening when the kidnappers transferred Jonah, his younger brother, Noah, and their parents from one prison to another. The boys were asleep, and the guards forced Boyle and his wife, Caitlan Coleman, to leave their sons and get into the car first.
Jonah was also asleep until the kidnappers returned. “A bunch of masked men with Kalashnikovs then came into the room — their mother and father aren’t there — and start picking them up and say, ‘Come on, come on, we go in the car,’ pulling him to some place he doesn’t know.”
Boyle told this story Saturday not to recount the horror his son endured — but to highlight his recovery.
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“Last night he wouldn’t close his eyes because he was so excited and he just wanted to sit on his pile of toys with a gigantic smile on his face,” Boyle said. “It took him about three hours to fall asleep, and it wasn’t three hours of panic. It was three hours where he just wanted to really, really cherish this gigantic rabbit and these plastic Lego blocks and these toys, and he wanted to sit there and bask in being ‘no bandi’ after all of this time.”
“Bandi” is what the kidnappers called their hostages. Coleman and Boyle would tell their sons hundreds of stories about how life would be once they were free, even as they sometimes lost hope that they ever would be.
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A timeline of the captivity of the Boyle-Coleman family in Afghanistan
Boyle spoke to the Star on Saturday from his parents’ home in a wide-ranging interview — the first since the couple, their sons and a newborn daughter, Grace, were freed in a dramatic rescue by Pakistani forces three days earlier.
Details about the rescue are still unconfirmed, but Boyle said all five family members were in the trunk of a vehicle to be transferred to another location when shots were fired. Some of the kidnappers were killed and others fled.
On Saturday he described some of their darkest moments while being held hostage: cells that were no bigger than a bathtub, or underground; his wife’s rape and forced abortion; the daily cruelty of the kidnappers.
And then there was the devastating boredom during five years spent almost entirely without books, newspapers or movies — allowed only a slate and a piece of chalk. Boyle said that when they once asked for something to read or anything to relieve the tedium, the kidnappers returned with a pile of dirty dishes to wash.
They didn’t know Justin Trudeau was Canada’s prime minister until after they were rescued. One of the captors told Boyle the new U.S. president was Donald Trump before he was forced to make a “proof-of-life” video. “It didn’t enter my mind that he was being serious,” he said.
But outside Boyle’s father’s office where we spoke Saturday, there was little evidence of what his children had been through as they enjoyed their first full day of freedom in Canada. Jonah was fascinated by flushing the toilet, and had dirty pants and bare feet from digging in the vegetable garden. Noah, 2, played with wooden trains with his mother and aunt Heather. Boyle’s mother, Linda, found the best position to soothe her months-old granddaughter, Grace, was snug against her side, cradled like a football.
Candy wrappers littered the floor; tables were covered by colouring books, bouquets of flowers, a cake from Pakistan’s high commissioner. A Welcome Home banner hung over the dining room windows.
The library looked as though a hurricane of toys and children’s clothes had touched down.
Boyle said he knows there will be many more questions about the family’s captivity and rescue, and he plans to address them in coming days, already fielding an inbox full of emails from media outlets around the world.
Coleman, on the other hand, wants to stay quiet for now and declined to be interviewed.
When the young family arrived back in Canada on Friday night at Toronto’s Pearson airport, Boyle’s statement to journalists prompted more questions than answers.
He spoke of the murder of his daughter, “martyr” Boyle, which some news outlets reported as the killing of a newborn named Margaret.
He called for justice for his captors, whom he wanted the Taliban to punish, or for them to be brought before the International Criminal Court.
Coleman, 31, and Boyle, 34, were kidnapped in Afghanistan in October 2012 during a backpacking trip through Central Asia. On Friday, Boyle said they travelled to the country as “pilgrims” to help people in need in a Taliban-controlled region.
His comment led to speculation about the couple’s intent, with some noting Boyle’s previous brief marriage to Zaynab Khadr, the daughter of Egyptian-born Canadian Ahmed Said Khadr, who had been suspected of financing Al Qaeda before he was killed by Pakistani forces in 2003.
Boyle said on Saturday that he had read U.S. media reports that questioned why he and Coleman were in Afghanistan.
“I’m a harmless hippie and I do not kill even mice,” Boyle said. “I’ve been vegetarian for 17 years. Anybody who knows me would laugh at the notion that I went with designs on becoming a combatant.”
When the Haqqani network kidnapped Boyle, Coleman was five months pregnant.
All three of the couple’s children were born in captivity, and they kept Coleman’s second pregnancy a secret, surprising the captors when Noah was delivered.
The Afghanistan-based Haqqani network are skilled kidnappers who often hold hostages for years as they negotiate lucrative financial deals or the release of prisoners.
But holding women or children is rare for the group — and among the many attempts to free the family over the years was an appeal to respect Pashtunwali, a sacred code of honour in the region among Pashtuns.
“Those who are Haqqani are different,” Boyle said Saturday, growing angrier as he spoke of the kidnappers. “These are people who have no relationships in life that are not purely mercenary. They have no real friends, only cohorts. They have no wives, children. Those we met who were not orphans spoke of hating their parents.”
He said the captors showed no mercy — to any of them.
Of the three children, it is the middle boy, Noah, who appears to be suffering the most from the ordeal. At least a quarter of his days are spent crying and screaming, Boyle said.
“He’s not having a temper tantrum; it’s that he saw the colour of orange and orange scares him, or that he saw a screwdriver and screwdrivers scare him. Boots scare him,” he said.
Security and police are stationed outside the Boyle house. When they came to the door Saturday, the toddler panicked. “He’s not scared of them specifically; he’s scared of the boots,” said Boyle. “Because the only people he has seen wear boots are people who are coming in to kick you.”