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My Berlin 'safe haven' after 977 days' captivity

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My Berlin 'safe haven' after 977 days' captivity
Photo: Michael Scott Moore.
10:24 CEST+02:00
One year ago on Wednesday, Los Angeles native Michael Scott Moore was set free after being held hostage by Somali pirates for 977 days. The German-American journalist tells The Local how after his release Berlin became his sanctuary to recover from the trauma of captivity.

In early 2012, Michael Scott Moore was reporting on the Hamburg trial of a Somali pirate gang that had tried to hijack a German cargo ship for Spiegel Online.

The already twice-published author wanted to delve deeper into the topic of Somali pirates and decided to travel with an award-winning documentary filmmaker, who was familiar with the country.

But after just ten days in Somalia, Moore was kidnapped by a pirate gang.

Over the next two and a half years, Moore suffered beatings, repeatedly went on hunger strike and lost the ability to properly walk due to lack of exercise.

He was allowed only occasional phone calls with his mother in California, who was working with both the American FBI and their German counterparts, the BKA, to negotiate his release.

Finally on September 23rd, negotiators managed to whittle the price down from an initial $20 million to $1.6 million - collected from donations. The US government has a policy against paying ransom for American hostages.

Moore was taken to a small airport. He was free.

Now back in his apartment in Berlin, where he had previously worked, Moore is following through with his plan to write a book about Somali pirates, now a memoir.

He shared with The Local some of his first experiences back in Berlin - eating burritos, drinking a beer with German investigators and adjusting to life outside captivity.

The Local (TL): When did you realize that you were actually going to be allowed to go?

Michael Scott Moore (MSM): I'd stopped believing that I was going to be freed because I was being told every month or something that it was coming and so I just stopped believing it at all.

And when a car came and they said ‘Michael, you're going to go to the airport', I was like I'll believe that when I see it. Even when they put me in the car, I thought, ‘I'm going to get sold to another gang and they're going spend another year.' So I was actually pissed, I was angry.

And then they transferred me to another car and there were no guards in the car and then it became clear. They could get my mother and the negotiator on the phone and it became clear I was actually going free.

TL: Did you meet the Germans and Americans working on your case?

MSM: Yes, I stayed in Nairobi for two or three days when I got out and so I met some BKA people.

In fact, the first thing that happened when I got to Nairobi was one BKA man offered me a beer. They asked me if I wanted anything, and I said a beer and he said ‘I'm ready for that because every man, when he gets out of captivity, he wants a beer.'

So they saw me coming. They were prepared with German beer - a Pilsner.

And for the first three weeks back in Berlin, I had a guy from the FBI who would drive me around while I was debriefing with them at the embassy.

He was terrific and he was ex-military and I was obviously suffering from PTSD at the time. I think he had some of that in him, too, so we would just talk to each other - we talked at each other in the car - and that was extremely therapeutic. I think if it had been a film, it would have been comical.

But he would tell his stories, I would tell my stories and it was great. He didn't mind when I ran at the mouth and I didn't mind when he did it. In any other situation I think we would have been annoying as hell, but somehow we understood each other.

TL: Do you know how Germans and Americans worked together on your case?

MSM: That's a bit secure. The FBI seemed to take the lead because whenever the pirates talked to anyone, it was my mother. She had excellent support from them.

But the BKA and the FBI traded information extremely well in my case, evidently, in spite of the Edward Snowden scandals. But the problem in those cases was higher up. The FBI and BKA got along in spite of the storm overhead.

TL: Why did you choose to go back to Berlin afterward?

MSM: It's home. I have an apartment here, I love Berlin. It's incredibly easy to live here. Berlin feels extremely comfortable.

I'd been in Berlin since 2005. The German side of my family is in Cologne, but I knew I liked Berlin and after a divorce I simply decided to move here. I was working on a couple of books and I thought I'd see how it is to live in Berlin - I absolutely fell in love with it.

Berlin changed a lot… It was baffling that when I came back so many people had beards, because I couldn't shave when I was there and I was extremely happy to get rid of my beard. And then I come back and everybody looks like a hostage.

TL: How was it adjusting back to life in Berlin?

MSM: I found it very easy to adjust to life here. I think because there's just so much. Berlin is just an easier city than LA or any of the cities I would have gone back to in the States.

I think it would have been a little bit overwhelming to have to drive everywhere in LA. On the other hand, it was extremely difficult to have to walk everywhere because all my muscles were so atrophied that I actually couldn't walk for the first two or three weeks without extreme pain.I had like a two block radius around my apartment and that was it.

I physically could not run. I tried to run for a tram on my second day here, but the muscles just didn't work.

And after a day or so of just leading a normal life in Berlin, my knees and ankles swelled up like I had played a game of football. and they didn't go down. They hurt like I had arthritis and that didn't go away for three weeks and that was my fault. That was October last year

I started to get better in November and I realized if I could surf when I went to California for the holidays, that would be a milestone - and that's what I managed to do.

TL: What was one of the first things you wanted to do in Berlin when you returned?

MSM: Once I was back in Berlin, everybody was afraid about what I could and couldn't eat, but I came out of there with a stomach of steel. I had been fed so much horrible stuff, that although I couldn't eat very much at once - I had a constricted stomach - I could handle almost anything.

I think it was day four that I decided Mexican food would be a good idea and took my FBI minder.

Afterwards, the FBI minder's boss said ‘What the hell do you think you're doing feeding him Mexican food after he got out of captivity?'

And it was fine. I suffered no ill effects because first of all, I'd had far hotter food and then food cooked with absolutely terrible water that I'd get sick from and then have to recover from. Slowly it just made my stomach immune to almost anything you could possibly find here.

TL: How long was it before you felt back to normal?

MSM: I had a temper at first. But it took several months just for my mind to feel less cramped. I came out feeling enormously cramped to the point where I couldn't process too many social signals at once. Just dealing with a room full of people would have been impossible, talking to journalists would have been impossible.

I just couldn't keep track of that many things, so I was that much more restricted, and also physically weak. But getting physically stronger helped with the mental problems, too.

TL: You first opened up about your experiences, publishing articles in Der Spiegel and The Guardian in June. How was that, writing about such a huge experience?

MSM: That's therapeutic. Being able to write about it is actually good, is actually cathartic.

I didn't know where to start. I had to cast the material in so many different ways that I wound up with 100 pages of draft towards the book, undirected stuff, but I worked on it a lot and moved it around.

There's still too much to think about. Finding a single line through the whole experience is still very difficult.

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