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December 2, 2009

My Husband Was Kidnapped

kira zalan

Photo Credit: Melissa Ann Pinney

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After the second letter, I decided not to read them anymore. I agreed with the negotiator that I would look at the notes only long enough to verify Eduardo's handwriting; the negotiator would read them for information.

I existed on orange juice, herbal tea, and chicken broth. How could I eat if I didn't know what my husband was eating? Every time I lay in my bed, I'd wonder where Eduardo was sleeping. Did he have a pillow? A blanket? Was he in that box all day and night?

Once a week, I would receive an e-mail with threats or a pleading letter from my husband. Each time I would respond via the classifieds, explaining what I was capable of paying. As the weeks rolled by, I couldn't sleep or keep my focus; I was falling apart.

After about three months, the negotiator sat me down and gave me a verbal slap in the face. He told me that this particular group was known for its long-term kidnappings. The previous victim had been held for 22 months. I had to be ready for a long ride, he said. "Look, you need to do the kinds of day-to-day things you did before the kidnapping," he advised. "You aren't going to make it through this if you don't."

After hearing those sobering words, I moved into a new phase: anger. Who the hell did these people think they were? What right did they have to torture my husband, terrify my family, and demand our money? I decided not to be a shivering housewife anymore. I would go about my life. I would throw the kidnappers off their game.

I started doing the things I did back when life was normal—celebrating family birthdays, taking belly-dancing lessons. One day, I was driving with my daughter and noticed someone following us home on a dirt bike. Then, at a shopping center, I spotted a man with a mustache, dressed in khaki camping gear, just like the kidnappers. He stared at me, and I stared right back.

They were watching me.

I started coming up with ways to unnerve them, to make them think they were losing their hold on me. What if they thought I was giving up, taking the kids and moving back to the U.S.? I moved boxes and bubble-wrapped furniture into a warehouse on our property, doors open for all to see. Maybe they'd think their plan had backfired and that they'd end up with nothing. Maybe they'd have to take what I had.

The negotiator didn't like my plan to wage psychological warfare on the kidnappers. He wanted me to follow the usual formula. I decided I would continue the negotiations by the book as he advised, but publicly, I would keep acting like I had nothing to lose.

Eduardo's letters grew more intense, informing me that he was never taken out of the box and that he had to relieve himself in a bucket. Four months in, he began to receive scheduled beatings twice a day. In the fifth month, he was shot in the left leg at close range. Ten days later, he was shot in the left arm. Photos of the bullet holes in his body arrived in my e-mail inbox.

Then the phone calls started. The negotiator had warned me that the callers would be nasty and would curse at me. What I wasn't prepared for was the sound of my husband's voice on the other end of the line.

I knew from Eduardo's notes that he'd been told I was doing nothing to get him back. When I talked to him on the phone, his words were chilling. "How is it possible that this is all you've done?" he asked. "You're going to let them kill me so you can keep my money. You're such a bitch." Still, he sounded unconvincing, like a machine, and I knew that the words were scripted. I replied, "I love you with all my heart." We both started to cry, and he said he loved me, just as the line went dead.

Finally, on January 4, seven months after Eduardo had been taken, the kidnappers said they wanted to exchange him for the money I'd offered.

I received a "proof of life" photo, showing my husband holding a recent daily newspaper. The man I saw was half of Eduardo's weight. With thin hair and a gray beard, he looked like an 80-year-old, clinging to life. I stared at his nose; it looked disproportionately big on the hollow face. And those eyes looked nothing like my Eduardo's. They were empty and lifeless. I studied the photo for 15 minutes before I could bring myself to confirm that it was, in fact, my husband.

Per the kidnappers' instructions, I sent two ranch employees to a hotel in Mexico City with a duffel bag full of $100 bills. From there, they went to a public pay phone that had a note attached. The note sent them to several other pay-phone notes, until one of the notes finally directed them to an alley, where they were supposed to trade the money for my husband. But Eduardo was not there. Instead, the kidnappers took the money—along with one of the ranch employees. The next day, the abductors sent an e-mail saying they would hold the rancher hostage but set Eduardo free so he could get the money they wanted. I felt utterly devastated.

A day later, on January 24, 2008, I saw an emaciated man walking toward the house. It was Eduardo. I sent the kids to a back room and fumbled to unlock the door, trying to process the fact that he was really home. He stood there like a ghost, his face expressionless. There was no greeting, no smile, when he stepped into the house. I embraced him and kept repeating, "I love you." I kissed his face, but it was cold. At 80 pounds, he was barely alive.

His captors had dumped him in a cemetery at 4:00 that morning. Then he had walked, for the first time in seven months. He'd tried to stop several cars for help, but everyone had passed him by, no doubt thinking he was drunk. Clasping a yellow-and-black lunch box with an apple, a hard-boiled egg, and some change inside, he'd waited at a bus stop until the bus had come.

I looked at his fragile body that morning, his weary face, his thin hair. Time and again I had imagined him coming home, walking through the front door with his thick, curly head of hair, his solid frame. "I love you," he said simply. "I've been dreaming about your banana pancakes for months. I'm so hungry." I sat Eduardo down and pulled out the bowls, eggs, and bananas. Then I reached for the phone and dialed my doctor and psychologist. My news was brief: "My husband is home."

I had Eduardo put on clean clothes and his favorite cowboy hat and bandana so he would look a little more like himself when the kids saw him. Then I went and told our children, "Daddy's here. He doesn't look at all like he used to—he is very skinny and has lost a lot of hair." But, I explained, this would be remedied with time. "He is very weak and fragile," I warned. They didn't race and pounce on him. Instead, they embraced him with the care children use around an old person.

The Mexican authorities strongly suggested that we leave the country, and within a month, we had one-way tickets to the States, where we've lived ever since. The kidnappers released our rancher after two-and-a-half months of captivity.

We're still adjusting to our new reality, living on real-estate rent income and trying to figure out what we'll do next. The kids are practicing their English, and my husband has been in therapy.

Eduardo and I are different people than we were before, and we're getting to know the new versions of each other. We're much stronger now, bonded by our intense experience—and by our resolution to savor every moment of life.

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