When your life suddenly revolves around a kidnapping there is much dark humour, but the Boyle family refuses give up on their son, Joshua, and his wife, Caitlan.
There is the sound of distant construction, the tapping of nails on the wood floor as the family’s grey Labradoodle circles the table, faint music from a pop station coming from the kitchen, and then, as they press play, their son Josh’s voice fills the room.
“My name is Joshua Boyle and I’m from the village of Perth-Andover, in New Brunswick, in Canada. My father’s name is Patrick and my mother’s name is Linda. My wife and I are requesting that my government co-operate with whomever is necessary to bring a speedy and peaceful resolution so that we can be released from our custody.”
Joshua Boyle continues in halting English: “And as a message to my family I would just thank my mother for hydrating Africa, and suggest that my siblings need to step up their game.”
Linda and Patrick Boyle can watch their eldest son and daughter-in-law Caitlan Coleman a little easier these days, after having played the videos so many times. There are two “proof of life” videos, each under two minutes, which they shared for the first time in full at their home outside Ottawa this week.
They note the new scar on Josh’s forehead and cheek, the strange accent that he has adopted, perhaps after weeks of speaking with his captors slowly and simply. The couple looks gaunt, Caitlan’s hands and face — all that is visible under the abaya she is wearing — both skeletally thin.
But what does Josh mean by “hydrating Africa?”
Linda Boyle laughs, “I can explain.”
Buying wells is what Linda does for almsgiving. The greater the stress in her life, the more she prays and donates. As teenagers, her five children used to joke about which sibling could make mom pray harder. “Because the worse we act, the more the people in the underdeveloped parts of the world are gaining,” her kids used to say.
“That was Josh telling them to step up their game,” Linda says about the video, “because he’s winning.”
It has been 21 months now since the Taliban kidnapped Josh and Caitlan somewhere near Kabul, Afghanistan. Caitlan, who is now 28, was five months pregnant at the time. Both the Canadian and U.S. governments, since Caitlan is American, have been working to secure their release.
On the second video, the one that is one minute 56 seconds long and harder to watch because they both look despondent, Caitlan mentions their child, but the baby is not shown in either video.
Josh also gives his grandmother’s phone number in the second video. They were very close. She died last year while Josh was in captivity.
“She tried so hard to hold on until Josh came home,” Linda said. “She told the nurse that she couldn’t die, she was waiting for her grandson to come home. He would need her when he got back.”
Linda wrote about her mom’s death in a letter for her 30-year-old son – letters that a humanitarian agency is trying to deliver to them in Afghanistan through a series of connections, although there’s no certainty if they reach the couple as they have never received any in return.
They haven’t received anything at all in the 11 months since the videos were delivered through an intermediary who contacted the Colemans — no additional proof of life tapes, no calls, ransom demands, no news, good or bad.
Patrick chooses his words carefully when talking about the intermediary, whom he describes as having an Afghan background with a self-professed mujahideen history and connections. He’s a humanitarian who “talks about his adult children” and lives at times in a European country.
He was their lifeline, but then he disappeared, too.
With all the unanswered questions about this case, there is perhaps the most painful one: what were they doing in Afghanistan in the first place?
It is a question the Boyles and Colemans have been asked many times since their children were kidnapped and indeed have asked themselves since Josh and Cailtan hadn’t told them of their plans to enter Afghanistan.
The pair, who had been friends since meeting online as teenagers and were married in 2011, loved to travel and had spent six months backpacking through Central America, often living in remote villages and staying with local families. They planned on spending another six months in Russia and Central Asia before moving into the small New Brunswick home Josh had bought before they left.
On July 4, 2012, they flew to Moscow from New York and had hiked through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan before crossing into Afghanistan around Oct. 3 or 4. There was an email from Kabul and then all contact was lost.
They had a return ticket for December 2012.
“They will tell us,” the Colemans wrote the Star in response to the question of why they were in Afghanistan. “We can’t wait to hear their explanation. We can’t wait to forgive their foolishness.”
The Boyles think it was Josh’s fascination with history that drew him the region — and possibly going in search of health care that took them to Kabul.
His interest in Afghanistan is in part what drew him to the case of Omar Khadr, who was captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in July 2002 and spent a decade in Guantanamo before his transfer into Canadian custody two years ago. He met Khadr’s sister, Zaynab, during the time he volunteered as the Khadr family spokesperson and they had a brief and high-profile marriage that ended in 2010.
Both the RCMP and FBI have ruled out any connection to the kidnapping.
Josh is exceptionally bright, his mother says. “But he knew he was immature. I call it naïve but — he wanted an ideal world . . . I really think what drew them was that love of history and really feeling perhaps people were being maligned more than necessary over there.”
“Dumbass,” interjects Josh’s younger brother, Dan, who has joined us at the table. His parents laugh. “Put that in there; it’s OK. Dumbass.”
When your life suddenly revolves around a kidnapping, which it does for the Boyles and Colemans, there is much dark humour and many desperate thoughts.
During the first six months of their capture when there was no news, Patrick got a visa for Afghanistan and planned to fly to Kabul to try to establish contact himself.
“Both governments insisted they didn’t know any specifics and nobody had contacted anybody directly or indirectly or made any claims,” Patrick said. “So I planned on showing up and sitting in a Canada Day lawn chair and wearing a Canada Day sweatshirt in the lobby at the Serena Hotel.”
They had decided Patrick would travel because he is a federal judge, although Linda was willing to go, too. “Some of our thoughts were we would gladly put ourselves up in exchange for them,” says Linda. “But they don’t care about me — a judge they might care about more. It was those things. You’d do anything. That’s your child.”
The trip was cancelled when, a few days later, the videos arrived.
Then there have been the phone calls. When a call centre contacted Linda for a routine survey but began the conversation with, “Can you talk? Are you in a safe place?” It is apparently a line they had added so that people will not talk on their cell phones when driving, but Linda panicked thinking it was the kidnappers.
One of Josh’s sisters also received a call in the middle of the night from someone with a Middle Eastern accent who said, “I have your brother.” She leapt to her feet, banging her head on the bookshelf and cursing herself for not having pen and paper at her bedside, only to later discover it was a doctor from the hospital asking if she could come pick up her brother Dan.
The release last month of American soldier Bowe Bergdahl in return for five Taliban militants from Guantanamo brought both comfort and frustration for the families.
Happiness for Bergdahl’s family and at seeing someone released from Taliban captivity after five years. But also frustration as they had hoped the release would include their children.
“We have said from the very beginning that we felt lucky that Cait’s American and Josh, Canadian, because that meant we had two, very complementary governments that could work well together,” said Patrick, adding “and the baby’s both.”
In a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr., a California Republican and member of house armed services committee, demanded to know why other American citizens in captivity were not part of the deal that released the five Guantanamo detainees to Qatar.
Warren Weinstein, a 72-year-old contractor who went missing in Pakistan in August 2011, is believed to also be held by the Afghan Taliban. It was reported that his wife received a call from the White House just before Bergdahl’s release.
“We infer that there is a file there with her husband’s name on it,” said Patrick. “And we hope it is also reasonable to assume that there is also a file with our family members’ names on it.”
For Linda, there was hope hearing an American congressman even raising the topic of their captivity. “It meant they are still alive at least,” she said. “Whether the negotiations ever went on, or it was a passing comment we honestly don’t know. We only know what we’ve read in the paper.”