Hankendagen: Arjan Erkel survived being kidnapped by terrorists
Arjan Erkel says that his story is about how any one of us can be taken hostage – either in a very real way or in one’s own head – and how to pick yourself up after despairing.
In his talk on Hanken’s homecoming day Hankendagen, Erkel told his audience about his time as an aid worker for Doctors without Borders (Médecins sans Frontières; MSF), how he during the war in Chechnya was taken prisoner by Islamic rebels in the Russian republic of Dagestan and held hostage in a tiny underground hovel in the mountains.
After having battled with mortal fear and self-pity, Erkel realized he had to try to actively do something about his situation while waiting for help. He understood that his kidnappers were people with hopes and fears and feelings, and slowly he began to create a relationship with them, improving his negotiating position as well.
In this strange situation, Erkel managed to create an atmosphere of intimacy where both parties had nicknames for each other, and celebrated both Ramadan and Christmas together.
“My life could have ended any minute, but I realized that taking on the role of victim would get me nowhere. Through showing that I was curious about the perpetrators I gained many advantages. I could have put my energy into judging and blaming my kidnappers, but instead I concentrated on my next step”, Erkel says.
Arjan Erkel had his bad days. He was angry and despairing when help didn’t come, when he thought about his family. Distancing himself, thinking strategically, helped.
After 20 months in captivity, Erkel was finally liberated. The hiding place was raided in April 2004. Being freed after having prepared to die was a real eye-opener – and became the beginning of a new career. Arjan Erkel considers himself lucky, he doesn’t feel vindictive or bitter.
“Of course I would rather never have experienced the kidnapping; it hit my family hard, really hard. But now I have seen that I can fend for myself and find possibilities in situations that seem totally devoid of hope”, he continues.
Today Erkel lectures at companies and enterprises about how to proceed from plan to action. He has established a foundation that helps girls free themselves from prostitution and he is a mentor for private individuals who want to realize their potential.
“Sometimes fear paralyses us. It freezes the brain and makes us miss many possibilities. That’s why big decisions are important: they can be about taking the crucial step, or letting go of something that just doesn’t work. Most of us know what we want, but we need that push to take the final step.”
Arjan Erkel presented his story during the Hanken homecoming day Hankendagen on 20 September 2019.
Text: Mikaela Remes
Photos: Niklas Gerkman