The joy of Alan
The last few days have without doubt been the very best in my 18 years with the BBC.
It has been an enormous privilege to spend Alan Johnston’s first few days of freedom at his side. (I was the one with the enormous smile in most of the photos and TV footage last Wednesday!).
The dignity and calm professionalism which Alan has displayed since his release has been astonishing, even to those of us who knew him well and knew what a quiet, determined and selfless man he has always been.
As Alan’s friend and immediate senior colleague, I felt an enormous responsibility when he was abducted on 12 March in Gaza City.
For the first three weeks or so, I moved to Gaza myself with a couple of close colleagues to lead our operation. We met the Palestinian president, prime minister and a host of other savoury and less savoury characters who we believed might be able to help.
Later, we stood shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate as their incredibly moving campaign to free Alan took to the streets.
But in the end, we felt forced to leave Gaza because of the threats to us. One grim day, a group of masked and armed men apparently looking for a hostage turned up 20 minutes after one of my colleagues had just left a building in Gaza City. Shortly afterwards, a contact in a western intelligence service gave us chilling and compelling evidence that our every move was being followed by a car full of armed gang members.
So while Alan whiled away the interminable hours in his cell somewhere in Gaza, our efforts had to be focused in from outside. From a base in Jerusalem, we worked closely with British diplomats and other experts sent out from London and stayed in close contact with key colleagues from the BBC Arabic Service still inside Gaza.
As is common in such situations, there were several approaches to us. Some were outright cranks, others clearly had some contacts with the group holding Alan. Expert advice was to check out every possible approach, however unlikely, as it might just prove the key.
In the end, the Hamas takeover in Gaza – which no-one could have predicted – provided a big opening. Now, for the first time, the kidnappers could no longer play off rival powerbases against each other. Hamas immediately placed freeing Alan at the top of its priority list.
We had no advance knowledge of Hamas’s precise plans to free Alan. But in the final few days, I was able to hold private meetings with senior leaders of the organisation in both Damascus and Gaza and impress upon them forcefully, and in private, our desire for a peaceful resolution.
The fact that they achieved this has sparked a debate about whether Hamas should be rewarded politically. Neither I nor the BBC will be entering that debate. But to the individuals from all quarters who worked many long days – and nights – to achieve this result, Alan, myself and all BBC colleagues owe a huge and heartfelt vote of thanks.