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Tuesday, 2 May, 2000, 16:48 GMT 17:48 UK
Analysis: How hostages cope
Philippines hostages
Good group dynamics are vital for hostages
By BBC News Online's Julian Duplain

The 21 hostages seized from a Philippines beach - like other victims of hijacks, sieges and political violence - are having to cope with extreme psychological pressures for which most people are completely unprepared.

At the start of a kidnap, there is an initial disbelief that this could be happening at all, followed by alarm and fear as unknown, armed people - perhaps speaking a language you don't understand - take control of the situation.

"It's a rollercoaster," says Peter Hodgkinson of the Centre for Crisis Psychology.

"There are long periods of boredom, punctuated by ghastly bursts of violence, fear and threat."

Find a routine

An increasing number of training courses offer advice and tactics to the nervous traveller or people with good reason to fear that they might be kidnapped and held for ransom.

Thai police
When police move in - as in the Thai hospital siege in January - it is a time of high anxiety for hostages

Hostages are advised to keep quiet and not to draw attention to themselves.

Army clothing, religious or political insignia can single you out as a target.

Dr Peter Bailes, a consultant forensic psychologist, stresses the need for hostages to "settle into a routine".

Under stress hostages tend to become hypervigilant and jumpy, but the need to remain calm is paramount.

Small things become of vital importance - the availability of food and fresh water, and washing and toilet facilities.

For many hostages, the lack of hygiene is one of the hardest things to bear, especially if the captivity is long.

To be unable to go to the toilet in private, or to clean yourself, reverses some of the most basic habits we are taught as small children.

As well as being physically repulsive, it can take a considerable psychological toll.

Ever-present fear

The main aim of any hostage-taker is to terrorise the hostages - to keep them docile or to force them to support the hijackers' demands.

Chechnya coffin
No hostage wants to come home in a coffin - like the four Westerners beheaded in Chechnya in 1998

Fear is the ever-present emotion.

"Nothing can make that better, or prepare you for that," says Peter Hodgkinson.

Building any kind of relationship with the hostage-takers can be improve the victims' chances of survival.

"Creating a link means that you are less likely to be killed," says Dr James Thompson of University College London.

But often gunmen - aware of the risk of being weakened if they start to sympathise with their captives - rotate guard duties frequently, giving the hostages little opportunity to build a rapport with any one of them.

"Trapped body, racing mind," is Dr Thompson's summary of the hostage's state.

When even a slight movement might invite a blow from an angry hijacker, the hostage's mind plans strategies, remembers loved ones, builds up hopes and tries to counter despair.


Special challenges face families who are kidnapped together - like the German tourist Werner Gunter Kort, who was seized by the Abu Sayyaf group with his wife and son.

It is easier to face the trials of captivity with your loved ones, but for parents there is always the fear that their children might become a target for violence.

Afghan hostage
For parents with children - like this Afghan hijacked to the UK in February - being a hostage is doubly difficult

Threats against children are often the most effective way to influence their parents.

And for children, the psychological effects can be more acute if they see their parents suffer.

"It is particularly horrible for children to see their parents humbled," says Peter Hodgkinson.

A child who sees a parent beaten or reduced to a state of abject fear has the vital childhood myth of an invincible mother or father who protects them from the world shattered.


Some hostages start to feel sympathy for their captors, and even support their cause.

This is known as the Stockholm Syndrome, following a bank siege there in 1973, in which the hostages sided with the robbers and resisted rescue.

One of the hostages eventually became engaged to one of the captors.

Thai hostage
The initial relief and trauma at the end of a hostage ordeal is often only the beginning of a psychological struggle

But psychologists suggest that the Stockholm Syndrome is the exception rather than the rule.

More important are the group dynamics among the hostages themselves - and among the kidnappers.

Prejudice, considerateness and humanity can come out just as much during a siege as in everyday life.

"Some hostages find resources they didn't know they had - after their release they say 'I didn't realise I had it in me'," says Peter Bailes.

Solidarity among the captives can be vital, but different hostages have different ways of dealing wit the situation.

As in any group, some people are more likeable than others.

"There have been cases," says James Thompson, "where hostages have been taken away and shot - or it appeared that they had been shot - and the other hostages were secretly pleased."


For those who make it out alive, freedom almost always brings elation. But the effects of being kidnapped don't disappear so easily.

Hostages tend to review their performance and analysis how they performed under pressure.

"'I could have been braver', 'I never knew I could feel fear like that' - these kind of reproaches often come out," says Peter Hodgkinson.

Some people never get over the effects.

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See also:

17 Aug 99 | Talking Point
Can hostage taking ever be justified?
30 Dec 99 | South Asia
History of hijacking
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