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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 May 2007, 06:12 GMT 07:12 UK
To our own correspondent, Alan
By Jon Williams
World Editor, BBC News, Jerusalem

It is 66 days since BBC correspondent Alan Johnston was abducted by a group of armed men in Gaza. Thursday is his birthday.

Alan Johnston is seen in this undated photo taken in the Gaza Strip
Alan Johnston has spent three years reporting from Gaza

I had been foreign editor for less than a month the first time I went to Gaza.

The Erez Crossing - the frontier with Israel - is a 20-minute walk from one side to the other, but one which turns the clock back 20 years.

Think Checkpoint Charlie at the height of the Cold War - it is the front line in the Arab-Israeli conflict and it bears the scars of war to prove it.

On one side sits the state of Israel's finest modern technology: the searching, scanning, and scrutinising are all done by robots.

On the other, a man with a pencil writes your passport details into a battered exercise book.

Every day brings new rumour and speculation but precious few facts

Erez and Gaza: the place where two worlds collide.

For the past three years, this has been the domain of Alan Johnston.

Gaza is one of the most difficult places on earth in which to work.

Hard enough at the best of times, but for Alan, his friends and his family, the past nine weeks have been the worst of times.

For 66 days he has been incarcerated, who knows where.

Alan was abducted at gunpoint on 12 March.

Later his family and friends had first to hear a statement telling the world of his death, then to see a video making demands in return for his life.

Every day brings new rumour and speculation but precious few facts.

History's witnesses

Alan is one of more than 200 BBC correspondents - an extraordinary group of people who remain in the world's trouble spots just as everyone else is getting out.

For 75 years they have been eyewitnesses to history.

Required often to be brave, dedicated and courageous, they endure hardship and danger because they believe a story needs to be told.

But the bomb, the kidnap, the gunshot are the correspondent's worst nightmare. They are the foreign editor's too.

More than 90,000 people have written to the BBC to demand Alan Johnston's release

I have learned more in the last few weeks about hostages - and kidnappers - than in 40 years of reading thrillers and watching films.

I have met people who - once Alan is free - will slink back into the shadows and hope we will forget their existence.

I have formed friendships that will endure long beyond this ordeal, learned to marvel at the resilience of Alan's family and been humbled by the response of the audience - the listeners in Africa, America and Asia who have written in their thousands to pledge their support for the man whose reporting has brought Gaza to their doorstep.

Then there are those who have joined our demand for Alan's immediate release.


Two weeks ago, a large group of Palestinian journalists demonstrated near the wall - the barrier, the fence, call it what you will - that separates Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian and foreign journalists hold posters of kidnapped BBC correspondent Alan Johnston during a protest demanding his release at the Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip
Demonstrations have been taking place on both sides of the border
They called for Alan to be released and urged the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniya to take action to get him freed.

A few hundred metres from them, on the other side of the frontier, another group of journalists was doing the same on the Israeli side of the border.

At its heart, the BBC is an organisation more comfortable with reporting the news than making it.

But for nine weeks, we have sought to keep Alan's ordeal in the public eye - helping to organise petitions, posters, and rallies.

And not just in London.

Far beyond the Middle East, colleagues have rallied to Alan's cause - in Beijing, Buenos Aires, Brussels and Bangkok.

In Kabul, Paris, New York and Jakarta, Alan Johnston's case has been taken up by those who know him - and those who do not.

Birthday wish

Palestinian children of hold candles and pictures of the kidnapped BBC correspondent Alan Johnston
Alan could well be aware of the efforts to secure his release
Alan is a quiet, modest man - someone who never sought the limelight.

But when all this is over, amid the embarrassment at the hullabaloo, I bet he will reflect how - in a region where people agree on few things - his plight has brought individuals together.

From the divided Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah, Arab and Israeli, East and West - they have all been united in demanding Alan's freedom.

Nine weeks on, one thing I have learned is that most hostages actually do know what is going on - incarceration does not necessarily mean they are cut off from the outside world.

I was told one hostage in Iraq heard from his kidnappers that they had just seen his wife on the television pleading for his release.

Terry Waite famously listened to the BBC World Service during his ordeal in Beirut.

And in Gaza, I dare to dream that the BBC is the kidnappers' channel of choice.

For more than 50 years on this programme, the news has been broadcast from our own correspondents.

Today - with apologies to you - I want to send a message to one of our own.

Day 66 of Alan Johnston's captivity is also his 45th birthday. Most likely there will be no candles or cake.

But my hope is that somewhere, somehow, Alan will be able to listen.

His family, his friends, his colleagues all miss him. We want him home. Our birthday wish is his immediate release.

Happy birthday Alan.

From Our Own Correspondent is broadcast on Thursday, 17 May, 2007 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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