My Experience: Hostage International helped us do something constructive with this horrible experience
Canadian Robert Hall cashed in his life savings, bought a boat and sailed her halfway across the world to be with the woman he loved. He was a devoted father, brother, grandfather, uncle and a talented tradesman and thespian. His dreams and the lives of his family were upended in September 2015 when he was kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf militants in the Philippines. His family was shattered when he was murdered after nine months as a hostage.
The initial news of Robert’s capture came as his sisters Trudi and Bonice were each undergoing treatment for cancer. Their other brother Bill was the government’s point of contact to negotiate with the kidnappers under a strict veil of secrecy. Bill had a huge burden of responsibility and was placed in an impossible role while his sisters felt out of the loop, desperate for news of Robert. After their brother’s murder, Bonice and Trudi sought answers from government with the goal of honouring Bob’s legacy to support families going through the kidnap or detention of a loved-one.
Sadly, Bonice died of cancer in 2018 and Bill died of a heart attack in 2020. Trudi believes that the stress surrounding Robert’s kidnapping contributed to their early demise.
Her experience has led Trudi to volunteer with Hostage International to help grow the charity’s network in Canada. She hopes to help others through highlighting her family’s story and the support they received from Hostage International. Here, Trudi shares her story:
It was an unfortunate juxtaposition of a lot of trauma all at the same time with both my sister and I battling cancer and the impact of our health concerns on the family. But when Robert was kidnapped, the Government direction to “say nothing” was like being in a parallel universe where you are just trying to get your head around the horrific reality of having a loved one kidnapped, while presenting to the rest of the world as if nothing is wrong. Sometimes you would forget – the body’s mechanism clicks in as you can’t live this intense horror and fear constantly. One of the things I know is that if it hadn’t been for Hostage International, I don’t think I would have gotten through this. It was a huge support; for my sister and me, it helped use our energy to create a positive legacy for Robert.
The initial shock of discovering my brother had been kidnapped
My sister said that she knew immediately that something was wrong. I don’t know about that for me; because I was undergoing cancer treatment the whole focus for my immediate family was on my well-being and my battle against the disease that had already taken the life of our mother.
The day Bob was kidnapped was the day I had my last treatment, so we were feeling celebratory. In the middle of that we heard the news… You think, “no this can’t be true, am I dreaming?” as it is so far outside the realm of comprehension of what could happen to someone you love.
It is a surreal experience, which is totally out of sync with life as you know it. We were forced to live in our own private terror while presenting to the world that everything was normal. Part of the challenge was the code of secrecy that we were told to adhere to, but you need to be able to talk to friends and allies who can support you when you are in such anguish.
Living in secrecy
It’s so hard because when someone is taken hostage, governments work behind the scenes in attempts to solve the case quietly, and you’re told not to tell anyone. But at the same time, we needed help and guidance and to understand more about what was going on to try to save Bob. Bill was our family point of contact with the government, and he spoke with the kidnapper. He was told to maintain strict confidentiality and could not share information with us. He was in a really tough position and doing all this at the same time as holding down his day job working to maintain our highway system.
I felt totally helpless and totally alone; at the bottom of a hole filing up with water – no way to float out, and no one to come to the rescue. Over the course of the nine months Bob was in captivity our fear was compounded almost daily by the demands of the kidnappers for a ransom that was far beyond our capability to raise, and the regular release of videos of the victims with their heavily armed kidnappers looming over them. Over the ensuing months it tore my heart to see my brother’s physical deterioration, and the hope and confidence he initially had that we would help him fading in his eyes.
Finding external support
After Bob’s murder, the family wanted answers from the Federal Government regarding their response to his kidnapping and the efforts taken to save his life. Initially my sister Bonice wasn’t keen to approach Hostage International, and as she was still dealing with her cancer treatments I didn’t want to push it. But, eventually, she came round to the idea. It was such a gift to us to have this support, and we were both so grateful for the help we so needed.
I wish we had all had their support earlier as they helped my sister and me in so many ways: providing guidance and context for us in preparing for what might otherwise have been quite daunting meetings with government officials; advice about handling the media – who inevitably found out about us and came knocking; as well as offering on-going emotional support from people who really understand.
They stepped in and helped in the spirit in which we hoped it would be done.
They accompanied us to sessions with Global Affairs Canada (GAC), top elected members of the Federal Government, and RCMP officials – specifically to highlight the challenges that we had experienced and how we felt elements of their family liaison policy could be improved.
Thanks to our caseworker, we were able to better collate our thoughts and frame our experiences in terms of what we needed, and we found very quickly that, rather than the relationship with GAC and the RCMP being adversarial, it became one of collaboration. We were able to see how passionate they were to help people in our situation. I think that they took it to heart after hearing the challenges we had faced.
Going into this with the charity’s support redirected the weight of our loss to create a legacy that honours our brother Robert, and our Clan.
I was recently at a dinner engagement when the topic of hostage-taking came up unexpectedly. Someone at the table made the flip remark: “This never happens to Canadians!” It was so shocking and hurtful. I know that they didn’t intend to harm me; they just didn’t know how real this trauma is for many in this country.
Dealing with a kidnap is an experience that is so secret, unique, layered and complicated that there are very few of us equipped to provide support. Strengthening Hostage International’s outreach in Canada is vital to assist those going through this tragedy. Having companions in the journey means so much, not just in Canada but across the world.
It is good to see that my government does care and that they are open and motivated to improve their engagement with families facing a hostage situation.
I have had a lot of support in coming to terms with Bob’s kidnapping. I value being able to talk publicly about it and to spread awareness. We did not seek retribution against those who murdered our brother but rather the opportunity to create something that might provide support and healing to others who are or will be impacted as victims of this horrible crime. Working through Hostage International, to provide support to hostage families and returning hostages, ensures Bob’s Legacy – the values that guided him all his life – will be of benefit to others.
Editor’s note: At the time the Hall family sought assistance in 2016, it was provided by Hostage US. Subsequently in 2018 Hostage International took on the responsibility of Canada under its global mission in supporting hostages and families where someone is taken outside their home country. For the sake of simplicity, only Hostage International is referenced in this article. Trudi wishes to thank Hostage US for their dedication to the family. They remain in regular contact.