A Hostage Negotiator Taken Hostage: Cross-Cultural Crisis Management and Negotiation in Real Life
Cross-cultural expert Magda Gohar-Chrobog described the crisis management and negotiation techniques she used after being taken hostage with her husband and their three sons during a holiday trip to Yemen in December. Gohar-Chrobog attributed the success of their release among others to her crisis management skills and a variety of conflict resolution tools she applied, most significantly, communication. According to Gohar-Chrobog, "the heart and soul of our global world is communication, especially communication with others who belong to different cultures and religions." Although her knowledge of the language and being a "daughter of the culture" contributed tremendously to her and her family's release, she asserted that every person is able to develop abilities to communicate across cultures and develop a sensibility for other mentalities. Gohar-Chrobog is an Egyptian who has spent a large part of her life in Germany and the United States.
Gohar-Chrobog recounted that she and her family started their trip to Yemen on Christmas Eve 2005. She was impressed by the natural beauty of the country and the friendliness of the Yemeni people, but said she was taken back by the widespread poverty. The Chrobog family was taken hostage by Yemeni tribesmen three days after their arrival in Yemen, while on a guided tour. Upon realizing that she spoke their language and understood their culture, the hostage takers assured her that she and her family were their guests. As such they would stay safe and unharmed. Being familiar with the Arab culture and mentality, she knew she could trust what they said. At the same time she was acutely aware of the many unforeseeable factors that might interfere any moment and change the situation into a dangerous one for her family and her. The tribesmen explained that taking the family hostage was a way of drawing the Yemeni government's attention to an ongoing tribal conflict between them and another tribe. Gohar-Chrobog pointed out that at that stage the captors did not know that her husband was a high ranking official at the German Foreign Office or that he had negotiated the release of 37 European hostages kidnapped by Algerian fundamentalists in the Algerian desert two years earlier.
Gohar-Chrobog emphasized the importance of using crisis management tools during the four days her family was kept hostage. She cited the value of showing authenticity and of establishing a relationship of authentic trust and mutual respect with the hostage-takers as well as empathy for their needs and grievances. At the same time it was important to keep distance and not give up one's own identity, she emphasized. She refused for example the tribesmen's continuous offer to give her some of their women's dresses to wear.
When the Yemeni government sent the Minister of Defense to the valley where the family was kept hostage to negotiate their release, Gohar-Chrobog, having gained the respect and trust of her kidnappers, was entrusted by their eldest with communicating with the Minister and getting his assurance that the government was not going to order the storming of the village where they were kept or use force to free them. Gohar-Chrobog recounted that at one stage she lost her temper and expressed anger when a tribe's member spoke to her in a disrespectful manner, asking her husband to make a last phone call to the German government after which her family and she would be separated and sent to different areas in the mountains. She explained that it would have been wrong to show fear at this moment and that showing her emotions was a tool of conflict resolution she used on purpose in this situation. Demonstrating frustration and anger, she emphasized, was used as a message to the hostage-takers that her patience and empathy with their situation had reached their limits. "Showing emotions is one of the effective tools of crisis management, as long as you control your emotions, not let them control you," she explained.
Throughout her ordeal, Gohar-Chrobog used her knowledge of the Arabic language and her negotiation skills to engage the hostage-takers in a dialogue. She took advantage of opportunities to convey to them that, though they might have a good cause, their means of expressing their grievances - taking hostages - was wrong. She tried to convey to the captors that they were harming their own country by making tourists fear traveling to Yemen. Instead of fear, she showed genuine calmness and resilience in expressing herself to the hostage-takers, which earned her their great respect.
To conclude her talk, Gohar-Chrobog said that after their release her husband used her family's hostage ordeal to highlight to the Yemeni President the importance of education in Yemen, pointing out that he saw bright children carrying Kalashnikovs who should have been better carrying school books.