Shortly after beginning his research trip in late April, UA doctoral student Len Milich was rousted from his sleep by Tuareg rebels. Within minutes, he was bound, gagged, and had become a hostage on a terrifying journey through the heart of west Africa .
Milich, an arid lands studies major at the UA, was kidnapped in Mauritania and prodded along by men holding Russian assault rifles. They took everything he had: his cash, his solar-powered equipment, the car loaned to him by ICRISAT (International Center for Research in the Semi-Arid Tropics); just about everything he possessed except for his computer equipment and videocam.
And for all of that, Milich said, he was transported during those three days, at times bound and gagged, back into Mali to the point where he originally began his trip upon first arriving in Africa.
Milich communicated with Charles Hutchinson, associate director of the Office of Arid Lands Studies and dissertation adviser, and friend and fellow graduate student Eric Weiss by e-mail. He said disaster struck in a big way when he arrived in Mali in mid-April.
"I crossed into Mauritania April 21, and arrived at the southeastern town of Nema late in the afternoon. For the night, my driver and I camped under some palm trees close to town. At about 10 p.m., I was awoken by a flashlight shining directly into my face."
The previous night in Mali, Milich said he and his driver had been rousted by the Malian army and was advised to move closer into town for security reasons. Milich's first thought was that the Mauritanian army was doing the same.
He was wrong.
Three armed Malian Tuareg rebels, stood over him demanding, in broken French, money and the keys to their car. They searched the driver, the camp and the car. Milich's hip pack holding all his money escaped their notice.
"I hoped that they were simple thieves, and that they would decide to leave. Instead, they bound our arms behind our backs with strips torn from my sheets, and another strip went (rather ineffectually) over my mouth. We were bundled into the back seat of the car, and driven off a few hundred meters."
Milich said they stopped and the rebels discussed what to do next. A fourth man appeared, climbed into the car, pushing the hostages heads down, and gave the order to drive on.
Three hours later, stopped at yet another isolated destination, the rebels discussed what to do with their hostages. Milich said he asked them what would happen if he were to give them the money they were looking for. They said everything would be "halas." Fine.
Well, not quite.
"I gave them all the money I had (they'd already found the driver's), about $1,200 in (local money), $1,800 in cash, and $2,000 in traveler's checks. As soon as I handed it over, one of them prodded me in the ribs with the muzzle of his Kalishnikov, and commanded that I get down off the car. He stood over me as I sat on the ground.
"At that moment, I really thought my life was over."
Milich said he and the driver were bundled back into the car and they travelled on through the night and into the next morning.
"I didn't know what our fate was to be, but it was a hopeful sign that we had not yet been killed. I had thoughts of Terry Anderson's 7 years of captivity in Beirut, though."
Milich said he asked that his hands be untied, and the rebels honored that request. His driver drove the vehicle for the rebels, as Milich put it, were such inept drivers themselves.
He said the day passed quickly. They drank the only water at hand from contaminated diesel fuel jerry cans and ate near-raw goat meat, freshly slaughtered. They would stop occasionally, in the middle of nowhere, and Milich wondered whether they would just be abandoned by the roadside.
He said he would much rather be shot than die of thirst.
Milich said he was virtually powerless while in the company of the rebels. He said they knew "the bush" well, miraculously producing diesel fuel for the vehicle in remote locations. Somewhere along the line, he said they produced "good" water, dumping the contaminated gas-tasting stuff in the dirt. He said he read a book to help pass the time, and they didn't object.
"One of them target practiced with his pistol, so I knew that one worked. Later one night, another tried shooting a rabbit frozen in the headlights, and managed to miss four times. But despite their being poor shots, I wasn't so sure about their missing a much larger human target."
Milich said at one point two of the rebels left and he began to entertain thoughts about overpowering his remaining captors. However, the thought of running out of fuel upon escape, as well as running into Tuareg reinforcements nixed that idea.
"So, impotence. My life in their hands, which meant that I damn well was nice to them. I now understand perfectly the psychological attachment that forms between captor and captive."
On the third day, Milich said he and his driver were dropped off near a village, which turned out to be deserted. Although he was minus just about everything he had brought with him to Africa, he said he didn't feel badly about the car which was covered by insurance. At that point, Milich said he was unsure whether he would be able to resuscitate his research. Despite being alive and unharmed, Milich said things had changed within himself.
"First, I'm taking weapons training when I get back; then I intend to sign up for classes in the most lethal martial art there is. I'm through with being a meek pacifist. I've never yet in my life even been in a real fistfight, but I'm definitely not putting myself, or those I love, in a similarly vulnerable position without some recourse. For chrissakes, let's say that I had managed to grab one of the Tuareg's handguns Ä I don't even know how to fire it! Time for a real education."
When the kidnappers dropped Milich and his driver off in Mali, it took him six days to reach World Vision headquarters in the Mauritanian city of Nouakchott, Weiss said.
World Vision, he said, is a missionary organization spread throughout the whole of North and West Africa. Weiss said Milich was able to receive help from them, and stayed with the family of a graduate student attending the UA. He said, the graduate student's uncle arranged to provide another car for Milich on loan through the U. S. Embassy.
Weiss also said World Vision managed to help Milich reacquire equipment that he needed and arranged a loan through the embassy using the reimbursement on his stolen travelers checks as collateral.
"He was able to resurrect his research and returned to the field, amazingly," Weiss said. "He's a pretty resilient and resourceful kind of guy."
And that resourcefulness was needed in order to complete the research Milich wanted to conduct in West Africa, he said.
Hutchinson said he had discussed with Milich several ideas for the dissertation research. At one point they discussed the possibility of Milich travelling to Yemen to do his research.
But, the one thing Milich wanted to do, Hutchinson said, was to travel through West Africa along the Sahel, "the shore" of the Sahara desert, moving along straight lines transecting precipitation zones stopping every so often to take random samples and to talk with the people.
He said Milich isn't working on any grants or contracts and was never able to get any research dollars to assist him in his work. Everything he lost came directly from his own pocket.
And, because of the remoteness of his location and travelling as much as he has been these last few weeks, about the only way Milich can communicate is through "hit-and-run e-mail letters through third party transmissions," Hutchinson said.
The last communique Hutchinson and Weiss received from him said that Milich was doing fine and his work was coming along smoothly.
If all works out according to schedule, Weiss said Milich should return to the U.S. in six or eight months.
Hutchinson advises any students intending on travelling overseas to tie-in with an on-going project. Most projects have base houses and others are present to witness the comings and goings of the student workers. Also, he said the State Department issues advisories about the areas one would travel when working overseas.
He said wherever Milich travelled he always managed to have a network of friends in place, due in part to the frequency of his overseas trips.
"The places he goes, he knows people," Hutchinson said. "He paid for himself, largely travelling on his own nickel. He was fortunate for the help from ICRISAT."
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