Camilla Carr & Jon James (England)

“I learnt from practicing martial arts that to overcome your opponent you should meet hardness with softness.”

Photography by Brian Moody

In April 1997, Camilla Carr and her boyfriend, Jon James went to Chechnya to set up a rehabilitation centre for traumatised war-children. Three months later they were taken hostage by Chechnyan rebels. Their ordeal lasted 14 months, during which Camilla was repeatedly raped by one of her jailers. Camilla and Jon have since written a memoir about their experiences, The Sky is Always There and you can find out further information at www.camillacarr.org.

Camilla Carr
Rape is a terrible violation of a human being. I will never forgive the act, yet I can forgive the man who raped me; I can feel compassion for him because I understand the desperate place he was coming from.

That’s not to say I condone what our captors did to us (the physical and psychological abuse was appalling), and if I met them now, I’d want to ask all of them, ‘Did you have any idea how much you were harming us?’ But I still understand the desperation that caused them to do the things they did.

As soon as we were taken hostage we decided to take the line of least resistance, because our four captors were so clearly traumatized by the war. If we’d shown anger or sadness, or resisted them in any way, we knew they could have reacted with violence.

After several weeks in captivity one of them – an ignorant and wounded person whom we named Paunch – took the opportunity to rape me. The only way I could get through this horror was by thinking to myself, ‘You can never touch the essence of me – my body is only part of who I am.’

He raped me many times, but mostly I was able to cling on to a detached state of being. He always did it when he was alone and I didn’t dare tell the other captors in case it gave them the idea of gang rape. This went on until I got herpes, which gave me the strength to resist. It didn’t stop the sexual harassment completely until a month later. Jon and I were in the kitchen with Paunch and another of our captors, and Paunch went into another room and called me in. For the first time there was an open door and the others were there, which gave me the strength to kneel away from him and say, ‘Niet, niet.’ He looked surprised and asked me to get the dictionary. I pointed out, ‘No sex, no violence.’ He said, ‘But you Western woman, free sex.’ Then it was like a light switched on in his brain and I realized he wanted me as a friend. In his own way he was apologizing. He never touched me again after that but talked about his dreams of having a market garden and a four-wheel drive.

We were released in September 1998. Initially, I seemed to be doing well. We were basking in the euphoria of freedom and love from our family and friends. Then, two months later, I collapsed. I couldn’t stop crying and had no energy. This lasted a few weeks, but it wasn’t until 2001, when Jon and I moved to Wales, that I found the space and silence to let go and surrender to weakness and vulnerability. Only this way could my nervous system finally heal. Some of our Chechnyan friends can’t understand how we can forgive. They feel tarnished with the guilt of their community. I tell them that I believe forgiveness begins with understanding, but you have to work through layers to obtain it. First you have to deal with anger, then with tears, and only once you reach the tears are you on the road to finding peace of mind.

Jon James
I had a horrible feeling as Paunch took Camilla next door. I heard a few muffled words, then silence, and an awful wave of realization hit me. I felt sick. I was powerless to take any physical action since I was handcuffed to the heating pipes. The only tool available was prayer. I prayed that the invasion would be swift and painless.

Throughout our ordeal, I continued to hold back my emotion, as I had learned from practising martial arts that to overcome your opponent you should meet hardness with softness. Knowing this saved my life. But in my dreams I murdered Paunch several times.

We’d do yoga and Tai Chi every morning and survived by the skin of our teeth. I got punched around and there was a lot of mental torture, even a mock execution at one point when we were certain we would die.

After our release we needed space. We’d been stuck together like glue for 14 months. We were both so used to supporting each other that we had to learn to stand alone again. For a long time I experienced anxiety and a lot of physical pain. Like Camilla, I’ve come to an understanding of where our captors, and where her violator, were coming from. Not many people in this world do stuff out of pure maliciousness. But it’s taken me a long time to get to a point where I can think about what happened without feeling a charge of negative energy.