Children born in Afghanistan captivity fear new lives in Canada won't last

Ashifa Kassam in Toronto
Joshua Boyle and his son Jonah play in the garden in Smiths Falls on Saturday. Photograph: Lars Hagberg/AP

After years of living underground, shuffled between cells no bigger than a bathtub, the three children of a US-Canada couple held for years by Islamist militants are marveling at the sun and adjusting to their first taste of freedom – but are still terrified that “this magical wonderland” will end, their father has said.

Joshua Boyle, his American wife, Caitlan Coleman, and their children were rescued on Wednesday, after being abducted by Taliban-linked militants in 2012 while traveling through a mountainous region of Afghanistan.

As the family made the long journey from Pakistan to Smiths Falls, a town of 9,000 people near Ottawa, the children – all of whom were born while the couple was in captivity – eagerly asked if each new airport was their new home, said Boyle.

Since arriving in Canada, the couple’s four-year-old, Najaeshi Jonah, has become fascinated with flushing the toilet. “Everything in the house is a wonderland to him,” Boyle told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in an email.

“That said, he’s terrified to leave the house, even just to go on the porch … it’s as though he thinks if he ever exits this magical wonderland it will all end.”

He worried about the learning curve his eldest child now faced. “He doesn’t actually understand that there is a sun outside,” Boyle told “So forget Mickey Mouse, we’re dealing with the basics. It’s not ‘welcome to the western world’, it’s not ‘welcome to Canada’, it’s ‘welcome to life’.”

Boyle, now 34, said he and Coleman, 31, had always planned to have a big family, and had dreamed of having as many as 12 children. While in captivity, they decided to forge ahead with these plans, deciding: “Hey, let’s make the best of this and at least go home with a larger start on our dream family.”

The decision was made easier by the boredom that cloaked their lives; for five years the couple had little access to books, newspapers or movies. “We’re sitting as hostages with a lot of time on our hands,” Boyle told the Associated Press in an email. “We always wanted as many as possible, and we didn’t want to waste time. Cait’s in her 30s, the clock is ticking.”

The family was shuffled between several prisons. Boyle described the first one as remarkably barbaric while the second was more comfortable. The third, he said, was a place of violence where he and his wife were frequently separated and beaten.

The experience has left the couple’s middle child, Dhakwoen Noah, two, traumatised. “It seems everything reminds him of the horrors of prison: cameras are equated to hostage videos, pens are equated to syringes used to drug his parents with ketamine by the guards, slamming doors is associated with cell searches or worse. It seems his healing process has barely begun – so we pray that God will hasten it,” he told the CBC.

The children’s time in captivity had coloured everything, said Boyle’s father, Patrick Boyle, citing how the two young boys had climbed on to a table to delve into a cake with their hands. “We’re watching a two-year-old and a four-year-old adjusting from eating with their hands whatever food was dropped in front of them to seeing, for the first time, basic utensils,” he told CTV News.

Another example was in how the family continued to sleep together in the smallest room of the house, he said. “They said it was more than twice the size of the best circumstances they were ever in.”

After he and his family landed in Canada late on Friday night, Boyle briefly spoke to reporters, hinting at the horrors the family had suffered at the hands of the Haqqani network, a group deemed a terrorist organisation by the US.

“The stupidity and the evil of the Haqqani networks kidnapping of a pilgrim and his heavily pregnant wife … was eclipsed only by the stupidity and evil of authorizing the murder of my infant daughter,” Boyle told reporters, his voice cracking. “And the stupidity and evil of the subsequent rape of my wife, not as a lone action, by one guard, but assisted by the captain of the guard and supervised by the commandant.”

He said they had travelled to Afghanistan to help the “most neglected minority group in the world”, said Boyle. “Those ordinary villagers who live deep inside Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where no NGO, no aid worker and no government has ever successfully been able to bring the necessary help.”

Following their rescue, his father-in-law expressed frustration with Boyle for taking his daughter to Afghanistan while she was pregnant. Many seized on the remarks, along with the fact that Boyle was once married to the sister of Omar Khadr, the Canadian held for 10 years at Guantánamo Bay after being captured as a teenager at an al-Qaida compound in Afghanistan, to speculate that the couple had had other motivations for the trip.

Boyle, a former call center worker, dismissed the reports. “I’m a harmless hippie and I do not kill even mice,” he told the Toronto Star. “I’ve been vegetarian for 17 years. Anybody who knows me would laugh at the notion that I went with designs on becoming a combatant.”

He believed the Haqqani network had targeted the couple after spotting Coleman, who was visibly pregnant at the time. “They spoke often immediately following the kidnapping that ‘America will pay for you very quickly – America will not want to risk the baby is born here in prison’,” Boyle told the Canadian Press.

The Taliban has denied allegations that Coleman was raped and that the couple’s daughter was killed. Instead, a Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, said in a statement that Coleman had had a “natural miscarriage” after contracting an illness that could not be treated in the rural area where the family was being held. “No one has either intentionally murdered the child of this couple and neither has anyone violated or defiled them,” he added.