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Book review: Buried Alive: The True Story of Kidnapping, Captivity, and a Dramatic Rescue by Roy Hallums

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There are some books which you almost dread starting because you know really bad things are going to happen in them. Buried Alive: The True Story of Kidnapping, Captivity, and a Dramatic Rescue was such a book. In it Roy Hallums (with Audrey Hudson) tells the story of his 2004 kidnapping by a group of Islamic terrorists from an office in Baghdad, the 311 days of his captivity, and his eventual rescue. The book lived up to all my fears. It is a grueling account of man’s inhumanity to man. But it ends up being much more than a portrayal of humanity at its worst, in large part due to Hallums himself.

From the beginning I was struck by Hallums’ ability to perceive details during his captivity and recall them later. Because he is forced to wear a blindfold throughout and lives months in an infrequently lit underground bunker, he has few visual memories. But he does recall smells, sounds, sensations of pain, and the chain of events in excruciating detail. The fact that he is able to keep track of day and night and document the passage of time using things like the call to prayer of the mullahs and the drone of planes overhead is testimony to the mental toughness of the man.

I was also struck by Hallums’ humanity. During the telling he rarely expresses any bitterness toward his captors. His compassion toward fellow kidnap victims is often evident as they invent ways to communicate (despite the ever-present demand they remain silent). He listens to their fears and concerns and tries to comfort them when they’re hurt from beatings or worried sick about their families. Of course, his main anxiety is for his family in the States and how they are coping with his disappearance.

The narrative in the book goes back and forth between what is happening to Roy and what his family is feeling and doing. We are taken from the early days of their obeying FBI orders to remain absolutely silent about his disappearance, to their attempts to advocate for him as precious time passes and he still hasn’t been found. Such a dual telling gives the story depth and gets the reader even more involved in the situation.

The book accomplishes more than just telling a tale of courage and survival. It illustrates the worldview gap that exists between western and middle-eastern cultures. It helps us understand why many governments refuse to pay ransom and how paying it ends up making life more dangerous for all foreigners in the Middle East. It also helps us understand the apparent indifference of governments in such cases. Though the family is greatly frustrated by the silence of the U.S. government concerning Roy’s case, it is just such secrecy that, in the end, leads to Hallums' rescue.

The book disappointed me in one area, however. The jacket notes promise, “…Hallums’ story of suffering is tempered by his faith and his survivalist perspective.”

On the strength of that, I was looking for evidence that Hallums’ faith supported him during this whole ordeal (and I expected it to be religious faith – judging by the kind of books that Thomas Nelson usually publishes). It wasn’t there – or if it was, it was so subtle I missed it. Of course, if another kind of faith is meant, i.e. a faith in people, or faith that he would be rescued – that is in evidence all over the place.

On every other front, though, this is a truly remarkable story. The fact that Hallums had the guts to relive it in order to tell it in book form is testimony to what an extraordinary man he is.

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