WASHINGTON (AP) — The married couple with a taste for exotic travel set out for Central Asia in the summer of 2012, moving as tourists through a region not normally visited by Westerners.
It was a risky venture by any standards, not least because the young travelers were expecting their first child. They crossed into Afghanistan where, one day, Joshua Boyle emailed relatives from a part of the country he said was unsafe.
The message from Oct. 8, 2012 was the last anyone heard from the Canadian man or his pregnant wife, Caitlan Coleman.
But now there’s a new wrinkle to the story.
In two short videos received by Coleman’s parents last year, Boyle and Coleman are seen calling on the U.S. government to free them and their child — who would be about 18 months old — from Taliban captors. The video files, provided to The Associated Press, were emailed to Coleman’s father last July and September by an Afghan man who identified himself as having Taliban ties.
The recordings offer the first and only clues about what happened to Coleman and Boyle after they lost touch with their families 20 months ago while traveling in a mountainous region near Kabul. But they leave unanswered basic questions, including the couple’s whereabouts and their current welfare. And if she indeed had her baby, where is the child?
“I would ask that my family and my government do everything that they can to bring my husband, child and I to safety and freedom,” the 28-year-old American says in one recording, wearing a conservative black garment that covers all but her face. Her husband, with a long and untrimmed beard, sits beside her.
U.S. law enforcement officials investigating the couple’s disappearance consider the videos authentic but say they hold limited investigative value since it’s not clear when or where they were made.
Though Coleman says in the video that the trio is in Taliban captivity, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told the AP in Kabul that the group had no information about the couple and was unaware of the kidnapping.
The families decided to make the videos public now, in light of the publicity surrounding the weekend rescue of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was freed from Taliban custody in exchange for the release of five high-level Taliban detainees at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The families said they were disappointed that their children and grandchild were not freed as part of the same deal but were appealing for help from anyone who could give it, including and especially the couple’s captors.
“It would be no more appropriate to have our government turn their backs on their citizens than to turn their backs on those who serve,” Patrick Boyle, a Canadian judge and the father of Joshua Boyle, said in a telephone interview.
The families said their children were prisoners just as Bergdahl was and should be recognized as “innocent tourists.” Though the couple made a mistake by venturing on their own into dangerous territory, they — and especially their child — should not be penalized more than they already have been, the families contend.
“It’s an event that just stands out. I think it cries to out to the world: ‘This can’t be. These people must be let go immediately,'” said James Coleman, Coleman’s father.
In a joint written statement Wednesday night, the families called for a humanitarian effort to bring their children and grandchild home and asked for “compassion” from the captors.
Relatives describe the couple, who met online as teenagers and wed in 2011, as well-intentioned but naive adventure seekers.
They once spent months in Latin America, where they lived among indigenous Guatemalans. The couple traveled in the summer of 2012 on a journey that took them to Russia, the central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and then to Afghanistan.
“They really and truly believed that if people were loved and treated with respect that that would be given back to them in kind,” said Linda Boyle, Boyle’s mother. “So as odd it as it may seem to us that they were there, they truly believed with all their heart that if they treated people properly, they would be treated properly.”
With plans to return home in December ahead of Coleman’s due date, they checked in regularly via email during their travels — apparently aware of the perils they faced.
The communications ended abruptly on Oct. 8, 2012 with Josh Boyle’s email. An Afghan official told the AP later that year that the two were believed to have had been abducted in Wardak province, a rugged, mountainous Taliban haven. Attaullah Khogyani, a spokesman for the governor of Wardak province, said Thursday that officials do not know where the couple is being held now but that they likely had been moved to another area.
New hope emerged last year when an Afghan man who said he had Taliban connections contacted James Coleman, offering first audio recordings and, later, the two email video files. Though the man said the recordings had been provided by the Taliban, he did not reveal what, if anything, the captors wanted and has not been in touch with the Colemans for months.
Meanwhile, the Boyles and Colemans regularly send letters in an effort to reach their children through a non-governmental organization, but haven’t received a response. The Colemans live in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania; the Boyles live outside Ottawa.
The families have not received any ransom demands and there were no clear signs of motive for their being held, but officials said the mere fact they were Westerners may have been reason enough.
Joshua Boyle was previously married to the sister of Omar Khadr, a Canadian man who spent 10 years at Guantanamo Bay after being captured in 2002 in a firefight at an al-Qaida compound in Afghanistan, but U.S. officials discount any link between that previous family tie and his capture. One called it a mere coincidence.
Two U.S. law enforcement officials described the investigation, speaking only on condition of anonymity because the probe was still underway.
The videos, each under two minutes long and featuring the couple seated in spare settings before cloth-draped backgrounds, contain no apparent clues that might help investigators identify captors or locale. The video files do contain time stamps from different dates last year but officials said those notations could be manipulated easily.
The officials also cautioned that while the videos established that the couple was captured, they did not qualify as proof of life since there was no mention of current events that could help establish the time of recordings.
Even as they hold out hope, the families fret for their children’s safety and for a grandchild — born into captivity in a foreign country — whose name and gender they don’t even know.
“Our children must be allowed to come home to continue the lives they intended,” the families said in the statement.
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