She was a small-town American woman yearning to explore. He once married a Guantanamo inmate’s sister. Together they backpacked into war-ravaged Afghanistan, were taken hostage, and bore three children in captivity before their shock rescue.
Caitlan Coleman and her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle’s ordeal has remained largely a mystery, and one of the strangest hostage dramas since the day they were snatched by a Taliban-affiliated group in 2012 and spirited away to a hideout in Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal belt. Five years after their capture, during which a 2016 hostage video showed Coleman pleading for an end to “the Kafkaesque nightmare in which we find ourselves,” the family is free, according to statements on Thursday by the Pakistani military and the White House.
But little is known of the couple’s reasons for striking out to Central Asia in the first place, with seemingly no end game in focus. “Only God knows exactly where it will lead or what all can be accomplished, seen, experienced or learned while we travel,” Caitlan wrote in an email in July 2012 on the eve of her departure, according to Caitlan’s neighbor Holly Otterbein, who wrote an article for Philadelphia magazine last year. “So we put ourselves in His hands.”
Their adventures took them to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan, where they befriended locals in the countryside and joined caravans with other travelers. They sent postcards home chronicling their adventures. But they reportedly did not tell their parents they were going into Afghanistan.
Coleman grew up in the tiny community of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. She is described by friends as soft-spoken, individualistic, an all-American sweetheart.
In September 2012, one month before her capture, she wrote to friends to describe her joy in “getting to know some of the most unique, quirky people I have ever met, and learning from them. It really gives you a different perspective on the world.”
Boyle was raised in Ottawa. They met as teenagers online, shared a passion for science fiction and the Star Wars movies, and got married in 2011 during a trip to Central America, according to Canadian press reports. “How did a self-described ‘pacifist Mennonite hippy-child’ from rural Canada end up as a prisoner of the most brutal terrorist group in Central Asia? Not even his family is sure,” Boyle’s friend Alex Edwards wrote in a blog post in 2015. “He was a rebel, an iconoclast, a Robin Hood. I hope he still is.”
Boyle was drawn to politics, extremist personalities, and justice issues surrounding the detentions in Guantanamo, according to Edwards. He closely followed the case of Canadian-born Omar Khadr, a Muslim who at age 15 was taken to Afghanistan by his father, an associate of Osama bin-Laden. Khadr was captured in battle and detained for a decade in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay. He was repatriated to Canada in 2012.
During Khadr’s detention Boyle grew close with his sister Zaynab Khadr, herself a controversial figure, who once defended the 9/11 attacks on the United States. They married in 2009 but divorced about a year later. Even so, the ties between the son of a Canadian judge and a woman with extremist sympathies stirred controversy.
Boyle’s parents were given occasional glimpses of their son and daughter-in-law’s life in captivity, in correspondence delivered through intermediaries. Boyle recounts in one letter how he helped deliver his second son in the darkness, with a flashlight between his teeth.
“Ta-da!” he wrote his parents, according to a September 2016 report in the Toronto Star. “The astonished captors were good and brought all our post-partum needs, so he is now fat and healthy, praise God.”
In two videos from last December and January that the hostages’ families shared this year, the couple’s two sons appear healthy but disheveled. Caitlan’s smile has disappeared, her wavy brown hear covered by a black headscarf.
According to the Toronto Star, Boyle called his parents on Thursday to say they had been rescued, that their third child, a girl, was born two months ago, and that plans were underway for their return to North America, ending the most agonizing journey of their lives.