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A French Woman Held Hostage for 153 Days in Yemen Has Returned Home

Isabelle Prime was freed Thursday and returned to France after she was abducted in February by an unknown group in Yemen while working on a development project.
Photo via Antti Salonen/Wikimedia Commons

A 30-year-old French woman who was abducted by an unknown group in Yemen in February and freed on Thursday arrived back in France today, where she was greeted by French President François Hollande.

Isabelle Prime and her translator were abducted on February 24 in Sanaa, Yemen's capital, where Prime was working as a consultant on a development project funded by the World Bank, UNICEF, and various NGOs. At the time of her abduction, Prime was officially employed by Alaya Consulting, which specializes in implementing social welfare programs throughout the world.

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Prime and translator Cherine Makkaoui were stopped in Sanaa by men disguised as police officers. According to Makkaoui, the men were only interested in taking Prime, but the interpreter refused to leave her colleague's side. "We were blindfolded, they removed our watches. It was impossible to know where we were being taken," Makkaoui told French daily Ouest France shortly after she was freed two weeks later.

Makkaoui was released in the southern town of Aden after tribal chiefs contacted by her family intervened. Prime remained alone with her captors and spent a total of 153 days in captivity.

Speaking from the military airbase of Villacoublay, Hollande said he was "overjoyed to welcome Isabelle Prime back to her home in France," and commended Prime for her "great courage" during her ordeal.

Following Hollande's statement, Prime said that she "knew France had my back, because it has never abandoned any of its compatriots."

Speaking to French radio Europe 1 on Friday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius described Prime's abductors as "very harsh people," but held off giving details of the release or divulging which group was holding her.

Fabius also expressed his "heartfelt gratitude to the Sultanate of Oman, and particularly to its foreign affairs minister." It is not the first time the government of Oman has played the role of mediator in a hostage crisis in neighboring Yemen. In June, the country helped negotiate the release of American journalist Casey Combs, who was abducted mid-May by Houthi rebels.

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Related: Welcome to Yemen, Where War Has Turned Cities Into a Living Hell

"The big lesson to be learned from all this," said Fabius, "is that France never abandons its own." Fabius said France had paid no ransom for the release of Prime — a claim contradicted by Makkaoui, who said the French government paid out $3 million to the captors.

Speaking to AFP on Friday, Prime's father Jean-Noël said that he had heard the news of his daughter's release Thursday, at 11pm, two hours before the government's official announcement. "I'm unbelievably happy," said the doctor, who lives in Angers, a town in the west of France.

The road ahead for Prime may be a tough one.

"When a hostage is freed, we follow a very specific procedure," said Carole Damiani, a psychologist and project manager for French victim support organization INAVEM — a group that monitors the well-being of freed hostages on behalf of the French Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Speaking to VICE News on Friday, Damiani explained that freed hostages are usually taken to an emergency unit at the Val-de-Grâce military hospital, in Paris, for medical and psychological screening. "Very often, victims are euphoric," said Damiani. "They don't really understand why they have to undergo all these tests."

Damiani said victims experience "classic traumas that are prolonged for days, months, sometimes years." The psychologist said that "the victims that are taken on by INAVEM often speak of abandonment and the humiliations experienced during captivity." Their newfound freedom, she added, is often experienced as "a difficult journey."

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Victims display signs of "anxiety, mistrust, and relive scenes [from their captivity] in their mind," said Damiani. They also experience "phobic avoidance, fear of flying or of enclosed spaces."

"The most important thing is to help victims express themselves by encouraging them to speak about their time in captivity, even months or years later," said Damiani. As well as undergoing psychotherapy, former hostages are often prescribed drugs to deal with post-traumatic depression.

On July 8, former French hostage Serge Lazarevic — who was freed in December 2014 after being detained by al Qaeda in Mali for four years — said he felt "abandoned by French authorities" and described himself as a "homeless person of the Republic."

"But he [Serge Lazarevic] wasn't abandoned," said Damiani, adding that some victims "ensure their own abandonment" by "not showing up to meetings or having to face once more the administrative world." The psychologist said that the French system is "not adapted to these specific cases," which can prove difficult in the case of former hostages who no longer have homes or are ineligible for welfare. "A lot of work remains to be done in that domain," she said.

According to the UNHCR, there are approximately 1.2 million internally displaced people in Yemen, and 100,000 have fled the country since the start of the civil war — a conflict opposing Houthi rebel forces and forces loyal to the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. In July 2015, the UN declared its highest-level humanitarian emergency in Yemen.

Follow Pierre-Louis Caron on Twitter: @pierrelouis_c

Photo of Sanaa via Antti Salonen/Wikimedia Commons

Watch the VICE News documentary, The Siege of Aden: