If you’ve been tuned in, you just read about my first kidnapping. “First,” because, yes, there’s a second one. This time, the type of skills we teach at The Art of Charm came even more into play. If you liked the story of my first kidnapping, strap yourself in for a bumpy ride. This one is a lot scarier. Whereas the worst thing that was going to happen to me when I got kidnapped in Mexico was having my bank account drained, this time I was lucky to escape with my life.
To call my second kidnapping “intense” is the understatement of the year.
Rather than being half-assedly taken somewhere by a gypsy cab driver in search of a couple hundred bucks, this time I was kidnapped by Serbian state security forces driving around on an island with no cars allowed in blacked-out jeeps and government plates who were basically looking for someone to torment — and probably kill — just for kicks. There was no buying them off and (just about) no talking my way out of the situation.
It all began when I was at a music festival in Serbia. I noticed some weird guys noticing me and a friend. What troubled me more, though, was how much they were noticing our dates. They were in uniforms that were slightly different from Serbian cops, but I knew they were some kind of military or law enforcement. Still, in some parts of the world (and, as I was about to find out, Serbia is one of them) cops are the ones you need to be the most afraid of. They were following us, so me and my friend caused a distraction, allowing the girls to flee back to our hotel.
While I’m glad that we threw ourselves on that grenade to protect the women that we were with, what following was a terrifying 36-hour ordeal. They “arrested” us; We both spoke Serbian, but they didn’t know that. As such, we knew they had bad plans for us. You know, because they kept saying things like “Let’s go have a drink before we throw these Americans off a bridge.” We had no way to ask for a phone call or inquire as to what the charges against us were. I suspect that it wouldn’t have mattered much if we could communicate this to our new captors.
At this point you might be wondering how good my social skills are if I didn’t manage to get my way out of being kidnapped. Fair question. First of all, my social skills did help me get out of the situation, which I will get into later. Perhaps more importantly, my friend, who was alternately far more confrontational, got way more of a beating than I did.
Oh yeah. There were beatings. Pretty steady ones, too.
See, they didn’t take us to some dank basement where we were interrogated for stealing state secrets or anything like that. On the contrary, we were taken to a very out of the way cafe where we were forced to drink. Rather, my friend was forced to drink. I had the foresight to get a bottle of water and create the illusion that I was getting more and more drunk. In fact, I was stone cold sober through most of the ordeal.
Every now and then, they would drag me or my friend — usually my friend — outside for a beating with fists, truncheons, whatever they had on them. I ended up with a ton of cigarette burns all over me. They were mad at us for getting the girls to safety, but more to the point, they were bored and we were there. Because I was able to keep my head together, it was a lot easier to play my captors. While I felt bad that my friend was getting beaten on more than I was, it was important that one of us maintain a greater degree of control. It would vastly improve our chances of getting out of there alive.
While my friend was either challenging our captors or keeping his head down, I was trying to engage in rapport with them. Unless you’re dealing with a hardened sociopath (and I’m honestly still not sure if these guys were or weren’t just that), talking, giving them a sense of your personality and creating some kind of human connection can save your life. It might not, and probably won’t, get your captors to let you go. What it can do, however, is buy you enough time to come up with a plan to free yourself.
That’s precisely what I needed to do. Especially now, because the game was changing rapidly. I caught my first beating when the guys realized that I had been sipping water and not the local brew they thought I had been drinking the whole time. It was savage and I passed out for a little while, due to both the lack of sleep and the brutality of the beating. I’m lucky to be alive after that, but then again, the human body is pretty resilient. What’s more, while I was out, they had somehow drugged my friend. While neither of us knew it at the time, we later found out that they had injected him with heroin.
I was losing my senses as well. Fortunately, I had it together enough to realize that the men who had abducted us were closing in on their end game — our untimely deaths. My Serbian wasn’t great, but I could make out enough to know they were talking about us and the bridge and river nearby, which was enough for me. All but one of our captors went off to get the guns. The other was distracted playing with the phone he stole from me and eventually walked out to the jeep for whatever reason. The bartender also distracted him because he felt bad for us and probably didn’t want anything to do with the mess that was about to go down on his watch, in his bar. They clearly thought we were way too out of it and way too terrified to actually do anything about the situation that we’re in.
This was my moment. I grabbed my friend and dragged him as quickly as I could to the nearest restaurant. He couldn’t walk on his own. I could barely walk, but somehow I managed to get us both to safety.
Between my broken Serbian, my friend acting totally doped up and out of it and me being plastered, bruised and covered in bug bites, no one was really interested in our story. We told the street cops that eventually responded to our call them it was cops or the military. Absurd, they maintained. Why would cops do this? Finally, someone asked us about the car they were driving, and that’s when it all clicked.
We described their vehicle and a hush went over the crowd. It wasn’t cops or military. It was a paramilitary, semi-official part of the Serbian government. These were basically guys who had been in death squads during the Yugoslav civil Wars. The military couldn’t do anything about them, they were untouchable as far as the government was concerned. They were also more or less allowed to do whatever they wanted.
We got in their way. Nothing could be done about it. We considered ourselves lucky to be alive and got out of the country as quickly as possible.
So what did I learn from the second time I got kidnapped?
Sometimes it sucks being a guy.
It’s undeniably the male role to jump on the grenade the way me and my friend did. I would do absolutely nothing differently when it came to saving our dates, who would almost certainly have had a way worse time of things than we did.
Remaining in control is paramount.
I hate that my friend basically got twice the beatings as I did because I was more composed than he was. But here’s the thing: Someone needed to be. And I’m sure my friend would agree that it’s better to take a few (admittedly pretty savage) beatings and still be alive because a buddy avoided the same than to have both of you beaten and dead in a Serbian ditch.
Some men just want to watch the world burn.
Getting kidnapped for profit I understand… kind of. What I don’t get is guys who just want to kidnap people to spend a couple days beating them, shooting them up with heroin and then killing them. I didn’t really know what “evil” was until I was kidnapped by Serbian state security forces. I sure know what it looks like now and it ain’t pretty.
I can do a lot more than I thought I could.
Everyone thinks they have limits and, of course, they do. But what most people don’t know is that their limits are way beyond what they think they are. If you had described this story — or even the story of what happened to me in Mexico — to me before it happened I would have thought you were nuts. When put in the actual situation, however, doing what you need to do is a lot easier than it seems in the abstract. This is because your very survival is at stake.
It’s good to live in America.
Say what you will about America. It’s certainly not a country without its problems. But one of those problems is not that you might get hauled off by unofficial state security forces who will then spent two days beating you for fun. You take this for granted, which by the way is a good thing, but it’s worth taking a moment here and there to reflect on how lucky you are to live in a country where you don’t have to worry about your choices being between that and your date getting picked out for sexual assault.
When you’re being targeted, talk a lot.
While in the Mexico situation, the best thing to do was scream and make a big fuss, here it was the opposite. I wanted to be discreet, but I also wanted to create a connection with my captors, as sick as that might sound. Still, I attribute a lot of the fact that I was able to avoid beatings that my friend got to my making a connection with these guys. They were laughing at my jokes. They were commenting on my stories. I have no doubt that they would have killed me anyway. Still, creating that connection almost certainly gave us the time, space and breathing room necessary to mount our inevitable escape to freedom.
Diplomats will not help you.
The embassy basically told us not to say anything about this to the media for fear of harming U.S.-Serbia relations. We got blown off. When I did go to the press and the story made front-page news, I had the Department of Defense call me up and threaten to cut my college scholarship off if I went any further with the story.
At this point I should probably say that I travel all of the world several times a year. In all my years of traveling I have had precisely two major problems, both of which you now know about. Yeah, they were doozies. There’s no mistaking that. But there’s no way in the world that even the worst events are going to get me to give up something that I love as much as traveling the world.
Get out there. See the world. Be safe about it and come back in one piece. And if, God forbid, you find yourself in a bad situation, I hope that my experiences will do a little bit to help you get out of it.
Jordan Harbinger is a Wall Street lawyer turned Social Dynamics expert and coach. He is the co-founder of The Art of Charm, a dating and relationships coaching company. If you’re interested in The Art of Charm residential programs, apply for a strategy call with a coach. You can also interact with Jordan on Facebook or Twitter.
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