Dearborn hostage recounts enduring ‘hell’

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Dearborn — During six months as a prisoner in Yemen, Sam Farran was handcuffed, blindfolded and beaten until he lost consciousness.

But that was just part of an ordeal that would draw headlines from around the world.

Also harrowing were the people he shared a cell with — members of al-Qaida, who openly discussed how they would destroy U.S. government facilities, he said.

“If anyone wants to know what hell is like, I do,” he said last week, back home in Michigan.

Farran, 55, of Dearborn was working as a security consultant in Yemen when he was abducted in March 2015 by Houthi rebels, a Shiite Muslim group who had overthrown the government.

He was tossed into a 5-by-12-foot, concrete-block cell inhabited by two medics with a local al-Qaida group. He eventually roomed with many other members as he was moved from cell to cell.

Al-Qaida called the military base prison, teeming with terrorists, “Guantanamo Yemen.” Farran called it the grave.

The former Marine gradually forged an unlikely bond with less militant members. They were shocked when he said Muslims were treated well in the U.S., were a majority on the Hamtramck City Council and one was nearly elected mayor there.

They became close enough that, when the operatives planned an escape, they offered to take Farran with him. He was going to do it, but the escape was never attempted.

The married father of four left the prison in September 2015 when Oman, at the behest of the U.S., petitioned for his release.

“For six months, I was depressed, anxious, on edge,” said his daughter, Amira.

The nightmare began March 19 when Farran flew into Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, to help several people leave the country. He was a security consultant for several Western firms with workers in Yemen.

With the Houthis in control, Farran was one of the few security workers willing to enter the country. As a Marine and security consultant, he had spent time in Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Six days after his arrival, Saudi Arabia began an aerial assault of the city. The bombing closed the airport, which left Farran no way out of the country.

“There was nothing we could do,” said Farran.

He and another American, Scott Darden, a client who worked for a New Orleans logistics firm, sought refuge in a villa owned by another client, British American Tobacco company.

Darden declined to be interviewed for this story.

The bombardment, supported by U.S. intelligence, made any American in Yemen suspect.

On March 27, a dozen men armed with M4 assault rifles stormed the house where Farran and Darden were staying.

The leaders, three Houthis with kufiyahs covering their faces, said they just wanted to search the home.

They confiscated the men’s cellphones and computers, and $5,000 from Farran’s wallet.

The men were forced to strip to their underwear and T-shirts, were handcuffed and had black hoods placed over their heads. They were driven away in separate SUVs.

Tight quarters, no shoes

In prison, Farran was given a shirt and Bermuda shorts but no shoes to discourage him from escaping.

The cell had a faucet, bucket to wash in, toilet and thin sponge mattress.

He paced the 12-foot-long cell 500 times a day, praying, dreaming of the day he would see his family again.

He thought of happy times with his wife and children, Fourth of July trips to Cedar Point amusement park, noctunal feasts during Ramadan.

Farran, a Muslim born in Lebanon, read the Quran three to four hours a day.

And he counted each and every one of the 177 days he was locked up.

“We didn’t see the sun for a long, long, long time,” he said.

He was fed three meals a day — rice, beans, cheese and stew — but still lost 34 pounds.

The only time Farran left the cell was for interrogations.

He was blindfolded but recognized the voice of his inquisitor. He was a member of Yemen’s National Security Bureau whom Farran had known for 14 years.

They met shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks when Farran became assistant defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy. Back then the security bureau was supported by the U.S. Now it was run by the Houthis.

“Why are you here?” demanded the interlocutor.

Why had Farran arrived just before the bombing, he asked. Was he helping the Saudis target certain buildings?

The official wanted the American to admit he was a spy.

When Farran demurred, he was slapped repeatedly and his ears boxed. He thought his head was going to explode.

Other times, he was struck with a stick on his arms and legs.

The official said he could make Farran “disappear” and would tell the U.S. he was killed in the Saudi bombing.

“Nobody is asking about you,” the official said. “You’re on your own.”

Relief after faking illness

The beatings, 10 over two months, stopped only after Farran feigned a heart attack.

It wasn’t much of a stretch. He once had triple bypass surgery and, after being denied heart medication during his first two months in prison, his chest was hurting.

He was taken to a hospital where he received an electrocardiogram and blood-thinning medicine.

After four months, Farran was allowed to visit the prison yard for one hour. It was the first time he had seen the sun for 130 days.

While there, he spotted Darden for the first time since their capture. They hugged and cried. Darden said he, too, had been beaten and accused of being a spy.

“We talked about what questions I was asked, what questions he was asked,” Farran said.

Prisoners were frequently moved from cell to cell to prevent them from planning an escape.

Wherever Farran went, his new cellmates invariably were members of al-Qaida. The prison was full of them, holdovers from the previous government.

Fearing for his safety, he told the terrorists he was Lebanese, not American. The Sunni al-Qaida doesn’t like the Shiite Lebanese, either, but its No. 1 enemy was the U.S., especially someone who fought in the military.

The other prisoners eventually learned Farran’s real identity and accepted him, saying his military service was in the past.

Farran, who speaks fluent Arabic, and his cellmates discussed politics, religion, current news, how Yemen had turned into a civil war. They prayed and fasted together.

The terrorists, well-versed in world events, said they had no trouble with the American people, who they described as the most generous in the world, said Farran. Their beef was with political leaders, who they felt were waging a war against Islam.

“They’re intelligent, knowledgeable about what’s going on,” said Farran.

One time, the inmates, who talked from cell to cell through water pipes, discussed helping an al-Qaida leader escape from the prison.

They asked Farran if he wanted to join them. They offered to deliver him to the Oman border.

Without hesitation, the American said “yes.”

“I didn’t have a choice,” he said. “These guys (the Houthis) are threatening that I may never leave.”

Sudden hope of release

In September 2015, a guard opened the small window on Farran’s steel door and asked for his shirt and pant size.

He was going to refuse to give it because he didn’t want a prison uniform. It would make his incarceration feel permanent. He still wore the civilian clothes he was given the first day.

But the guard then asked his shoe size. Prisoners didn’t have shoes. Farran was so shocked he fell to the ground. He was going home.

His al-Qaida cellmates, praising Allah, congratulated him.

He met Darden in the hallway and the men cried together.

“Is it really happening?” Farran wondered aloud.

The Americans had heard of the prison removing inmates from their cells, preparing them for release and then, at the last minute, returning them to the lockup.

The guards cut their hair and shaved their six-month beards. They made them sign “confessions” that they were spies.

The men were blindfolded and driven to the Sanaa airport. Joined by a British Somali citizen, four Saudis and a score of wounded Houthi rebels, they walked through the airport lounge, onto the tarmac and into an Omani military plane.

And then they waited and waited and waited.

A third American was supposed to be released from the prison but, for some reason, he never appeared. After four hours, Oman said it was too dangerous to wait any longer so the plane took off.

The American, whose name wasn’t released by U.S. officials, remains locked up today, said officials.

It was only when the plane was in the air that Farran finally felt free.

Secretary of State John Kerry praised Oman for its involvement in the release. His department had kept the prisoners’ families abreast of the situation.

“We will continue to work tirelessly to pursue the release of all Americans detained abroad unjustly, including those who remain in the region,” Kerry said at the time.

‘My new birthday’

Al-Qaida members told Farran that, if he was ever freed, and it was a big “if,” his release date would become his new birthday. Some of the members had been in the prison for a decade.

Farran was asked last week how it felt to leave the prison.

“It’s my new birthday,” he said.

Still, it wasn’t an easy transition.

After his release, Farran stayed awake for five days. He was worried that, if he feel asleep, he would awake in the Yemen prison.

Also, he has been putting off surgery he needs for a shoulder injury he received during the beatings.

He has no plans to stop being a security consultant, to the consternation of his wife and daughter.

In fact, last week, his daughter, Marcelle, asked what his plans were. Farran said he’s been getting calls about going to Libya. Marcelle wasn’t happy.

“It just becomes part of you,” said Farran. “The uniform is off but the obligation is always there, to protect others.”

In other words, once a Marine, always a Marine.

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