The ‘Psychological Torture’ of Having Your Dad Kidnapped by Communist Terrorists
In 1994, Miles Hargrove’s father was kidnapped at gunpoint by FARC. So he picked up a camcorder and documented the harrowing ordeal. The result is the doc “Miracle Fishing.”
When I was 19 years old, my family moved to Cali, Colombia, for my father’s job. His name was Tom Hargrove, and he was an agricultural journalist working in rural communities to fight hunger and famine. Driving to work on Sept. 23, 1994, he was waved off the road, pulled from his car at gunpoint, thrown into the back of a pickup truck and driven deep into the Andes Mountains. My family soon learned he had been kidnapped by FARC, a communist terrorist group and the largest guerrilla army in the Western Hemisphere at the time.
My mom, Susan, observed that he was not the only family member held hostage. We became a kidnapped family. My mom, brother and I couldn’t leave our home in suburban Cali. What if there was news? What if he returned? What if the guerrillas demanded something and we weren’t there to respond? And if we were to leave, where would we go and what would we do? We couldn’t go to lunch and talk about our kidnapping. Word would spread all over town. We had to keep quiet and stay home. My father’s life depended on it.
It was psychological torture. We were trapped with our thoughts and our fears. We had no idea what the future held; our lives went on complete hold. We couldn’t make plans of any sort. And we felt helpless. We began to negotiate a ransom payment directly with FARC via radio from our living room, and while that gave us a sense of purpose, we could sometimes go weeks or even months without any communication with his captors. When we finally reached an agreement and made a payment to them, we thought we were through the worst of it. But they took the money and refused to let my father go, and we were forced to start all over again, entering a second round of negotiations.
When social distancing began earlier this year, I had a distinct sense of déjà vu. The uncertainty. The claustrophobia. The thinly veiled panic. On phone calls my friends described their “weird new realities” and I thought, “I’ve been here before.” So if you’re still at home, anxious about the coming second wave, doing your best to socially distance in a town, or a state, or a country that’s lost its appetite for shared sacrifice—I hear you. What you’re experiencing is not that different from being a kidnapped family. You’re not crazy—it’s unbearably difficult. Depression. Anxiety. The desire to say, “screw it” and just go out. It’s all real.
When I think back on what happened in Colombia, I realize that it was the love of our neighbors and friends that helped us survive our ordeal. Our next-door neighbors were the Greiners—we had been close with them when my father was taken, and we knew we could trust them. Our bubble expanded to include them; our families merged into one.
Claudia Greiner, in her infinite wisdom, insisted that we make the very best of every moment. She helped us see the fun in cooking dinner together, the joy in arguing over what to play next on the Hi-Fi, and the camaraderie in the simple act of a game of badminton. We learned to be adamant about keeping the daily rituals that helped maintain a semblance of normalcy in our world of insanity. We learned to laugh at every opportunity—if we hadn’t, we would have imploded. And we did it all together, because together we were stronger than we were alone.
Despite all this, I was still having a hard time. My mom saw this, and encouraged me to keep a diary of our lives. So I picked up a Video8 camcorder and filmed everything—from the negotiations to the ransom payments, from the waiting to picking up the packages that the guerrillas would leave for us in fast food toilet stalls. The diary became my form of therapy. Being separated from our reality through a camera lens was a much easier way for me to process what was happening. And I survived to tell the tale.
And if you see a diary as an egocentric act, then I offer you this: it turns out my father kept a diary too, his own secret accounting of time spent in captivity. He diligently put down the day’s banalities—the meager bowl of rice that was his only meal, the bizarre small talk he made with his captors, his anguish at being apart from those he loved. His cramped handwriting covers every inch of every page. While he passed away long, long ago, his diary remains—a portal to a time when he was distant, but still alive. Reading it is the closest I can get to spending time with him. And for that, I am forever grateful.
—Director Miles Hargrove recounts the harrowing 334 days of his father’s kidnapping in the documentary Miracle Fishing. The film relies exclusively on his own original, grainy camcorder footage from 1994 to masterfully craft a distinctly stylized and profoundly personal atmospheric thriller. Miracle Fishing was scheduled to have its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival prior to its cancellation and is currently streaming at AFI DOCS through June 21 and Nantucket Film Festival June 23–30.