Jon Swain
November 01, 1976 12:00 PM

For some 15 years, guerrillas in Eritrea, a province of Ethiopia, have fought for independence. Last June Jon Swain, a 28-year-old British journalist, was captured by rebels allied with the Eritreans calling themselves the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Tigre is an adjoining province in northern Ethiopia. During his three months of captivity, Swain met a British family, Lindsay and Stephanie Tyler and their two children, whom the guerrillas are holding for ransom. Swain describes the Tylers’ plight.

We were just coming up a bridge and I heard a ping on the pebbles,” Stephanie Tyler, 33, recalls. “I said to Lin, ‘That’s a bullet.’ Then more bullets came. We stopped our Land-Rover. I got out and shouted, ‘We have children, for God’s sake! We have little children!’ ”

From that day, May 9, the Tylers were prisoners of the TPLF. The front, Marxist-oriented and dedicated to self-determination, is asking one million U.S. dollars from the British government for the Tylers’ release.

The Foreign Office has indicated it will not pay.

Lindsay Tyler, 33, is a veterinarian who vaccinated cattle for the Ethiopian government as part of a British technical assistance program. He and his family are kept at a base camp near the Sudanese border. They live under an acacia tree and subsist on canned vegetables from China and coarse bread baked in the camp. Tyler carried a radio transmitter in his Land-Rover—a necessity in his work—and because of it, the guerrillas have charged him with spying. They confiscated his $330 binoculars (the Tylers are fanatical bird-watchers) and apparently burned his vehicle.

The captors took a liking to the Tyler children, 8-year-old Robert and 5-year-old Sally. They fitted out a special harness to keep the children in the saddle as the group moved about on camels. They also provided exercise books and crayons so that the Tylers could conduct a rudimentary sort of school each morning. Mrs. Tyler does not think the youngsters have suffered academically yet, but says, “It is becoming more and more difficult to keep their interest alive. They miss the company of other children. Robert has become shy and cries a lot.”

En route to the base camp, the Tylers and their captors were attacked by the Ethiopian air force. They found one old man in a bloodstained shirt screaming in pain, his mother and three children dead beside him. The encounter left Robert terrified of the sound of a plane, while Sally apparently works out her fears with childish drawings of bombs and aircraft.

The highlight of the family’s day now comes at 5 o’clock each afternoon when they are allowed to bathe in a stream with a waterfall. “You have to get into the state of mind of living here,” says Lindsay, “thinking about mundane things, like do we need more wood or how long before we go to the waterfall?”

Fortunately for their survival, the Tylers are veteran campers. Stephanie awoke one night to find a hissing snake perched on her son’s head and simply flicked it away. The family seems to be in good health but is depressed about the size of the ransom demands. The Tylers were once asked what luxuries of civilization they missed most. Sally said ice cream and jelly. Her parents said books, coffee and beer. Robert’s yearnings ran deeper—he said simply, “Home.”

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