Austrian Kidnapping Victim Describes Lost Years of Youth

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By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 7, 2006

VIENNA, Sept. 6 -- Natascha Kampusch, kidnapped as a bright-eyed 10-year-old and held for more than eight years, dreamed in her underground cell of chopping off her abductor's head with an ax and despaired as she read newspaper accounts of police dredging ponds for her corpse.

Veering between poised declarations and tearful recollections, Kampusch, now 18, on Wednesday gave an enthralled Austrian public an emotional, riveting television account of her abduction, her years in captivity in a village house and her bold escape two weeks ago.

In Austria, which this year is celebrating the 150th birthday of Sigmund Freud, the tale of a child kept in a dungeon and secluded for nearly half her life has been the topic of endless public psychoanalysis. She said she harbored intense animosity toward her captor, but also noted that he was her only human company.

The TV appearance was the country's first view of the attractive, blue-eyed young woman, who was remarkably well-spoken. The 20-minute interview on state channel ORF, during which she occasionally dabbed away tears, was what Austrians call a "street-clearer" -- a program that keeps people glued to the television.

"Again and again I asked myself why this had to happen to me, of the many millions of people out there," Kampusch said in a separate interview with News, a weekly newsmagazine that hit the streets a few hours before the television broadcast. "I wasn't born into this world to be locked up and have my life completely ruined. I always felt like a poor hen in a coop."

On television, she plowed into the narrative of the morning, on March 2, 1998, when a man in a white van nabbed her as she walked to school from the suburban Vienna public housing project where she lived with her mother. He drove her about eight miles and then shoved her down a pitch-black staircase into a darkened underground chamber.

"I became very claustrophobic in this small room," she said. "I threw bottles against the wall. I pounded on the wall with my fists, thinking somebody would hear me. It was terrible."

She remained in the 6-by-10-foot chamber, equipped with a toilet, sink and a bed, for six months before her captor, Wolfgang Priklopil, took her upstairs and allowed her to take a bath, Kampusch recalled. He allowed her to read newspapers, but "he read them with me and checked to see I didn't write any messages on the pages. He was very paranoid."

When Kampusch read stories that police were looking for her body, "I was convinced that no one would continue to look for me and that I would never be found."

Even in her first weeks as a prisoner, Kampusch recognized that Priklopil had "a malleable personality." She said, "One day I promised myself I'd become older and stronger in order to free myself."

Over the next several years, Priklopil became her mentor, her teacher and her tormentor. While he plied her with candy eggs at Easter and toys at Christmas, he often punished her by withholding food. "I often went hungry, and I experienced all the things that go along with it -- loss of concentration, circulatory problems, feeling dizzy," she said. She taught herself from books to cook and knit. As she grew older she assisted Priklopil with housework and even helped him build part of the yellow concrete house with the pitched roof in the rural village of Strasshof where police believe he spent years digging the cell beneath his garage.

In the last few years, Priklopil, a computer technician, allowed her to work in the house's overgrown garden and took her on her short trips that Kampusch found particularly painful.

"This nice salesperson in a store said, 'Can I help you?' " she recalled. "I'm standing there in panic, my heart is racing and I can barely move. I have to helplessly look. He doesn't know. I even tried to smile like I did in the photos so that people remember from the pictures" before the kidnapping.

Her captor intimidated her by telling her he would kill anyone she tried to contact for help. And he never let her out of his sight when she was not locked in her cell, Kampusch said.

Until, that is, the morning of Aug. 23, when she was vacuuming his car and he turned his back on her for a split second to answer a cellphone call. "I knew, in that moment, if not now, then maybe never again," Kampusch said. She left the vacuum running and fled. She leapt over a garden fence, then clambered over more fences separating adjacent gardens of fruit trees and colorful flower beds. After one neighbor shrugged and turned away at her pleas for help, she said, she approached a woman in a kitchen window, who called the police.

For the past two weeks, Kampusch has remained in seclusion in the care of a battery of psychiatrists, therapists, physicians, lawyers and publicists, as snippets of her story leaked out and even her parents complained they were not allowed to see her after a first tearful reunion. She is in a hospital where she has met victims of violence and eating disorders -- with whom she said she empathizes.

Compounding the story, her captor committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train shortly after the escape. In her television interview, Kampusch said she is withholding many details of his behavior out of concern that his mother will be shattered in learning about a side of her son she did not know. In a note to the public last week, Kampusch said she had mourned his death.

Her list of plans for the future is long: She'd like to get a high school, and possibly a college, diploma. She wants to go on a cruise with her mother. She wants to start a foundation to help the women of Ciudad Juarez on the U.S.-Mexican border, a city where hundreds of young women have been abducted over the last decade, most of whom have been found dead.

For now, she's content catching up on the simple excursions she missed during so many of her childhood years. One of her biggest thrills since her escape: going to an ice cream parlor -- incognito in a scarf and dark glasses.

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