It must have felt like such an exciting time: Caitlan Coleman and her husband, Joshua Boyle, were embarking on a six-month adventure through Central Asia.
But their exuberant trip ended in a nightmare: In the fall of 2012, they were kidnapped by Taliban fighters. Over the next five years, relatives and friends could do little but pray for the couple's well-being. Hope came in the form of short video clips released by the captors. It was through that footage that the couple's families got to glimpse Coleman and Boyle's three children, born in captivity.
Though U.S. or Canadian officials got close to negotiating the family's release a couple of times, each attempt was scuttled.
Finally, Wednesday, the family was freed.
Here's a look at how Coleman and Boyle's ordeal unfolded:
July 4, 2012: Shortly before she hopped on a plane, Coleman sent an email to her friends. “Our flight leaves at 4 p.m.," she wrote. “Only God knows exactly where it will lead or what all can be accomplished, seen, experienced or learned while we travel. So we put ourselves in His hands.”
Coleman and Boyle planned to spend several months hiking through Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the “safe ’stans,” Coleman told her parents. She promised that she wouldn't go to Afghanistan, though Boyle was fascinated by the country. Coleman and Boyle had another secret, too — Coleman was pregnant.
September 2012: Coleman emailed with friends every several weeks. In one missive, she wrote:
“I enjoy getting to know some of the most unique, quirky people I have ever met, and learning from them. It really gives you a different perspective on the world. We in the U.S. are taught to fear it … to the point that the U.S. State Department website’s current ‘travel advisory’ is advising people to simply not travel outside of the U.S. … but it’s a whole different world outside.”
In another email, she described her border crossing from Kyrgyzstan into Tajikistan at night as the “strangest, sketchiest ride yet.” The pair flagged an early-morning taxi and were driven to a farmhouse, where they were made to wait for 18 hours until they could leave in a caravan of travelers. “All turned out to be okay. … They didn’t try to demand any more money from us, and we were able to get some dinner.”
Oct. 8, 2012: Boyle sent an email to Coleman's parents, saying they were in an “unsafe” part of Afghanistan. The next day, the couple made their final withdrawal from their bank account. Soon after, they were abducted in Afghanistan's Wardak province, a Taliban stronghold southwest of the capital. Officials believe they were eventually moved to Pakistan.
June 4, 2014: Coleman's family released the two videos it received in 2013 of the couple with their children. As The Washington Post reported at the time: “The videos offer the first and only clues about what happened to Caitlan Coleman and Joshua Boyle after they lost touch with their families 20 months ago while traveling in a mountainous region near the capital, Kabul.”
The video clips were emailed to Coleman's father in July and September by an Afghan man who said he had ties to the Taliban. In one, Coleman — her head covered — appeals to “my president, Barack Obama” for help. “I would ask that my family and my government do everything that they can to bring my husband, child and I to safety and freedom,” Coleman, then 28, says.
November 2015: Coleman's family received a letter stating that she has given birth to a second child in captivity. “I pray to hear from you again, to hear how everybody is doing,” the letter said.
June 11, 2015: Lt. Col. Jason Amerine, a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, testified before Congress that the military had nearly negotiated the release of Coleman and six other American hostages held by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, only to see the deal collapse because of “infighting within the Obama administration.” The deal would have freed all seven hostages; in exchange, the United States would have had to release an Afghan drug lord.
January 2016: Canadian officials brokered a deal to free Colin Rutherford, another Canadian held captive by militants, along with Coleman and Boyle. Rutherford was freed, but the couple and their children remained in custody.
June 2016: Coleman's family sent a videotaped message to the Taliban during the holy month of Ramadan, thanking the militant group for keeping their daughter alive and pleading for her safe return. “We desperately want to be with and hold our daughter and grandsons,” James Coleman said in the video. “As a man, father and now grandfather, I am asking you to show mercy and release my daughter, her husband and their beautiful children.”
Aug. 31, 2016: Another video was released. In it, Coleman is dressed in a traditional Muslim women's covering known as an abaya and avoids eye contact with the camera. The couple begs for their lives, warning that their captors will kill them and their kids unless the United States and Canada stop killing Taliban fighters. “Because of their fear, they are willing to kill us, willing to kill women, to kill children, to kill whomever to get these policies reversed or to take revenge,” Coleman says. “… I know that this must be very terrifying and horrifying for my family to hear that these men are willing to go to these lengths. But they are, so if you are willing, if you are able to do anything to help, if you could, please try to help stop this depravity.” (A Taliban spokesman told the Associated Press that the video was recorded in 2015.)
A senior Taliban official told Reuters that the video was released to pressure the Afghan government not to execute Anas Haqqani, son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, founder of the feared Haqqani network. Anas Haqqani was on trial in Afghanistan and faced the death penalty.
December 2016: The Taliban released a fourth video of the family. “We have waited since 2012 for someone to understand our problems, the Kafkaesque nightmare in which we find ourselves,” Coleman says in the video. “My children have seen their mother defiled. We ask, in our collective 14th year of prison, that the governments on both sides reach some agreement to allow us freedom.”
September 2017: The Boyle family released a video of Coleman and Boyle it had received in February. In it, Coleman is cradling an infant. The couple's 4-year-old sits with his father. In the video, Boyle jokes about the letters he received from his family. “Things here are going about as can be expected,” he says. “But we were buoyed to receive your letter, and for the first time we have hope that things might wrap up soon, God willing.” Coleman tells her father that in prison “I’ve become more of a Belle than an Ariel.” Her father explained to ABC News that his daughter was trying to contrast the Disney character Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” — who was rebellious and defied her father — with Belle from “Beauty and The Beast,” who tried to protect her father from evil.
Oct. 11, 2017: Coleman, Boyle and their children are freed. According to the Toronto Star, the family was being transported in the trunk of a car when they were rescued. A shootout ensued, and all five kidnappers were killed. Boyle was injured by shrapnel but said he's recovering and “doing well for someone who spent the last five years in an underground prison.”
Boyle's aunt told Canadian broadcaster Global TV: "It's a blessing that those children have survived, and they're young enough that they can live a normal life." The Coleman family posted a note on their front door asking for privacy as they process this "joyful news."
Oct. 13: 2017: Coleman and her family boarded a plane bound to London.