Monday, 28 August 2006

How Natascha was robbed of her childhood

Kate Connolly

Natascha Kampusch was vacuuming the interior of her captor's BMW when she saw her first chance to flee. While Wolfgang Priklopil took a telephone call in the garage and turned away to be able to hear better over the noise, his skinny 18-year-old captive quietly slipped through the door and on to the street.

Minutes later, her ghost-white, 6st 6lb figure appeared at the kitchen window of a nearby house, and she started banging on the glass in panic.

"She told me she was Natascha Kampusch and asked if I had any newspapers from 1998, when she was abducted," said the pensioner, identified as Inge T, who took her into her house as the hysterical girl cried: "Hurry, or he'll be after you, too."

Only later, after she had called the police, did the old lady realise the significance of the encounter: the emaciated young woman she had just taken in was the girl who had been at the heart of the biggest police hunt in Austrian history.

Over a period of eight years and five months, riverbeds, lakes and gravel pits across the country and over the border into Hungary had been dragged in search of the missing schoolgirl - last seen disappearing into a white van. Even as recently as last Tuesday, the day before her reappearance, an animal cemetery in Vienna had been dug up, following a tip-off by a convicted criminal that her corpse was buried in the grounds.

The police had created computer images of what she might have looked like at various stages of her adolescence and had regularly scoured child pornography websites for any sign of her face. Indeed, it has now emerged that, just weeks into her ordeal, they were metres away from a rescue.

In April 1998, officers had stood in the garage directly above Natascha's bunker-like prison as they questioned Priklopil - a reclusive 36-year-old technician who had been targeted because he was one of 1,000 white-van drivers across the region. Because they found nothing suspicious, they decided that he could not have been the man who abducted her on her way to school a month before.

Accusations that the police gravely let down both Natascha and her family are now rife. But they have been tempered by widespread feelings of guilt that she was failed by Austrian society as a whole. Yet again, Austria - that land of idyllic Alpine landscapes and cowbells, which took decades to deal with its Nazi legacy - has shown its dark side. For all its curtain-twitchers, no one - not even Priklopil's mother or the uncle who lived next door to him - thought to ask who the girl they occasionally glimpsed might be.

After her dash for freedom, it was police officer Sabine Freudenberger who took in a "shivering and milk-white" Natascha at the local police station on Wednesday afternoon and wrapped the jacket of her uniform around the girl's thin frame. Her first request was for a cup of camomile tea.

"She started to tell her story from beginning to end," said Freudenberger. "She was articulate, extremely intelligent and not at all embarrassed." Natascha recounted how she had been plucked off the street, not long after having an argument with her mother before setting out for school. When she saw Priklopil, she said: "I wanted to cross the road… But he told me he'd had his eye on me and would have got me sooner or later." Police are working on the theory that her abductor had temporarily moved into a house close to Natascha's school in order to keep an eye on his prey.

Bundling her into his white van - which, according to an eyewitness, was being driven by someone else - Priklopil told her: "Stay still and lie down - otherwise something will happen to you."

Natascha, then just 10, was driven 11 miles to the run-down Viennese suburb of Strasshof. Once in the safety of his garage, the centre of his warped universe, Priklopil opened a secret door in the floor.

His victim was ordered to climb down some narrow concrete steps, to slip through a square hatch into a tiny outer room, and then to walk through to another door. Behind it was the dank and windowless soundproof cell that would be her home for the best part of the next decade. Police believe that the 10ft by 6.5ft by 5ft cell - equipped with a toilet, a small bath, a bunk bed and a bookcase - had been purpose-built.

Priklopil, known to his neighbours as something of a handyman, must have worked on the prison for weeks. As he did not apply for a building permit, no suspicion was raised.

It was here that Natascha spent a total of 3,097 days - in effect, the rest of her childhood and, crucially, her puberty - without friends, family, fresh air or daylight. She had just a few children's books and some cuddly toys for company, and a radio that Priklopil controlled from the outside by a timer switch. He allowed her to watch only the television programmes that he pre-recorded for her, and fed her, it would seem, on a diet of biscuits and junk food, but no fruit or vegetables.

For the first year, she did not even know her captor's name and was ordered to refer to him as "my master".

Her screams could not penetrate the 330lb hatch. And, if she tried to escape, she was told, the house was wired with explosives that would "grill" her "to the bone".

Then, this spring - indeed, almost from the day she turned 18 in February this year - the nature of Natascha's captivity began to change. She was allowed to call her abductor "Wolfgang". He started allowing her out to mow the lawn and clean his car - and took her on brief shopping trips, during which she was ordered to stay close to his side "or else". There is evidence that they may even have gone on a skiing trip together.

This taste of "freedom" is believed to have emboldened her to make her courageous escape attempt.

The neighbours, meanwhile, were heartened to see that the man they considered to be a weird loner had finally found himself a girlfriend at the age of 44. No one thought to question her sudden appearance, her pallor or her youth.

The team of psychologists now caring for Natascha believe that her transition from the plump little girl he had kidnapped eight years before to a fully grown woman came as a huge blow to Priklopil, whose motives are believed to have been sexual. He may even have planned to murder her.

"It's feasible that because of Natascha's development from an easy-to-control child to a woman, the perpetrator had lost interest in her and had therefore become careless," said Max Friedrich, the psychiatrist leading her team of carers. "Which means that he might well have tried to kill her."

Because Natascha has talked about how kind Priklopil was to her and how "grateful" she was to him, experts say that it is possible she fell in love with her captor. Certainly, long periods of captivity can often lead to Stockholm syndrome, in which prisoners empathise with their jailors.

Despite her release, and the suicide of her kidnapper, Natascha's ordeal is, of course, far from over. The danger that she might commit suicide is high, say psychologists, and investigators warned yesterday that she had "started to close down" and no longer wanted to talk.

Biologically, she is an 18-year-old woman: so strikingly similar, says her father Ludwig Koch, to the police's simulated computer image that he has had it enlarged and put it in a gold frame. Her vocabulary has developed far beyond the words she knew as a 10-year-old. As a result of listening mostly to radio broadcasts, she speaks in the formal high German of radio presenters.

Emotionally, she remains a child. The first thing she asked her father was whether he still had her favourite toy car. There is a risk that, subconsciously at least, her parents will want to keep her that way; to hang on to the daughter whose childhood was robbed from them as well. Her mother, Brigitte Sirny, has described her return as "a rebirth". She has had to equip Natascha with everything from a toothbrush to a new set of size six clothes.

The sheer horror of what happened to this Austrian child has shocked people from all corners of the globe. But it may not be as rare an occurrence as one might think. Every year, thousands of children go missing without trace - 200 of them in Austria alone, a staggering 1,850 in Italy. In Belgium, where Marc Dutroux abducted and killed four female victims, 1,022 disappear annually; and in Britain, around 400. Experts fear that hundreds are being held in private prisons.

Before the end of the year, the EU plans to erect a Europe-wide missing children hotline. It is a small step in the right direction - but neighbourly concern might be rather more effective.

Unfortunately we know that neighbourly concern can also point the finger at the wrong people.