‘I went for a holiday walk in the desert - and was jailed for being a spy’
PUBLISHED: 10:02 25 July 2018 | UPDATED: 14:11 25 July 2018
Norwich nurse Gerry Bowdren feared he was going to be executed as he was marched into the desert by five armed soldiers.
Just hours earlier the then 33-year-old had been accused of being a spy after accidentally crossing the Egyptian border.
In reality, he was a tourist who had become lost while walking in the Israeli desert.
His arrest 20 years ago made national headlines in the UK and sparked a concerted effort to get him released from prison.
Today, the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) casualty nurse, who is now aged 53, tells his extraordinary, life-changing story in full for the first time.
Mr Bowdren’s problems started at the end of a two-week holiday to Israel in the summer of 1998.
He had gone for a walk across the desert from the town of Eilat, but accidently crossed the unmarked border to Egypt.
A short while later he was approach by members of the Egyptian military.
“They came up to me and started speaking Arabic,” he said.
“The commander spoke some English and asked me ‘do you know where you are?’
“When I said no, he said ‘welcome to Egypt’.”
Mr Bowdren was taken to the nearby town of Taba where he faced questioning from a military intelligence officer.
Despite attempting to explain his situation, he was moved even deeper into the country to a transfer prison in Nuweiba.
“They put us into a huge barn and there were loads of prisoners in there. All you could do was lie on the floor,” he said.
“Then, at about 1am, these guys came in and started screaming and shouting, and kicking at my feet.
“There were five of them and they walked me out into the desert.
“I thought ‘this is it, they are going to shoot me and bury me out here’.
“I remember feeling sorry for my parents because I was their only child and I thought they would never know what happened to me.”
But rather than executing Mr Bowdren, the soldiers asked him for money.
“I think they wanted the money to pay for transport”, he said. “But I didn’t have any.
“So they all left apart from one guy with a handgun.
“We then did a version of hitchhiking where a vehicle would come along the road and he would point a gun at it until it stopped.
“We would jump in and get a free lift.”
Using this method, Mr Bowdren, who was in shackles, was transported to a facility in Suez where he faced further questioning by intelligence officers.
From there he was sent to a prison in the city and put in solitary confinement.
“My cell was 10ft by 8ft with a hole in the floor to go to the toilet in,” he said.
“There was a pipe for water, and it was wall-to-wall with cockroaches. They were everywhere.
“I get why animals walk in circles when in cages, because I did the same. It was compulsive.”
It was during his 48-hours in solitary confinement that Mr Bowdren turned to his only possession - the bible.
He said: “As I was so despondent, I said ‘right God, if you are really saying this, I want to get out of this cell by the end of today and I want to hear some good news, else I won’t believe it’.”
Mr Bowdren said he was released from his cell at 11.30pm that evening and was told someone from the British embassy was coming to see him the next day.
However, he still had to remain in prison until his court hearing.
He was subsequently charged with illegal entry into the country and sentenced to a year’s hard labour, along with a £900 fine.
The sentence was suspended and he was given 10 days to leave the country.
“It a was a life-changing experience,” he said.
“But my faith in God and growing knowledge of Jesus as a friend got me through it.”
Mr Bowdren, who lives off Dereham Road, said the whole ordeal lasted around 10 days.
But during that time he lost more than two stone in weight.
He said the experience inspired him to apply for a role with the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres.
And since then he has worked as an aid worker in various war zones across the world, including South Sudan, Somalia and Pakistan.
Today, Mr Bowdren is married and continues to work in the accident and emergency department at the NNUH.
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