The Two Michaels: Friends and relatives reveal how they coped behind bars — exercise, books, and determination 'to not be broken' – ThePeterboroughExaminer.com
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This is an adapted excerpt from “The Two Michaels: Innocent Canadian Captives and High Stakes Espionage in the U.S.-China Cyber War,” to be published next month.
Early in the summer of 2018 a historic meeting between U.S. president Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un unfolded in Singapore. It was the first time that a sitting American president had met with a North Korean leader. The meeting was a coup for Kim, who had been denied face time with Barack Obama, who didn’t want to give the despot a soapbox or a platform. Previous American presidents had similarly snubbed Kim’s father. Trump had no such compunctions.
His ambassador to Canada at the time, Kelly Craft, said that her president was determined to “carry the water” for a Western world determined to make peace with North Korea; he was determined to succeed where others had failed. So the president walked into a luxurious Singapore hotel to meet the waiting Kim. He mugged and deadpanned for the cameras, effusively shaking Kim’s hand in a series of photo-ops, generally treating him as a legitimate politician. To this day, North Korea remains a dangerously armed nuclear state.
Among those watching was Michael Kovrig, senior adviser on Northeast Asia with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank devoted to fostering world peace by understanding why countries and combatants fight. Kovrig had spent more than a decade as a Canadian diplomat, serving in a variety of posts including Beijing, Hong Kong, and Canada’s United Nations mission in New York City. He also spent four years in the Afghanistan capital of Kabul with the UN Development Program. Fluent in Mandarin and based in Hong Kong, he visited China on a regular basis on behalf of Crisis Group.
He offered a thoughtful take on the Trump-Kim summit during a panel discussion, later broadcast on YouTube, with two American pundits on a television program for New Delhi-based World is One News. Kovrig spoke carefully and lucidly. He pronounced the summit a qualified success: “I think against a relatively low bar, given that we were mostly worried in many cases that it could have gone off the rails or been cancelled, or there could have been all kinds of unexpected outcomes. I think the three of us all agree that this is a broadly positive summit.”
For all the bonhomie that had just taken place between Kim and Trump, Kovrig pointed out that Kim’s key relationship was with China’s Xi Jinping. Kovrig’s final observation seems bitterly poignant in hindsight. He thought it was significant that Kim had placed his own personal safety, and potential liberty, in Xi’s hands. “Kim flew an Air China 747 down to the summit. I think that’s a pretty strong signal that he feels comfortable now with his relationship with (the Chinese), enough to trust them with his life going through their airspace down here, building on those previous meetings.”
Five months later, Kovrig boarded a commercial airplane from his base in Hong Kong for what he expected would be another informative research trip to Beijing. On December 10, he simply disappeared. He may have been arrested at his hotel, or outside of it, perhaps pulled away from a plate of steaming street food. No one knows. Meng Wanzhou’s arrest generated an exhaustive trail of detailed court filings, sworn evidence, judicial orders, plans, documents, notes, and long sequences of videotape. Kovrig vanished into the opaque Chinese justice system.
As soon as Kovrig was arrested, the Crisis Group moved to emphasize that his work had nothing to do with Chinese national security. “Michael’s work included meeting several dozen times with Chinese officials, academics, and analysts from multiple Chinese state institutions. He had attended numerous conferences at the invitation of Chinese organizations. He frequently appeared on Chinese television and in other media to comment on regional issues,” his employer said. At its core, Kovrig’s work — travelling the world, interviewing people, gathering information, analyzing its significance — resembled journalism or academic research.
Michael Kovrig had done both earlier in his life. Born in Canada in 1972, after his family fled Hungary’s communist regime in 1950, Kovrig was drawn back to Budapest in the mid-1990s, where he taught English and worked as a journalist, joining the wave of younger westerners drawn to the bohemian allure of the newly thriving eastern European capitals that were exploding with new-found euphoria after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It almost seemed natural that Kovrig would end up the frontman in a punk rock band.
The four-piece punk rock band, known as Bankrupt, introduced its lanky, leather-jacketed lead singer as Michael K. His onstage moniker was a play on Joseph K., the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s novel, “The Trial,” the surreal allegory of totalitarianism. Kovrig opened the band’s eyes to music from the free world, including the Clash, the Pixies, and Leonard Cohen. He introduced Balazs Sarkadi, the band’s leader to this day, to the legendary American rock music writer Lester Bangs. He also wrote songs, including “Listen,” the story a disaffected 21-year-old that was recently released on a compilation of lost punk oddities. “I’m sitting in my room and I think there’s nothing I can do against this gloom,” Kovrig sings in an aped British post-punk accent. “If you don’t listen, I’ll go crazy on my own.”
As a schoolboy, Michael Spavor absorbed the spectacle of the 1988 Winter Olympics in his hometown of Calgary, followed by the summer games months later in Seoul, South Korea. That provided his introduction to the peninsula, and he became more captivated by Korea, north and south, as the decades passed. In 1997, Spavor travelled to South Korea as a teenage English teacher on a three-month contract. He stayed for two years and indulged in a variety of activities — co-hosting a radio show, doing voice work, and playing extras in movies. He worked as a marketing manager at the Korea Tourism Organization and the Seoul Tourism Organization. Returning to Canada to be with his mother as she battled cancer, he completed an international relations degree at the University of Calgary. His major? The Korean Peninsula and East Asian studies.
In 2001, Spavor made his first trip to North Korea for a vacation. Four years later, he planted deeper roots in the country, taking a job with a non-governmental organization to teach English and graphic design. By 2011, he was working with a non-profit called the Pyongyang Project as its program director for Korea. As he told a Korean magazine in July 2011: “People might think I want to go to North Korea because it’s adventurous and mysterious, but the truth is I fell in love with the North Korean people.”
Spavor eventually carved out a well-earned reputation as a leading China-based Western aficionado of all things Korean: he specialized in connecting people to the world’s most isolated and despotic country. Known as the Hermit Kingdom, North Korea was an international pariah. It had sealed off its population from the rest of the world, leaving many to starve as it funnelled its resources into building a nuclear weapons arsenal. Spavor based himself in the northern Chinese city of Dandong, which is separated from North Korea by a short swim across a ribbon of river. In 2015, he helped found a non-profit organization called the Paektu Cultural Exchange, which organized events that allowed outsiders to meet the cloistered residents of North Korea and connected investors with opportunities in the country to position them for an eventual lifting of international sanctions. So far, that hasn’t happened.
In 2013, Spavor became a pivotal figure in an audacious and memorable junket to North Korea by the flamboyant former NBA basketball player, Dennis Rodman. The trip marked groundbreaking contact between Americans and the cherubic, wildly reclusive Kim. The generously tattooed and pierced Rodman, who had been a contestant on Trump’s television show, “The Apprentice,” and who supported his presidential bid, had no trouble getting along with the North Korean president. Rodman called the dictator a “friend for life” and said Obama ought to pick up the phone and give him a call. In the middle of Rodman’s circus was an unassuming man with a wry grin and solid track record for plugging outsiders into North Korea: Michael Spavor. A fluent Korean speaker, Spavor served as interpreter between Rodman and Kim on that trip, as noted by the Korea Times, and on Rodman’s return visit the following year.
Rodman’s 2013 visit left Spavor with a claim very few in the Western world could make: he had forged a friendship with Kim. Four years later, he would post a photo on Instagram of himself sharing drinks at a small table with Kim, a small plume of smoke wafting from a glass ashtray, and a pack of cigarettes next to the leader. The caption: “LONG ISLAND ICED TEAS: Kim Jong Un shares cocktails with Michael Spavor of the Paektu Cultural Exchange on board the North Korean leader’s private yacht in Wonsan in September 2013.”
“That was the most amazing experience I’ve had in my life,” Spavor told Reuters in a 2017 interview. “We hung out for three days.” Spavor and Kim had spent several hours jet skiing in the bay where the yacht was anchored. Mindful of the need for discretion, he did not talk politics with Kim.
“For me, encouraging these sports engagement events, these non-political friendship interactions, promoting these kinds of events can show people that Americans and Koreans can get along very well,” he told Reuters. “I guess if we can continue to increase these exchanges, then we hope that has an effect on politicians, too.”
Nevertheless, Spavor couldn’t escape the political dimensions of the life he had built. Fourteen months before his arrest, he was eating brunch in the Chinese border city of Yanji. The restaurant started shaking and air raid sirens started blaring. Its patrons had just felt the effects of North Korea’s sixth underground test of a nuclear bomb in 12 years. It was the country’s most powerful test blast to date.
On Dec. 10, 2018, Spavor had next-day plans to fly to Seoul. He had sent out an invitation to 50 people on Facebook letting them know he was going to be in town and looking to connect. He also posted a Twitter message rallying his friends to meet for drinks. He never made it to Seoul. He was also a no-show at a planned appearance at the Royal Asiatic Society on Dec. 11. Three days later, Chinese authorities confirmed Spavor had been arrested.
As was the case with Kovrig, nothing was disclosed about the circumstances of the arrest, or the reasons for it. Experts such as Andrei Lankov, who had known Spavor for a decade, tried to fill in the blanks. He said China and Canada were now clearly playing a “hostage game.” Lankov was surprised that China had picked a target with such “humble origins.” He described Spavor as a likeable extrovert who didn’t much care for politics. “He sees North Korea as a misrepresented underdog, and as such he wanted to basically improve its image, while making some money in the process.”
Jon Dunbar, a reporter with the Korea Times newspaper, met Spavor at a house party in Seoul a decade before his arrest. Spavor shared his enthusiasm for North Korea and the two became friends, with Dunbar accompanying Spavor to the Hermit Kingdom on two occasions. Ten days after Spavor’s no-show in Seoul, Dunbar called in his newspaper for China to release his friend: “He is no agent for any government or ideology, and is only pursuing his love for Korea.”
Dunbar had made his second trip to North Korea with Spavor only three months earlier, in September 2018. He had been nervous because he was a newspaper reporter, but Spavor assured him that if he wasn’t travelling in any “official” capacity, everything would be fine. On their return, Dunbar was reluctant to write about North Korea in case he somehow undermined the connections Spavor had cultivated through the Paektu Cultural Exchange. Spavor encouraged him to write anyway. Dunbar extended the unusual courtesy of letting Spavor see what he had written ahead of publication to avoid causing problems for his friend. “But it turns out it wasn’t North Korea we needed to worry about. It’s a bitter irony that it would be China detaining him, while he was en route to South, not North, Korea.”
Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor had established significant ties to China years before their arrests. Those connections, the work they did, and the lives they lived while in the People’s Republic would provide useful facts for Chinese authorities to repurpose into their own narrative.
Western intelligence sources rebuffed Chinese allegations that Kovrig and Spavor were spies, or that they even knew each other, despite the unsubstantiated claim of a Chinese state-controlled newspaper that Spavor was an “important intelligence contact” of Kovrig’s. Spavor’s supporters wrote a passionate defence of their friend on a website dedicated to freeing him: “Michael is a gregarious and big-hearted man of bounding entrepreneurial verve, endearing mild eccentricities, and above all an intense and abiding love for all things Korean. Between China and Korea, he is an interlocutor not an informer, an operator not an operative. His passion for Korea is played out openly in the ballroom, not indulged sub rosa in the cloakroom. He has neither the temperament nor the inclination to be secretive or manipulative in his love affair with Korea.”
Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, also debunked the spying allegations. “They’re baseless. Their detention was arbitrary since day one. … There is no doubt why this happens. Even Chinese officials in various elaborate ways have made it clear that there is a link between what took place on December 1, 2018, with the arrest of Meng Wanzhou and subsequent detention of the Two Michaels.”
Kovrig and Spavor did cross paths years before they were arrested. Kovrig served in the Canadian embassies in Beijing and Hong Kong between 2012 and 2016. Spavor was living in northern China and would intersect with the Western expatriate crowd when he visited Beijing. “Both Michael and I met Michael Spavor socially in Beijing as part of the expat community when he travelled, when Spavor travelled to Beijing,” Nadjibulla said in a September 2021 interview. Did that crossing of paths provide fodder for the Chinese spy narrative about the two men? “That’s just speculation. And the fundamental facts of the case don’t change,” said Nadjibulla, who advocated publicly for the release of the two men.
One of the only other known connections between Kovrig and Spavor was their deep and abiding interest in North Korea. Spavor was drawn to its people and way of life, disconnected from the outside world yet linked by a shared humanity. Kovrig was all about the geopolitics: understanding global conflict and the existential threat North Korea posed to the world because it possessed nuclear weapons to counter its sworn enemy, the United States; also, how China might figure in turning back the doomsday clock and de-escalating the conflict, maybe even ridding North Korea of its nuclear weapons, or at least downgrading its capabilities. The nuclear threat hung over the heads of the Two Michaels as it did for everyone else in the world.
The days that made up Michael Kovrig’s new life in Chinese prison usually began at 6:30 a.m., when he and his fellow inmates were awakened. Breakfast followed, usually a bowl of boiled rice with some boiled vegetables. After lunch, there was a mandatory nap time for prisoners, but Kovrig hasn’t napped his whole adult life, so he used the quiet time to meditate. For the first six months of his imprisonment, he lived in solitary confinement without access to books or other communication beyond a 30-minute visit, roughly once a month, from Canadian embassy officials in Beijing. Then, in mid-2019, he was allowed books and letters. “So, a big part of his days, from what we understand, is spent reading,” Vina Nadjibulla, said during an International Crisis Group podcast that marked his second full year in prison. The books, she said, are Kovrig’s “main way of passing time and kind of the solace of his ‘half-life’ as he calls it.”
The details of Kovrig’s highly regimented routine in Chinese prison trickled out through his monthly consular meetings and in letters to Nadjibulla. Michael and Vina had met two decades ago as graduate students at Columbia University in New York City. On one of their first days at school, she was sitting in the front row of an international economics class and he was in the back of the class. They met, became friends, and eventually they got married. Michael proposed at the United Nations in New York when he was stationed there with the Canadian embassy. As she told the CBC in June 2020, they eventually separated, but remained married. As far as Vina is concerned, their connection has never been stronger. “He’s my person, we have each other’s back. And he is in a fight for his life. And I am in his corner.”
As a free man, Kovrig was deeply engaged with the world. An ardent internationalist, he was devoted to understanding how the world worked, and how to make it better. He was also creative — he took drama classes and studied English as an undergrad. He had a thirst for travel, new peoples, new culture, new food.
It was his way of being “in conversation” with the world, said Nadjibulla in 2020: One of the things that he mentioned in one of his last letters was how much he looks forward to the day where he can rejoin the conversation, the broader conversation with life and with the world. Michael has been speaking of that, from the prison cell with respect to his own situation. He hopes that he will be able to come out from this experience, not only having survived it, but with a commitment to rebuild his life better, to contribute even more to society. He has devoted his professional life to being a public servant, to making the world safer. He hopes that he can continue to do that. And he can rejoin the broader conversation in the world with life and not just continue to be isolated and cut off in the way that he is. He’s trying to make sense of how these two years fit in the larger trajectory of his life. The last few years have been about himself, like kind of going deep within himself, as his environment is extremely barren, monastic. He often describes this as a concrete jungle or completely barren, external environment. He’s getting to spend a lot of time in exploration of his inner character at what it means to be a good person.
Through his letters, Nadjibulla gained insights about how a man she had known for two decades processed the trauma of his situation, how he summoned the strength to overcome his circumstances. “He hopes that he will experience what few experienced, which is post-traumatic growth rather than post-traumatic stress, so that he will come out of this as someone who not only has survived, but someone who’s been made better,” she said. “He also says that he, on a daily basis, sometimes on an hourly basis, tries to change his anger into determination, and his grievance into fortitude and a kind of resilience. There is a constant struggle to stay in the frame of mind that allows him to survive, and also to make the most of this experience — to not be broken by it.”
Kovrig was drawing on something that his wife noticed when they were living together in New York City: his stubbornness. In a letter, Kovrig described how difficult it was to exercise and move around in a small concrete cell. Kovrig had asthma as a child and was not naturally strong, but his wife says he turned to martial arts and strength training 25 years ago, and that has stood him in good stead during his incarceration. So, there was lots of walking — 7,000 steps a day — and yoga, and push-ups. “He often says that he doesn’t like that type of exercise in a cell, kind of only being able to do limited things, but he knows that it is important for his mental strength to stay physically fit. So, he keeps moving as much as possible,” she said.
Kovrig also subjected his mind to a rigorous discipline. Books are crucial to him. He tried to fill in some of the gaps in his understanding of literature by reading Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, “The Long Walk to Freedom,” as well as books on philosophy have been on his reading list. He was particularly drawn to the stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius. He drew strength from St. Paul’s “Letter to the Romans” in the New Testament. Nadjibulla describes his takeaway from Paul: “Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope.”
Kovrig also “draws tremendous strength from knowing that we are working on his behalf,” Nadjibulla said. “In his letters, he quotes, philosophers and passages from the Bible and other things that give them inspiration.” His goal, she said, is to “cultivate each day” to find serenity, and to live through each day with as much dignity as possible.
He reread a favourite book from his life before imprisonment, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder,” and found new meaning in it. In the opening of his 2012 book, Taleb posits the following: “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors, and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”
Nadjibulla said Kovrig read “Antifragile” before the pandemic and recommended it to friends as a book with a profound message for everyone trying to cope with the strain of COVID-19. “It’s very much on the minds of many of us as we recover from the pandemic,” he said, “and that kind of building better our economy, building better our future.” Kovrig’s resolve was tested when his consular visits were cut off from January to October 2020. China said it was because of COVID-19, so neither he nor Spavor were allowed visits from anyone for 10 months. On March 13, 2020, the Chinese offered one perk. They allowed Kovrig a telephone call with his father, who was ailing from an unspecified illness at the time. It lasted just shy of 17 minutes. Nadjibulla and Kovrig’s sister, Ariana Botha, as Maclean’s reported, were also on the call.
“V, is that you?” came Kovrig’s voice through her cellphone, set to speaker mode. “It was an incredible, incredible experience. I mean, probably one of the most profound moments of my life, certainly, to be able to hear Michael’s voice after so many days of no contact,” says Nadjibulla. “And it meant a lot because as it turned out, it was one of the only moments of contact for us in the year 2020.”
Less was known about Spavor’s difficult life behind prison walls in Dandong. For his first one thousand days behind bars, Spavor’s family remained largely out of the public eye, beyond occasional written statements, including from his brother, Paul, affirming his innocence and calling for him to be brought home.
In December 2020, the Globe and Mail obtained a handwritten letter from Spavor asking for a few things, books and clothes mainly, that showed strong signs of the same active and curious mind as Kovrig. There were traces of Spavor’s much-loved, and deeply missed, sense of humour, as he punctuated a request for new terry cloth headbands and wristbands with a smiley face. Spavor asked for quick-drying clothes, including shirts and shorts with pockets, no zippers, and dark colours, and unscented deodorant. He also asked for a sleep mask, which lent credence to the widespread speculation that the lights stayed on around the clock for both prisoners.
Like Kovrig, Spavor suggested that he was becoming more physically fit, losing weight, and gaining muscle. According to diplomats who visited him, he joked about being on an “extended sabbatical” and dubbed his surroundings in his early incarceration, where he was interrogated, the “Shenyang Sheraton.”
Spavor also had his own voracious reading list. He asked for large-print Chinese study guides, books on geography, politics, medicine, venture capital fundraising, entrepreneurial startups, prison biographies, biographies on the Beatles and former U.S. president Bill Clinton, a copy of Gary Shteyngart’s novel, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.” He also wanted books on “true and amazing stories,” books on “understanding” China and the Chinese people, and books on diplomatic history and “dealing with difficult people.”
There were strong signs that Spavor was also engaged in some deeply spiritual pursuits. He asked for books by the late Indian writer and philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, who wrote about meditation and the quest for positive social change. One article described Krishnamurti’s work this way: “He stressed the need for a revolution in the psyche of every human being and posited that such a revolution could not be brought about by any external entity, be it religious, political, or social. It had to be brought about by a holistic transformation from within, and an insight into the various layers of one’s consciousness.”
Spavor also wanted a copy of Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” a book that emerged in 1946 after its author had survived imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust. It’s not known what specifically drew Spavor to Frankl, but there are plenty of clues. As Frankl wrote: “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” Spavor also wanted Korean comic books.
His reading list, combined with the diplomatic reports of his resilience, suggests a man hanging on to who he was before his arrest: a gregarious, fun-loving world traveller with a serious purpose to connect with other people and learn from them. In December 2020, Spavor was granted a rare privilege by his Chinese jailers. He was allowed to phone home at Christmas. It was the first time his family had heard his voice in two years.
Three months later, one of Michael Korvig’s recent jailhouse letters reached his family, providing another window into how his and Spavor’s incarcerations had evolved over two years. Kovrig had spent his first six months in solitary confinement in a small cell. He had yet to breath anything resembling fresh air on a regular basis. Balazs Sarkadi, his old Hungarian punk rock bandmate, saw Kovrig’s March 2021 letter from prison. In it, Kovrig indicated he had an unspecified number of new Chinese cellmates, and hoped to make a good impression on them. “He kind of feels that he’s kind of an ambassador of Canada in the prison because he is the Canadian guy, the only Canadian guy those Chinese guys ever met,” Sarkadi said.
The only Canadians the cellmates had heard of was the extremely popular Ottawa-born comedian Mark Rowswell, who is known throughout China by the stage name Dashan. And, of course, they knew about Norman Bethune. “He mentioned that at least they know that there are some other Canadians besides Dashan and this doctor,” said Sarkadi. Able to watch videos with his cellmates, Kovrig joked that there was too much “Kung Fu Panda” on offer. His Chinese jailers also allowed a special treat — pizza — but when it arrived it contained pineapples. Kovrig is no fan of Hawaiian pizza, so the gesture was a bust.
As far as Sarkadi could tell, Kovrig was maintaining his sense of humour, so “he’s not desperate yet.” Sarkadi went on say that “he wrote that he is often lonely, but he’s never alone. He feels that there are a lot of people outside that are trying to help. And I think that he still has hope that eventually these efforts will get him out.”
As Kovrig and Spavor approached their third anniversaries in captivity, preparations were underway to help them cope with whatever awaited them if and when they found their freedom. The friends and family of Spavor began to consider the challenges he would face as a free man. They realized it would be impossible for him to continue pursuing his passion for North Korea from Chinese soil, which used to be his livelihood. They created a GoFundMe campaign linked to the “Free Michael Spavor” website to raise $45,000 towards helping him restart his life. By late summer 2021, they had raised just over $35,000. In a closed-door proceeding on August 10, 2021, a Chinese court convicted Michael Spavor of spying and sentenced him to 11 years in prison. Counterintuitively, perhaps, Spavor’s supporters were encouraged by the verdict.
Meanwhile, Brittany Brown, the International Crisis Group’s chief of staff, discussed the efforts to rehabilitate a free Kovrig during a podcast interview: “We’ve really spent a lot of energy thinking about preparing for his release. And that means things like everything that Michael has missed over the last two years — we have somebody who keeps a record of what’s going on in the world. So that when Michael gets out, he has a record of what happened.” That record includes everything from which football team won the World Cup to what has happened to Prince Harry. News, pop culture, “the big things that are happening.”
Kovrig’s co-workers also wrote him regular letters, quarterly, monthly, weekly, to share their thoughts. “I think we all think this could have been any one of us who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and could have spent two years of our life you know, locked in a small cell,” said Brown. “So, we did a lot of research on talking to folks who had been in situations that were similar to what Michael is going through right now. And we found that it was very important for his mental health, to feel connected to the outside world.”
Kovrig’s friends knew that freedom could come as a shock to him. He used to be a private person; now he has become a public figure, and that might be unsettling. “His face is everywhere … we all know him now in a way that is pretty intimate … we know a lot about this individual who was kind of private. I think it’s going to be really important in his healing, and as he tries to begin to reintegrate into the world.”
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