Austrian Kidnap Victim Revisits Her Cellar Prison

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Dieter Nagl / AFP / Getty

Austrian kidnapping victim Natascha Kampusch arrives for an appeals trial of her mother Brigitta Sirny

Seeing the cramped, windowless basement where Natascha Kampusch was locked up for 8½ years, it's almost impossible to believe that anyone could have survived the ordeal. Yet the Austrian kidnapping victim not only made it out of the dungeon where an engineer named Wolfgang Priklopil had imprisoned her as a child but also emerged a remarkably confident and self-assured young woman.

In a powerful new documentary titled Natascha Kampusch: 3,096 Days' Imprisonment, which was broadcast on the German public television channel ARD on Monday night, Kampusch allowed cameras into the cellar where she had been locked up in the Vienna suburbs for the first time and revealed new harrowing details of her brutal captivity, which ended with her lucky escape in August 2006. "I have a stamp on my forehead which says victim of violence," Kampusch tells the TV crew who filmed the house that she now owns. "I will be ostracized for the rest of my life."

Kampusch was just 10 years old when Priklopil kidnapped her as she walked to school in March 1998. "He came towards me, grabbed me and bundled me into his white van ... I tried to scream but I just couldn't utter anything," she said. When they arrived at his house, Priklopil wrapped her in a blanket and took her to the cellar, which was only reachable through a fortified iron door. He then forced her to take off her shoes, which he burned, telling her, "You won't be needing them again."

"The cellar was cold, damp and disgusting ... just imagine if something would have happened to him, or he became weak, I would have been like an Egyptian pharaoh, buried alive and then later dead," Kampusch says in the documentary. At the beginning of her captivity in the 50-sq.-ft. (4.6 sq m) basement, Kampusch recalls how she used to count the seconds to try to keep track of time but soon could no longer tell whether it was day or night. Priklopil reinforced her sense of isolation by installing an intercom and a timer that turned the lights on and off at regular intervals so she wouldn't even have contact with him. She says she was tortured by the sounds of the wheezing ventilator and the slow, monotonous drip of the tap.

The rest reads like a horror story. Priklopil barely fed her during her captivity, taking pleasure in showing her a plate full of food and then only giving her a small amount. She was also banned from showing any emotion. "He forbade me from crying because he was worried the salt acid could damage his tiles," she says. "When I did cry, as I couldn't help it, he grabbed me on my neck, choked me and he pushed my head under the tap in a basin." Eventually, Kampusch says, Priklopil allowed her into the main part of the house and put her to work, though she didn't specify how. "I was used like his work animal," she says. Obsessive about cleanliness, he punished her when she left fingerprints in the house. He also forced her to cover her hair with a plastic bag and then just shaved off her hair altogether. Kampusch then started to go on short trips around town with him but says she never dared to escape. One day, when they were driving to the store, Kampusch says they were stopped at a routine police checkpoint. She says she tried to make eye contact with the officer to signal that she needed help, but he ignored her.

Kampusch finally escaped in 2006. She was cleaning Priklopil's car in the driveway of the home when he got a phone call. While he was distracted, she dropped the vacuum cleaner and ran as fast as she could to the home of a neighbor, who then called police. Priklopil committed suicide by throwing himself under a train hours later. Three years after the ordeal ended, Kampusch has become a celebrity in Austria. The 21-year-old has hosted her own talk show and has been hounded by film crews desperate to tell her story. She reportedly bought the home where she was held captive to protect it from being torn down, but she lives in an apartment in Vienna where she's still trying to adjust to normal life and come to terms with her past.

The filmmakers deliberately steered clear of revealing any personal or intimate details of her captivity. "We respected her boundaries," says Patricia Schlesinger, head of the culture and documentary department at NDR. But Kampusch speaks openly about Priklopil, whom she never refers to by name but simply as "the perpetrator" or "the offender." "I forgave him instantly. Had I not forgiven him, I would have been filled with so much hatred and negative feelings that I couldn't have survived it all — that would have left me psychologically and physically damaged," she says. "The offense was the result of a kind of disease or a hurtful experience —it's not the person's fault, he still had a conscience, but he was psychologically so unstable that what he did with me seemed to him to be a solution for his problems."

The documentary also explores how police bungled the investigation when Kampusch went missing. An officer had named Priklopil as the possible kidnapper at one point, saying his van matched one that was described by witnesses, but after the van was searched and he was questioned, police let him go and ruled him out as a suspect. For Kampusch, it would be yet another missed opportunity for freedom.