Journalist who was hostage in Somalia tells her story

She was chained, starved, sexually abused, tortured and left in a dark room for months, but she never lost her faith in humanity or her ability to feel compassion, even towards those who were hurting her.

Author and humanitarian Amanda Lindhout held a presentation at Appleby College Tuesday — International Women’s Day — in which she told students the story of how she survived 460 days as a hostage in Somalia.

She suffered greatly during that period, but now tells her story in the hope of inspiring audiences with her messages of forgiveness, compassion and determination.

A native of Red Deer, Alberta, Lindhout had a lust for travel and a desire to make a difference in the world.

She had already served as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and a TV broadcaster in Iraq when an opportunity came to cover the humanitarian crisis unfolding in war-torn Somalia in 2008.

At that time, Somalia had been ravaged by internal conflict for much of the last 25 years and extremist groups controlled entire swaths of the country.

This was the environment Lindhout and Australian photojournalist and friend Nigel Brennan entered, flying into the Somali capital of Mogadishu via cargo plane on Aug. 21, 2008.

The pair had planned to put together a piece on the more than one million Somali refugees, who had been created during that year’s intense fighting.

Soon after arriving Mogadishu, Lindhout realized this was a place far different from the other conflict zones she had been to.

“As we drove from the airport to the hotel that we would be staying at with the three security guards we had been advised to hire, I noticed the streets were almost completely empty,” said Lindhout.

“In the war zones I had been to before, in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was still life in the markets, but the situation was so bad in Mogadishu in 2008 that people had either fled the city or were too afraid to come out of their homes.”

On the pair’s third day in the country, they planned to visit the refugee camp they had come to report on.

They never made it.

As the group drove along a highway, Lindhout said she noticed a car pulled over to the side of the road ahead of them.

As they approached, about a dozen armed men, who had been hiding behind the parked car, emerged and fanned out across the road, forcing Lindhout’s vehicle to stop.

“What unfolded was like something out of a Hollywood movie,” said Lindhout.

“They pulled our doors open, pulled all of us out and the next thing I knew I was lying in the dirt, face down, spread eagle with one of their guns at the back of my head.”

The group’s small security team was left at the side of the road while Lindhout, Brennan, and their Somali driver, cameraman, and translator were taken away.

Lindhout said she soon realized her abductors were teenagers with the one holding the gun to her head as they drove later telling her he had just celebrated his 14th birthday.

The group was taken to an abandoned home where the teenage captors separated Lindhout and Brennan from their Somali colleagues.

One of the leaders of the kidnappers, a man in his mid-twenties, spoke English and demanded contact information for Lindhout and Brennan’s families.

A short time later, both of these families received a ransom demand of $1.5 million in U.S. dollars for the release of their loved one.

Lindhout noted neither family had that kind of money.

She also said both the Canadian and Australian governments do not pay ransoms to get back kidnapped citizens.

The policy is intended to prevent Canadian and Australian citizens from being specifically targeted for kidnapping, but this did little to help Lindhout and Brennan whose abductors were threatening to behead them if they did not get paid quickly.

Two months went by with the pair being moved from one location to another, often blindfolded with no idea what was happening or where they were going.

“It was absolutely terrifying,” said Lindhout.

During her time in captivity Lindhout said she learned a lot about her kidnappers, who would often speak to her and Brennan to practice their English.

The kidnappers were mostly teenagers the vast majority of whom had never been to school.

Some were orphans, others had heavy scarring on their bodies where they had been shot or injured in bomb blasts.

“We heard really awful stories from these young people. You heard from them what life is like in those refugee camps. They talked about watching family members massacred in front of them. We heard stories from some that they had watched their siblings die of hunger,” said Lindhout.

“It was pretty obvious that all of these young people who were involved in our kidnapping had been shaped by this culture of war. They were literally born into it.”

She said for these young people things like going to school or getting a job are just a dream, making them easy recruits for extremist groups and criminal gangs.

After a few months, the kidnappers separated Lindhout and Brennan.

As the days went by, she said losing her sanity became a real concern and so she would spend her days walking in a circle in her room and imagining all the wonderful places she had travelled to in her life.

Despite being separated Lindhout and Brennan could still communicate by whispering through the walls and ultimately settled on a plan of escape.

A window in the bathroom the pair used was bricked up, but little by little they were able to chip away at it until there was a hole big enough for them to get through.

They succeeded in escaping the building, but made so much noise in the process that they alerted their captors.

Lindhout and Brennan ran to a nearby mosque in hopes of getting help.

The mosque was full, but the kidnappers were not deterred, chasing the pair inside and firing their weapons in the air.

During the chaos that followed, Lindhout said a woman clad in a Niqab attempted to intervene pleading with the kidnappers and grabbing onto Lindhout as they dragged her away.

Lindhout said she lost track of the woman as her captors took her and Brennan, but heard a gunshot from inside the mosque as she left.

To this day, Lindhout said she has no idea what happened to that woman.

“This is still really hard for me to talk about,” said Lindhout, choking back tears.

“For the 10 months that I still had left in captivity after that, I thought about her every single day. I thought about her courage, I thought about her compassion and it really gave me strength when I needed it the most because everything that followed that failed escape attempt was punishment.”

Lindhout and Brennan were again separated with Lindhout chained to the ground in a pitch-black room.

Lindhout didn’t share with the students present exactly what her captors did to her during those last 10 months, stating only that she experienced hunger and starvation, sexual abuse and extraordinary amounts of physical pain and suffering.

She said her most challenging times in captivity were when her faith in human decency felt completely lost.

Things changed one day when she was being abused by an 18-year-old named Abdullah, a man whom Lindhout described as being among the cruelest of her kidnappers.

Lindhout said during this abuse she had a moment where she saw what was happening from outside her body.

“In this disassociated state I really began to understand for the first time who this person, hurting me was. What I thought about during those disassociated moments was Abdullah’s life story, the one he had shared with me before things got so bad. I pictured him as a boy, hungry and orphaned, hiding behind a truck as his neighbours were massacred around him,” said Lindhout.

“For that split second with absolute clarity I understood something, which was that this person who was creating so much suffering for me was also suffering himself. It was his own anger, depression and rage at his life experiences that allowed him to abuse another. I am not calling him innocent, not at all, but I do believe he was driven by the need to make someone suffer more than he was suffering and then his layers of pain covered his conscience.”

Lindhout said these thoughts of compassion helped her by allowing her to let go of the anger, rage and hate that were consuming her.

“Chained to the floor, I had control over very little, but I still had control over how I responded to everything,” she said.

“I still had my values, my morals.”

On Nov. 25, 2009 the kidnappers released Lindhout and Brennan after their families succeeded in raising sufficient funds to satisfy the captors.

The three Somali colleagues captured with Lindhout and Brennan had been released earlier that year.

Lindhout said she struggled for some time with what had happened to her, but just four months after her release, she founded the Global Enrichment Foundation (GEF), a non-profit organization dedicated to igniting leadership in Somalia through educational and community-based empowerment programs.

In 2011 she returned to Somalia, where she led famine relief efforts and raised millions of dollars to aid and support more than 175,000 people.

Lindhout said this path is far better than an alternate course of action she could have taken.

“The hatred and anger we carry around inside of ourselves, we all have it there, but that is our own internal enemy and it is only when you can learn to let go of that that you will have real peace and freedom in your life,” she said.

“When our minds get clouded by negative emotions, like hate and anger, that is when we lose control, that’s when anything can happen… It sounds simplistic to say, but it is true that anger is one of the biggest problems facing our planet today.”

David Lea is a reporter with the Oakville Beaver. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter and the Oakville Beaver on Facebook