Alberta journalist kidnapped in Somalia freed after 15 months in captivity

EDMONTON - Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout, freed after 15 months of captivity in war-torn Somalia, said Wednesday she was isolated, beaten and tortured, and dreamed of walking through Vancouver's Stanley Park to stay sane and not lose hope.
Published : November 26, 2009

EDMONTON - Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout, freed after 15 months of captivity in war-torn Somalia, said Wednesday she was isolated, beaten and tortured, and dreamed of walking through Vancouver's Stanley Park to stay sane and not lose hope.

Lindhout, from Sylvan Lake in central Alberta, and Australian photographer Nigel Brennan were kidnapped Aug. 23, 2008. Somali officials said they were released Wednesday, 459 days after their ordeal began.

Stories and reports conflicted about how much, if any, ransom was paid and by whom.

Lindhout said the families of the two hostages paid some money for her release, but didn't know how much.

Her captors had demanded anywhere from US$1 million to US$2.5 million during the ordeal. Some published reports said $1 million was paid, but didn't say by whom.

In Somalia, one police spokesman refused to say if ransom was paid, while another said, on condition of anonymity, that US$700,000 was paid.

The 28-year-old freelance journalist had worked as a TV reporter in foreign hotspots such as Africa and Iraq, when she went to Somalia - a poor, war-torn land on the Horn of Africa - on Aug. 20, 2008, to work for a French TV channel.

Three days later, she and Brennan drove out with local helpers to Afgooye to report on people in camps displaced by the violence but they didn't get return.

Armed gunman grabbed them roadside along with their Somali translator. The translator was released six months later, but not Lindhout and Brennan.

It became 15 months of physical and emotional torture.

Lindhout said she was kept in a darkened room for almost the entire time. She was fed very little, allowed to go to the bathroom five times a day.

They beat her, tortured her, kept her for months on end in dark, windowless rooms, she said.

They moved her from house to house to keep ahead of authorities, 11 places by her count. Most were in Mogadishu, but they travelled as far as Chisimayu, 400 kilometres to the south.

"There were some pretty dark moments," she said. "It was the idea of coming home, a reunion with my family that kept me going.

"In that darkness, I would try to escape in my mind to a sunny place, usually Vancouver. I would imagine running around Stanley Park, and that would keep me going."

Back in Canada, former Alberta MP Bob Mills, who represented Lindhout's riding, and organizations such as Reporters Without Borders worked to secure her release. Websites dedicated to her plight demanded more action from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government.

"I met with the family a couple of weeks back and everybody was getting frustrated, but still hopeful that something like this would ultimately happen," said Mills in an interview from Red Deer, Alta.

"It's great for the family. It's a wonderful Christmas present."

The captors, Lindhout said, figured they were sitting on a gold mine and that her family, like everyone else in Canada, were millionaires.

Every couple of months they would shove a scripted message at her, demand she call her mother in Canada and make her pay.

"The money wasn't coming quickly enough for these men, and they seemed to think if they beat me enough, then when I was able to speak with my mother ... I would be able to say the right thing to convince her to pay the ransom."

The calls were difficult.

"It was great to hear my mother's voice, but the conversations were very short. My mother wasn't allowed to ask questions and I also wasn't allowed to say what I wanted to say."

When the family didn't pay, frustration mounted. The kidnappers had her call Canadian media outlets with similarly scripted pleas for help to put pressure on the government to pay.

"They always had it in their minds that if my family wasn't going to pay, the government was going to pay.

"They thought if they kept trying and using the media, eventually the government would cave and pay my ransom."

Sarah Geddes read a statement on behalf of Lindhout's family.

"Jon and Lorinda have asked me to express their eternal gratitude to those who have and continue to support them through this ordeal...," Geddes said in Calgary.

"If there is anything positive to come from this horrific ordeal, it's a renewed belief that human compassion is alive and well; that there are still people in this world who are willing to put their own interests aside for the genuine benefit of others..."

Geddes also asked the media to respect the family's privacy and to stop releasing any further information until Lindhout and Brennan are safely out of Somalia.

"The limited few who are privy to the true details of this case will not be saying anything more publicly at this time. Anyone else who agrees to an interview is doing so without facts."

Brennan's sister-in-law Kellie Brennan told reporters in Sydney, Australia, that the family is overjoyed, but also stressed that he and Lindhout weren't out of danger yet.

"In terms of Nigel's health, he will receive a full medical check once they are in a safe location....as soon as he is safe and fit to fly he will be coming home," Brennan said.

In Ottawa, Peter Kent, minister of state for foreign affairs, said Wednesday, "We're delighted she has been released."

Kent wouldn't comment on what role, if any, Canada played in securing her release. He wouldn't comment on reports of ransom being paid except to reiterate that there has been no change in the government's policy to not pay for hostages.

Lindhout said two weeks ago there was movement in the talks, which eventually led to her and Brennan being handed over to negotiators in Mogadishu Wednesday.

Now comes time to rest up.

"I guess I have to sort of sit down and re-evaluate my life," she said. "And I just want to take the next couple of months and spend it with my family."

Somalia has been essentially lawless for almost two decades. The government controls parts of the African Horn country, but the rest is in the hands of feuding warlords and Islamic rebels. Food shortages are common, as is violence and kidnapping of foreigners. Somali pirates have attacked foreign ships and taken some 200 hostages in coastal waters.

Throughout her ordeal, the public reaction to Lindhout's plight had been sympathy mixed with arched eyebrows over why someone would put herself willingly - and, said some, naively - in harm's way. Foreign workers in Somalia usually travel in convoys guarded by well-armed mercenaries.

That debate raged anew in Internet chat rooms Wednesday. Comments ranged from the compassionate to the cruel

"I highly respect Amanda's choice to put herself in risky circumstances to bring to light the issues we would be ignorant to otherwise," wrote one person on CBC.ca

"Hope she has learned her lesson," wrote another.

Lindhout said she believes her captors were driven only by money, not ideology. They will have no trouble, she said, slipping into the obscurity of Somalia's lawless underworld.

"I don't think we ever really saw the leaders of this, so we would never be able to identify them, and I think they'll be able to leave the country, which I think they're planning to do, easily."

-with files from Shannon Montgomery in Calgary

 
 
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