CALGARY – Hours after Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout was kidnapped by armed gunmen along a crumbling road in war-torn southern Somalia, a local reporter set out to track her down.
Ahmed Mohamed says he was approached by a former colleague of Lindhout’s who pleaded for any information he could gather about where she’d been taken, and why.
That request pulled Mohamed into a weeks-long investigation in which he says he became a conduit between Lindhout’s abductors and the governments seeking her freedom – a dangerous role that eventually made him fear for his own life.
Lindhout was released Wednesday along with Australian photographer Nigel Brennan, 15 months after the pair was abducted.
The exact details of her release remain unclear. The Canadian government has declined to comment on its role and her family has not spoken publicly. In an interview with CTV hours after she was freed, Lindhout said some money was given to her captors in exchange for her release, but she didn’t know how much.
Mohamed had never met Lindhout in August 2008, when the pair was nabbed. But he had freelanced for Press TV, an Iranian television network, as had Lindhout and Chris Gelken, the man asking for his help.
“He contacted me and asked me to get extra information, real information, (about) Amanda,” Mohamed told The Canadian Press in a telephone interview from Mogadishu.
“‘Amanda,’ he said, ‘is a very great person to us, she used to report for us from Iraq, a war-torn country like Somalia.”‘
Early on, it wasn’t known what the kidnappers wanted, says Mohamed.
He travelled to Afgooye, the area where Lindhout and Brennan were kidnapped while working on a story about the crowds of refugees huddled in roadside camps, forced from Mogadishu by fighting.
Slowly, he says, he managed to coax information from reluctant witnesses. One man finally admitted he recognized one of the kidnappers and said he might be able to get Mohamed a telephone number. Mohamed says he then turned back to Gelken, who put him in touch with RCMP and Australian police waiting in Kenya.
Mohamed set up a call.
He says he talked with two men – one from Canada and one from Australia – many times a day over the next few weeks.
Using Mohamed as a go-between, authorities managed to confirm the kidnappers’ ransom demand of $2.5 million. They also managed to get Brennan on the phone to confirm that he, at least, was still alive.
“‘The reason we kidnapped was only for a ransom,’ they were saying. ‘Nothing else. Not political,”‘ Mohamed recalls.
A member of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Tom Rhodes, said Thursday that he talked frequently to Mohamed early in the kidnapping and was told by someone from the Canadian government that Canadian officials had spoken to him.
In kidnapping cases in Somalia, a largely lawless country, it’s important to have contacts on the ground, said Rhodes, the group’s program co-ordinator for Africa.
“It was extremely difficult. Somalia’s a conflict zone and truth is always the first casualty of war, so it’s really hard to know who to trust and what information was reliable.”
Lindhout told one media outlet that her captors 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.
Mohamed says it was hard to keep track of where Lindhout was being held.
“Mogadishu, it’s a lonely, empty place. It’s the place of the artillery fire and daily explosions.”
The kidnappers often asked why he was helping the authorities contact them, demanding to know if he was Canadian. He says they rejected his explanations that Canada has taken in many displaced Somali people and that Lindhout and Brennan should be treated with respect as fellow human beings.
Soon, he says, he was being confronted by armed men demanding a cut of the money he’d been paid to help the foreigners. They didn’t believe his claims that he had received no money and told him if they saw him talking on his phone, they would kill him without checking who was on the other end.
“Whenever I used to go around in the city, I saw in corners some guys hunting me and hiding their faces. Then, I started to worry. It was the darkest days of my life.”
Canadian and Australian authorities did not step forward to help, says Gelken.
“The RCMP and the AFP (Australian Federal Police) were very keen to use the information and keep pressing for more information from the guy on the ground in Mogadishu, but were somewhat reluctant to offer him any tangible support,” he says.
Thinking of his six children, Mohamed withdrew after more than a month as a go-between.
The Canadian government declined to say anything about Mohamed’s involvement Thursday, saying it does “not comment on operational details, in this or any other similar case.”
Details of what exactly happened over the next 14 months are slowly emerging, but are muddy and at times conflicting.
Canadian government officials have refused to say what role, if any, they had in securing her freedom, although Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the government was not involved in paying a ransom.
Some published reports say $1 million was paid in ransom. 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.
Media in Australia have reported that a wealthy entrepreneur, Dick Smith, provided financial help to the families. Canadian media have reported that Lindhout’s father re-mortgaged his house, suggesting the money was used to pay ransom.
Lindhout and Brennan flew to Kenya early Thursday morning. Lindhout’s family said in a statement they would return to Canada as soon as she is fit to fly.
Mohamed says he has never met Lindhout or Brennan, but feels a connection to them. He hopes they tell their stories to help highlight the dire situation in his homeland.
“They have real experience, very great story,” he says. “The biggest disaster that a human being can face, they have faced.”