12 Minutes of Freedom in 460 Days of Captivity
By AMANDA LINDHOUT with SARA CORBETT
Published: August 28, 2013 68 Comments
When I describe what happened to me on Aug. 23, 2008, I say that I was taken. On an empty stretch of road outside of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, out of the back seat of a four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi by a dozen or so men whose faces were swaddled in checkered scarves. Each one of them carried an AK-47.
The truth of it dawned slowly on me, as the men seemed to rise up out of the sand, circling the car with their guns hefted, as they shouted a few words at our driver, as someone tugged open a door. We — me, my traveling companion Nigel Brennan and the three Somali men helping us with our work — were headed that day to a sprawling settlement just outside the city to do some reporting. We were waved out from our air-conditioned vehicle into the sweltering equatorial heat. I remember in that instant a narrow-shouldered woman dressed in a flowing hijab hurrying past on foot. She pointedly looked away, as if a couple of white Westerners getting pulled from a car and being forced to lie spread-eagle in the ditch at the side of the road were an everyday occurrence or, in any event, something she had no power to stop.
It was clear to me then that nobody was going to call for help. Nobody was going to punch some sort of reverse button so that we would be pulled to our feet, put back into our car and sent spinning down the road to where we had started. No, with every second that passed, the way back was becoming more obscure. It was hot, the air tasting like cinder. We were lying on some sort of edge. I pressed my forehead into the dirt, closed my eyes and waited for whatever was coming.
This is how one life ends and another one begins. In the eyes of my family and friends, in the eyes of the cheerful young waiter who served me coffee and an omelet that morning at our mostly empty hotel in Mogadishu, and from the point of view of anyone who would next try to piece together the story, I vanished. And so did Nigel, who was a photographer from Australia and an ex-boyfriend of mine — who decided at the last minute to come with me on the trip and who may well spend the rest of his life regretting that he did.
I was 27 years old. I had spent most of the last seven years traveling the world, often by myself, as a backpacker, financing extended low-budget trips with stints working as a waitress in a couple of fancy cocktail lounges at home in Canada, in the oil-rich city of Calgary. With my saved-up tip money, I went through Venezuela, then Burma, then Bangladesh. I saw Pakistan and Syria, Ethiopia and Sudan. Each trip bolstered my confidence, convincing me that even while strife and terror hogged the international headlines, there was always something more hopeful and humane to be found on the ground.
Before going to Somalia, I spent the last year or so trying to transition to more serious work, learning photography and teaching myself how to produce a television report, locating myself — as many aspiring journalists did — strategically in the world’s hot spots. I did a six-month stint in Kabul, followed by seven months in Baghdad. As a freelancer, I filed stories for a couple of English-language cable networks, taking whatever work I could get, and was writing a regular column for my small hometown paper in Alberta. I was getting by, but just barely. My plan was to spend a week in Somalia, which, with its civil war and what seemed to be an impending famine, had no shortage of potential stories to cover. Knowing it was risky, I took what felt like the necessary precautions — hiring a local fixer to arrange our logistics, paying for a pair of armed government guards to escort us around Mogadishu. For me, going to Somalia felt like a steppingstone, though I recognized it was a dangerous one.
Later, our captors would tell us they had been watching our hotel. What happened was planned, to the extent anything like this can be planned. Guns were marshaled; a place to take us afterward was secured. As we headed northwest out of the city that day, they somehow knew Westerners were coming. Maybe it was a cousin’s cousin who tipped them off. Maybe it was the sight of our freshly washed S.U.V. rental ripping around the battle-worn Old City, with its collapsed buildings and bullet-pocked walls. Most assuredly, there had been cash promised to somebody — a driver, a hotel employee, a guard — in exchange for information about where the foreigners were headed. We were ambushed just outside the city limits, at a precisely vulnerable moment, right after our government guards climbed out at a checkpoint and just before we were to meet two replacement guards a few kilometers down the road. Somebody — we don’t know who — sold us out.
Adapted from “A House in the Sky,” by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett, to be published by Scribner this month.
Editor: Ilena Silverman