Kidnapped in Somalia

The inside story of how Albertan Amanda Lindhout found herself being held for a US$2.5-million ransom

Jonathon Gatehouse and Nicholas Köhler

The online reviews make Mogadishu’s Hotel Shamo sound almost pleasant. “The rooms are large, with air conditionned, wi-fi and electricity 24 h day, [sic]” a Kenyan visitor wrote last December. “The restaurant is extremely decent, and serves lobster when available at the fish market.” And above all, notes the entry, the hotel is “relatively safe”—not a small consideration for travellers to Somalia, a country that stopped functioning so long ago it now qualifies as a “post-failed” state.

Amanda Lindhout, a 27-year-old freelance journalist from Sylvan Lake, Alta., and her friend Nigel Brennan, a 35-year-old Australian photographer, checked in on Aug. 20. They spent two days scouting for stories in the former capital—chasing reports of a roadside bomb aimed at African Union peacekeepers, interviewing shopkeepers at the Bakara market about the almost daily mortar attacks from Islamic insurgents. Then early on the morning of Aug. 23, the pair crammed into a hotel-owned Toyota Land Cruiser for the journey into even more dangerous territory, a camp that houses some of the estimated 400,000 people displaced by the fighting in Mogadishu.

The trip to Afgoyee doesn’t take long— the sprawling refugee shantytown is just 20 km to the northwest—but it is outside the zone controlled by the grandly named Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Somalia’s notional authority. So, at the Sarkus checkpoint on the city’s edge, Lindhout and Brennan bid goodbye to their two AK-47-toting guards, dressed in TFG uniforms, but employed by the hotel for $10 a day. Another security “team” (read members of a different militia) were supposedly waiting for them at the next roadblock, just 1.5 km down the highway. The journalists, their guide, the hotel driver and another local man who hopped in to show them the way disappeared en route. Lindhout had travelled to Somalia hoping to sell stories about the deteriorating security situation and burgeoning humanitarian crisis to networks in Canada and France. Her only television appearance so far has been in a grainy video her captors released to al-Jazeera last week. Dressed in a red abaya, and surrounding by masked and armed men, the Albertan called on the Canadian and Australian governments to work for her and Brennan’s release. A communiqué read by one of her captors called for an end to foreign aggression in Somalia. But the demands transmitted through other channels have been anything but political—US$2.5 million in cold, hard cash.

The video was released by a group calling itself the Mujahideen of Somalia, but according to the clan leader who has been negotiating with the kidnappers, ideology has not entered into the discussions. “They are not Shabaab,” Dahir Farah says by phone from Mogadishu, referring to the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militia who are the TFG’s main military rivals. “They are not another faction. They are bandits.” Farah, a well-known figure in Mogadishu, says he first heard from Lindhout’s captors on the day of the abductions. Their initial demand was for US$5 million, a sum that he says he convinced them was too high. Despite media reports to the contrary, the negotiator says he has been unable to speak directly with any of the hostages, but has been assured that they are being well looked after. However, Farah is frustrated by what he perceives as a lack of urgency on the part of the Australian and Canadian governments. The Aussies, through their High Commission in Nairobi, Kenya, have flatly refused to pay a ransom. And Farah claims he has heard nothing from Canadian diplomats. “These journalists, they are in very much danger. Your governments, they must take action as soon as possible. Trust me, these kidnappers are not good people.”

Maclean’s has obtained a cellphone number for the men who are holding Lindhout and Brennan. But the magazine decided against contacting the group at this point, for fear of jeopardizing the safety of the captives, or ongoing efforts to free them. Last week, Australia’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith wrote to his media asking for restraint in their coverage. No such demand has been made by the Canadian government. In fact, in sharp contrast to the Australians, it took Foreign Affairs in Ottawa more than three days to respond to Maclean’s request for their input on the matter. Among the initial concerns expressed by Rodney Moore, a department spokesman, were potential violations of Canada’s Privacy Act, and the possibility of adverse media coverage. Ian Burchett, the director general of communications for Foreign Affairs, says the government is “working with all channels to seek further information about the case, and [the hostages’] welfare and early release.” But he declined to comment on Farah’s allegation of diplomatic indifference. “It’s a very sensitive case,” says Burchett.

Indeed, the question of how Canada and Australia would even go about extracting the hostages if they are freed—the airport has now been shut down by fighting, the roads are impassable, and the sea rife with modern-day pirates—remains unanswered. (Although the Canadian navy frigate HMCS Ville de Québec is in the region as an escort for UN World Food Program freighters.) But the tale of how Lindhout, a former Molson Canadian girl and beautician from small-town Alberta, found herself in perhaps the most dangerous place in the world is no less complex. Since violence escalated this spring, all but a handful of Westerners have fled Somalia. Lindhout and Brennan were the last foreign journalists to arrive in the country. Now they are the only ones left.

On Dec. 3, 2005, Amanda Lindhout posted an unusual query at an Internet bulletin board devoted to hazardous travel: “i’m planning atrip through the middle east and would like to include iraq,” she wrote, using a Web surfer’s loose spelling and grammar. “If anyone has been thre as a backpacker i wouldlove info on the transporation situation, and is it easy to find cheapish hotels?” It was not, in fact, the best time to be planning such a trip. Foreigners, however intrepid, were going missing in Iraq at an alarming rate. Two Baghdad-based Canadian volunteers with Christian Peacemaker teams—41-year-old James Loney and 32-year-old Harmeet Singh Sooden—remained, along with two colleagues, in the hands of the Swords of Righteousness Brigade. And four months after Lindhout’s call for advice, the body of one of those men, the American Tom Fox, turned up on a street corner; he had been tortured.

But however naive she may have been, Lindhout made it to Baghdad and beyond in the following 2½ years. Already an experienced backpacker, she financed her increasingly swashbuckling forays into the developing world by freelancing photographs and articles from the bullet-ridden Mustafa Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan. Later, she worked as a Baghdad reporter for Iran’s English-language Press TV. At the time she was abducted in Somalia, she was freelancing again, selling stories to France 24, a multilingual TV news network, and to the Red Deer Advocate, her hometown paper.

Lindhout was not your standard war correspondent. The former beer model gave up a spot at a prestigious Vancouver makeup school to throw herself into the precarious work. She had no formal training as a news reporter or photojournalist and scrapped plans to go to journalism school in Toronto to pursue freelance work in Afghanistan instead. “I’m already doing what they’re teaching me to do,” Kelly Barker, a close friend in Calgary, recalls her saying.

Somehow, through 18 months of work in conflict zones, a combination of Lindhout’s determination, good looks and disarming enthusiasm (not to mention luck) pulled her through the rough patches, like getting held up at gunpoint in Sudan. “Amanda’s tall and quite beautiful, so she sticks out in that sense,” says Richard Poplak, a Toronto writer who met her in Kabul in 2007. “She was sort of like
Amelia Earhart, if you know what I’m saying. These big girls that are brash and quite beautiful. They’re fearless and quite curious and quite ambitious.”

Taron Hall, a musician from Vancouver who met Lindhout in 2005 when they volunteered at a hospice for the destitute in Calcutta, remembers backpacking with her in the remote mountain regions of northern Pakistan. To the people they met, she was a disarming and exotic specimen. “She knew that men are not supposed to be talking to the women, it’s not their culture,” says Hall. “But she wanted so much to find out about them, so she got right in and shook their hands. They took a liking to her right away.”

Last May, Barker met Lindhout in Portugal. She is the last of her Canadian friends and family to have seen her. (At the advice of Foreign Affairs, Lindhout’s family are not giving interviews.) The trip, a break from Iraq, was an opportunity for Lindhout to plan her next career move. While at Press TV, she and her crew had been briefly detained in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighbourhood, giving the neophyte reporter a scare. In fact, Lindhout had grown disillusioned with the Iranian network, which, although it paid well, had no appetite for the human-interest stories she favoured, and in her view, was reluctant to carry through with portions of its contract. “Basically,” says Barker, “she wasn’t happy with the security.”

As the two women road-tripped, Barker and Lindhout debated whether she should strike out on her own as a freelancer. “Of course, she was nervous because she understood that then she wouldn’t have this kidnapping insurance,” says Barker. But it was what Lindhout felt she must do to earn more permanent and higher profile work. “I don’t know why she decided to go to Somalia,” says Barker. “I think she must have just heard about the refugees there and thought, ‘Man, I should really go tell a story on this.’ I guess she must have thought that would really help her be signed on a contract.”

The emerging crisis in Somalia has received little attention from a world that long ago grew weary of the Horn of Africa’s basket case. But even by the standards of a place that has experienced almost perpetual anarchy since 1991, things are getting worse. The U.S.-backed December 2006 invasion by neighbouring Ethiopia succeeded in pushing the radical Islamic Courts Union out of Mogadishu, but it spawned an Iraq-style insurgency, with dozens of rival groups—Islamic factions, clan militias, criminal gangs—facing off against the Ethiopians, TFG, and now African Union peacekeepers. Attacks, ambushes and suicide bombings have become a daily fact of life. Nearly 9,500 civilians have fallen victim to the insurgency and government reprisals since early 2007, 838 of them this past June and July. More than 700,000 people have been displaced and refugees are flooding across the borders. With the food supply dwindling and prices skyrocketing, it is estimated that 3.5 million face famine.

And there is little chance of outside help. The United Nations effectively pulled out after the July killing of the top officer for the UN Development Program. (Only 22 foreign UN workers remain in the country. None are in Mogadishu.) Other aid organizations have followed, acknowledging Somalia is simply too dangerous a place to do business. Between July 2007 and June 2008, 20 aid workers were killed in the country—almost one-third of the worldwide total, and two deaths more than in Afghanistan during the same period.

And as what’s left of Somalia has spiralled downwards, kidnapping, a long-time scourge, has become a full-blown epidemic. An astounding 56 vessels have been hijacked off the coast and their crews taken hostage so far this year—two Greek-owned cargo ships in the last week alone—and it is estimated that as many as 1,000 pirates are now plying their trade. On land, things are hardly better. Anyone presumed to have value—especially a foreigner—is a target. And in a nation with more than 400 roadblocks manned by gangs, militias and armies, the danger is limitless.

The last time Ken Menkhaus, a Horn of Africa specialist at Davidson College in North Carolina, visited Somalia three years ago, he had 20 armed guards and only narrowly avoided being kidnapped, fleeing the country in the middle of the night. What were once random abductions are now highly coordinated, he says, with local leaders, clan representatives, and perhaps even parts of the Somali diaspora receiving cuts of the ransom. “It clearly goes up to very high levels. It’s very big money.” But recent events have radically altered what used to be a predictable business. This spring, the U.S. declared Shabaab a terrorist organization, and assassinated its leader, Aden Hashi Ayro, with a Tomahawk missile. The group reacted by threatening to target Westerners and anyone helping them. “The rules of the game have changed, and no one knows what they are now,” says Menkhaus.

Whatever their motivations for travelling to Somalia, Lindhout and Brennan clearly underestimated the danger. On Aug. 22, Taron Hall, who had been attempting to contact his friend in Iraq, received an email. “Amanda wrote, ‘I’m in Somalia trying to get a story . . . It’s really dangerous. It looks like it’s just warlords and insurgents and just a lawless country,’ ” says Hall.

According to the National Union of Somali Journalists, eight members of the country’s media were killed in 2007. Only one has been murdered so far in 2008, but that’s more a reflection of how many have fled rather than any lessening of danger. As for the kidnapping of foreigners, some, like the French TV cameraman Gwen le Gouil, quickly find their way home (she was released after just eight days last December). Others do not. Murray Watson, a British researcher working for a UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, was snatched near the southern Somali town of Buale at the beginning of April. No one has seen the 69-year-old since.

And while the West focuses on Brennan and Lindhout, it’s worth remembering that they are not alone. Their fixer, Abdifatah Mohammed Elmi, driver Mahad Clise, and another man identified only as Marwali, are also being held. Abdifatah’s father, Mohammed, spoke to Maclean’s by phone from Mogadishu. “You worry, you worry. I think about it all the time. That’s all I do,” he says. A week ago, Mohammed called the kidnappers in desperation. They allowed him to speak briefly to his son, who usually works as a photojournalist. “He said, ‘I’m okay. I’m fine, but I’m afraid, father. I’m afraid.’ ” Abdifatah, who did not appear in the al-Jazeera video, said he hadn’t seen the other captives. Now, Mohammed is cursing his son’s decision to work with the foreign journalists. “My son has never had trouble. But they saw him with white people and so they kidnapped him,” he says. “If I knew where he was I would go and get him by force.”

With Cathy Gulli