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Escape from hell

The captivity and rescue of Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan—and what happened once they were back home
Colin McConnell / Toronto Star / Getstock

This story originally ran in September, 2013, when Amanda Lindhout released her memoir, A House in the Sky

It’s July 2009, almost a year into their gruelling captivity, and Nigel Brennan and Amanda Lindhout have barely spoken in months. They have mostly been kept in separate rooms, in ever-changing locations since the previous August, when they were snatched from a hot, dusty road outside Mogadishu, Somalia. Unable to talk to one another, forbidden to communicate at all, and aware that they could be punished for even attempting it, Nigel nevertheless takes this risk: Sometimes, when he hears Amanda moving toward the bathroom, her legs clinking in chains, he drags himself to his doorway (he is not allowed to stand) and cranes his head to peer down the narrow hallway, just for a glimpse of her. Both emaciated, their bodies thinned and drained and sickly, faces sallow and hair grown wild, they lock eyes. One day, in a brazen move, Nigel gestures with his hands, mouths the words across the gloom: I love you.

For Nigel, a photographer, and Amanda, then a journalist, the trip began as a freelance reporting gig—a bid to boost their careers and bring attention to a tragedy by telling stories from a war-ravaged nation deemed too risky by most of the world’s media.

Instead, the two found themselves bound by something far more destructive: a 15-month kidnapping at the hands of a band of jihad-fevered teenagers, foot soldiers of a Somali kidnap-and-ransom gang. In her new memoir, A House in the Sky, co-authored by New York Times Magazine contributing writer Sara Corbett, Amanda details the brutal treatment she endured. While both captives suffered, Amanda faced much harsher physical abuse. Graphic passages describe repeated beatings and violent rape. Fed a starvation diet of canned tuna and dirty water, she watched her hair fall out; fungus covered part of her face. Driven alone into the dark, empty desert, she had a knife held to her throat while her captors threatened to kill her; she was hog-tied with her arms and legs behind her back in an excruciating 48-hour-long torture; she considered suicide.

Throughout those desperate months, the captives managed to give each other hope. In small, devious gestures of support and stolen moments of tenderness, they stashed paper messages and handmade Christmas presents in the bathroom. After converting to Islam in a bid to endear themselves to their captors, they wrote coded messages in a Quran passed between their two cells: “I love you,” she wrote. They would knock back and forth on the wall between their two rooms. “Lub-dub, like a heartbeat,” Amanda writes in her book. “You there? I’m here.”

When the pair emerged on Nov. 25, 2009—the result of a $1.2-million ransom and rescue—they did so together. Their families had united from opposite sides of the globe to achieve the near impossible and orchestrate the release, aided by a private risk-management company, AKE.

Now, four years later, Amanda and Nigel do not speak. Relations between their families are strained. At the heart of those schisms are lingering betrayals, tensions over money, and conflicting accounts of the kidnapping contained in two books: Amanda’s, and Nigel’s The Price of Life, released in 2011. His details his family’s battle to rescue him. Hers is a story of forgiveness. Both are tales of survival. Yet in freedom, their friendship has not survived; the intense bond that carried them through those desperate months is replaced now with silence.

In part a defence of Amanda’s decision to enter one of the most lawless countries in the world, A House in the Sky traces the inspiration for her trip to her poor, small-town childhood and a love for National Geographic magazines. An accomplished traveller, she recounts meeting Nigel in Ethiopia in 2006, the heady period of “mad love” that followed, and her heartbreak when she learned he was married. The romance rekindled briefly after Nigel’s divorce, then faded as Amanda toured war zones, building a fledgling career as a journalist. Nevertheless, she convinced Nigel, then 36, to collaborate on this trip, and when he landed at Nairobi’s airport on Aug. 16, 2008, Amanda, then 27, was waiting for him.

Seven days later, their families each learned of the kidnapping through a telephone call from a journalist. The two freelancers, in Mogadishu for just four days, had been ambushed by a car full of armed men just outside the city limits en route to a displaced-persons camp. That was followed shortly by the first of what would be many calls from a man named Adam. “Hello,” the thickly accented voice said in a message for Amanda’s father, John Lindhout, at his home in Sylvan Lake, Alta. “We have your daughter.” Halfway around the world in Moore Park, Australia, Nicole Bonney, Nigel’s sister, picked up the phone. “This is a ransom call,” Adam said. “We have Nigel and Amanda. We are demanding $1.5 million U.S. per head.”

From the moment of those phone calls, the families were thrust into an uneasy alliance. Members of both found themselves living in the middle of a police operation—phones tapped, recording devices hooked up, government agents coming and going, coaching the families through phone calls with kidnappers. Though each family was asked to trust its government, neither government wholly trusted the families. In directions delivered by the Australian Federal Police but originating from Canadian authorities, the Brennans were asked not to communicate with the Lindhouts, whom they’d never met. It’s unclear whether the Lindhouts were told the same—Amanda, her mother, Lorinda Stewart, and her father declined to be interviewed for this story. In a statement, the Lindhout family told Maclean’s, “Amanda and Nigel’s captivity was exceedingly stressful for both families. The effort to secure their release involved shared expenses in multiple countries and currencies, shifting demands, and unreliable reports about their treatment by their captors.”

Certainly, neither family had close to the US$3-million ransom initially demanded. As the kidnapping enveloped them, the two families shared the anxieties of that extraordinary circumstance—if not much else.

In A House in the Sky, Amanda writes that her mother worked a minimum-wage job, and her father lived off disability payments under the strain of chronic health issues. When Amanda learned the price for her life in the early days of the kidnapping before they were separated, she knew there was no way her family could pay. She asked Nigel if his family would help, and he told her he’d never leave there without her. The Brennans, a farming family, were not rich, but they were clearly the better off of the two, and both governments knew it.

The differences extended beyond their bank accounts. Nigel’s large, boisterous Australian family is peppered with headstrong personalities, a feisty streak and a bent toward black humour. Gathered together for a family meal near the beginning of the ordeal, they blew off steam through dark jokes about “black dog Nigel” who got “himself kidnapped by chasing a bit of skirt into a dangerous country” and wondered how his vanity would survive without a toothbrush. Yet The Price of Life is a frank and powerful window into their deep love, and tireless efforts to free “Blackie.”

The Lindhouts could not be described as a clannish lot. Amanda’s childhood resembled “The Jerry Springer Show—not just an episode, more like a whole season,” she writes in A House in the Sky: her father came out as gay and later began living with a man; her mother took up with a much younger, abusive partner. By the time Amanda was kidnapped, she writes, the fractures had somewhat healed: “We would never be a close family, but we loved one another in a certain fierce way.” The Lindhouts, unlike the Brennans, have kept a tight hold on their privacy, during the kidnapping and in its wake.

There were also the complicated logistics of two police forces and governments. The Lindhouts had the advantage of dealing with what Alison Brennan now says was the lead agency on the case. Alison, Nigel’s aunt and a Canadian resident, says the governments agreed early on that the RCMP “would be the people running the show. They had previous experience in negotiating the release of kidnapped people, whereas the Australian Federal Police did not,” she says. In a statement, the RCMP would only comment that the agency worked “very closely” with the Australian Federal Police “in an effort to mitigate the risks to the hostages and secure their safe release.”

Yet the books paint different pictures of the approach each government took toward the families. While the Brennans found themselves under pressure to raise money almost immediately, there is no indication in A House in the Sky that the Lindhouts faced a similar request.

The RCMP’s strategy, as described to the Lindhouts in Amanda’s book, was to “wrangle, coddle, apply pressure and offer vague assurances” to free Amanda and Nigel. Meanwhile, within the first week, Australian Federal Police agents asked how much money the Brennans could free up in 24 hours. The answer was $25,000. When Nigel’s father asked how much the Lindhouts were prepared to pull together, the answer was: nothing. The Brennans were told the Lindhouts had little money, but they were given few clues as to what the Canadian side was up to. It would be the first of many vague answers from Australian police and government officials, conversations that fuelled resentment toward the Lindhouts, and eventually drove the Brennans, an inherently skeptical bunch, to seek their own solutions.

In contrast, the Lindhouts formed a tight bond with the RCMP contingent that rented a house in Sylvan Lake for the operation; Lindhout’s mother, Lorinda, who’d been living in B.C., moved into the house. Convinced the RCMP would free Amanda, the Lindhouts did not contribute money toward, or fundraise for, a ransom during the first 11 months the governments handled the negotiations, the Brennan book argues.

Neither government ever used the word “ransom.” Instead, they agreed to offer a payment of $250,000 for “expenses” to free both Nigel and Amanda. (Foreign Affairs declined to provide any details related to this case, but did say, “The Government of Canada’s policy is very clear: we do not pay ransom.”) The Brennans believed all that money was coming from Australia: $150,000 from Nigel’s family plus a promised government loan, believed to be around $100,000—though Alison Brennan would later discover that the Canadian government had offered $200,000 as well. In December 2008, Alison—who would become close with the Lindhouts, acting as a bridge between the two families—offered $250,000, bringing the sum available to the governments in December 2008 to $700,000. Yet, despite repeated rejections from the kidnappers, the governments stuck to a $250,000 limit. The Brennans were told it was a long-term strategy. The kidnappers, said the officials, would learn it was the best offer they were going to get.

Meanwhile, Nigel and Amanda were living in what she would later call the Escape House. In side-by-side rooms, they whispered out their windows, voices bouncing back in a narrow alley, and hatched a plan. They dug out the soft brick and loosened the bars on the bathroom window, and one afternoon, escaped, sprinting in daylight toward brief, brilliant hope, before being recaptured in the midst of a crowd (one middle-aged woman clung to Amanda as the kidnappers beat her and dragged her away). Afterward, they were interrogated by the money man in the gang, dubbed Donald Trump.

In a powerful moment of betrayal described in A House in the Sky, Amanda writes that Nigel refused to defend her. Amanda took the brunt of the man’s fury because she told a Somali woman, through sign language, that she’d been raped. In Amanda’s account, Nigel said to her, “They’re blaming you already. I think you should just take this one,” and then he told the interrogator that he shouldn’t have listened to Amanda, pegging the escape as her idea. She writes of mixed emotions: “It’s hard to be mad when you need someone so fundamentally.”

Nigel vehemently denies this account. He says in an interview that he defended Amanda, arguing that the Somali woman didn’t speak English, and couldn’t have understood her. Their legs were chained that day. The next, Amanda was gang raped.

That moment dragged them all into new territory, Amanda writes. But outside Somalia, little had changed. Government negotiators tried new tactics: They put together a missing-persons poster to plaster throughout Mogadishu (a plan the Brennans scoffed at). They decided to freeze out Adam, the Somali gang’s negotiator, and instead pressured well-connected contacts to force a release.

But it wasn’t working. In February, six months into the kidnapping, disillusioned with the lack of progress and increasingly impatient, Nigel’s mother and brother sought out a security expert who’d worked in Somalia. The expert’s idea was to use the family’s money to free Nigel—and Nigel alone. After he was released, they’d raise money for Amanda. The Lindhouts were furious. In heated phone calls between the families recounted in both books—one of their few exchanges at that point—Lorinda said her daughter would surely be killed. Nigel’s brother would have Amanda’s blood on his hands if anything happened to her, she said, acccording to The Price of Life.

After her release, Amanda heard of the plan. “She said to me, ‘Members of your family were trying to get you out, couldn’t give a f–k what happened to me,’ ” Nigel now recounts. “I said, ‘Look. If it was your family that had money and my family had absolutely nothing, do you not think that would have been a discussion that your family would have had?’ ”

Nigel is adamant that he would have never agreed. “I was never going to walk out that door unless her hand was in mine,” he says. In any case, the Brennans shut down the scheme. The Lindhouts reached out to repair relations. Neither side could afford to lose the other.

The Lindhouts continued to keep faith in the RCMP. “They told us it was a slow process, but they were working on it all the time,” Alison says. She and the Lindhouts understood that the RCMP were keen not to offer a huge amount, and inflate the price on future kidnappings. They had information, she says, that Amanda and Nigel “hadn’t been hurt in a major way. I mean clearly this wasn’t true, but that was the information they had.” The RCMP assured the Lindhouts that swirling rumours that Amanda was pregnant were likely just gossip. They had trusted people in the area, Alison recalls being told.

In Nairobi, Kenya, the nearest Canadian outpost and the makeshift headquarters for the kidnapping response, the high commission was indeed awash with extra staff. Bhupinder Liddar, a diplomat at the high commission at the time, says personnel at times doubled, with 30 to 60 people arriving from various departments and taking over an office, where “they’d be looking at their maps, they’d be looking forever at logistics.” The case dominated the agenda of the high commissioner, Ross Hynes, says Liddar.

Still, when summer came, there had been no break. While Amanda and Nigel had been waiting, both the journalist Mellissa Fung (in Afghanistan) and the diplomat Robert Fowler (in Niger) had been kidnapped and released. In July 2009, the families finally met face to face for a joint meeting with the RCMP. It was the turning point. “We had extreme confidence in the RCMP,” recalls Alison, who was present, “right until the moment they were told that they were to stop negotiating with larger amounts.” The RCMP—for the first time, and to the Lindhouts’ shock—said they were under orders not to negotiate any sum above $250,000, Alison remembers. The figure was not simply a strategy—it was a line they would not cross.

By then it was clear to both families that that wouldn’t be enough. The Lindhouts gave up on Ottawa. They agreed to join the Brennans’ plan and hire John Chase, a seasoned kidnap and ransom expert with the British-based firm AKE. They formed a negotiating team and held frequent, sometimes daily, Skype meetings. It had taken nearly a year, but the families had come together.

Alison says some RCMP officers continued to be a support to the Lindhouts. But Chase recalls a more combative response from the Canadian government. “The attitude of Ottawa to the Lindhout family was, ‘We can’t tell you anything, we’re not going to share anything with you. You’re now going private, therefore we’re washing our hands of the whole thing,’ ” he says. The only information they shared, Chase says, was that Adam, the Somali gang’s negotiator, was the wrong person to contact. And that one piece of intelligence, Chase says, was wrong.

The families got back in touch with Adam, and for the next three months they slowly raised the ransom amount. The Brennans secured donations from the Australian entrepreneur, Dick Smith, and Bob Brown, a politician who took out a personal loan for $100,000.

Meanwhile, AKE was charging the families $35,000 a fortnight. The Brennans paid the first AKE bill. Dick Smith’s money covered the second. Smith told Maclean’s that he had also agreed to fund upfront whatever it would take to free Brennan and Lindhout and be reimbursed as much as possible afterwards.

Then the third bill came. The Lindhouts asked the Brennans to pay it. “We don’t have the money,” Lorinda said in early September, according to the Brennan book. She promised an upcoming fundraiser would raise $3 million. To avoid cutting into the ransom money, the families eventually reached a credit arrangement with AKE, “which is pretty much unheard of,” says Nigel’s sister, Nicole. Later, John Lindhout remortgaged his home for an estimated $100,000. But the Brennans remained frustrated at what they saw as a lack of transparency from the other family.

Throughout the negotiation, the Lindhouts knew exactly how much money the Brennans had raised, Nicole says. “It was a joint partnership, we had to know how much money we had, so we gave them those amounts,” she says. But she says the Lindhouts never shared the total amount they had raised, or who had donated. Steve Allan, a Calgary businessman who helped manage the fundraising money for the Lindhouts, disagrees. “We may not have shared the details of who contributed what, but we certainly shared details of how much money was raised and what it was spent on,” he says. As for that fundraiser, any money raised was “nominal.” “Lorinda had big hopes; she was desperate to get Amanda home. Someone may have told her they could organize an event that would raise that sort of money and she probably wanted to believe it. But [$3 million] was never in the cards.”

Back in Somalia, the hostage takers were following a well-trodden path. One typical tactic, says Chase, is to try and split up the hostages. That is how an October 2009 phone call home is portrayed in both books. Nigel now remembers it as one of his worst days in Somalia. The captives had been allowed to speak with their families periodically throughout the ordeal. That day, Amanda spoke to her mother and begged to be freed—just her. “If that money is for me and like, for me only and you’re ready to pay it, then they will accept that,” she said, according to Nigel’s book. “Any agreement or promises that you have with Nigel’s family . . . we all love Nigel, but they have to be broken . . . this is the only chance that we have.” In her book, Amanda writes that she is told what to say, and hopes Nigel will understand the call is like all the rest—a ploy by the kidnappers to get more money.

“That’s caused a lot of contention between Amanda and I,” Nigel says. In interviews to promote his book in 2011, he called it one of his lowest moments: “I flippantly said I felt like killing her,” he now recalls. He says he forgave her within days, but still believes it was a genuine call for help. “I’ve heard that phone call since coming home,” he says, adding that he nevertheless understands: “When you’re in a situation like that your survival comes before everyone else.”

On Oct. 30, 2009, the families struck a deal with the kidnappers. It would take almost a month of payoffs and negotiations with Somali politicians, and cost $658,000, to free Amanda and Nigel, Nicole says. The ransom included $90,000 from a Brennan-organized fundraiser, and $200,000 from the Brennan family—of which $150,000 was Nigel’s inheritance—plus the Australian government’s consular loan, but no money from Canada, the Brennans say. It was wired to Mogadishu via the hawala money transfer system used in the region.

This, too, is a point of contention. Both families had been warned of the legal risks they’d face for paying a ransom. If the money ended up in the hands of terrorists, they would be breaking international laws and could face a long prison sentence. “The Canadians actually refused to put any money into the ransom whatsoever because both families were being threatened by their governments,” Nigel says. While Amanda’s book implies it was a joint decision, Nicole says it was not: Amanda’s family would not take that risk.

Instead, the Lindhouts, who were still quietly raising money for their share, agreed to cover the AKE fees, which totalled almost exactly the same amount as the ransom. Seven months after the release, they made their last payment.

Photos taken in the early weeks of their freedom while recovering in Nairobi, show Nigel and Amanda holding hands and cuddling in an armchair. In a statement to media, Amanda thanked “my good friend Nigel” for his “strength of character,” his “resilience and positive attitude.” “Nigel, I look forward to seeing what amazing things you will do with your life,” she wrote.

After they went home, Nigel says at first they spoke almost daily on Skype. But small cracks showed. When he told her his own inheritance helped pay for their release, he claims she said, “Well, I’ll send you a thank- you card.” In 2010, when Nigel began writing his book, he says Amanda wanted a chapter synopsis, his notes and a copy of the book before it was released. Nigel said he couldn’t tell her anything because of confidentiality clauses in his book deal. By June 2011, when Nigel’s book came out, the relationship hung by a thread. Nigel gave an interview about Amanda’s pleading phone call to be freed, and she sent him an email, he says, saying “I can’t believe the bulls–t you’re saying on the radio.” “That’s when I stopped communications,” he says. And it was the last email he received from Amanda.

“We’ve found it hard to connect,” she writes toward the end of her book, “and this has been painful.”

“I don’t think she likes the way the story’s told,” Nigel says now. “There are things I’ve obviously gone into that she said I had no right to talk about, like her being tortured. She said, ‘That’s not your story, that’s my story.’ But I said, ‘I’m sorry, when I’m sitting there listening to you scream—that happened to me.’ ”

After the release, Nicole Bonney and Lorinda Stewart, who had built a close bond, stopped talking, too, though Nigel’s aunt, Alison, has an ongoing friendship with the Lindhouts, and the fathers, Geoff Brennan and John, keep in touch. The two men grew close while waiting in Nairobi for their children to be released. Geoff sent John a copy of The Price of Life. Nigel doesn’t know if Amanda ever read it.

“I think it’s s–t that we don’t talk,” Nigel says. “I hope at some stage that Amanda may change her mind. Once the dust settles from her book, I might give her a chat just to see how she’s doing.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to correct details about Amanda’s parents’ split.

Scenes from a kidnapping

Both Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan have turned their experiences in Somalia into books: Lindhout’s A House in the Sky (co-written by New York Times Magazine contributing writer Sara Corbett), and Brennan’s The Price of Life (co-written by two family members, Nicole Bonney and Kellie Brennan). Read on for a selection of passages highlighting key moments in their 15-month ordeal:

At the beginning

Driven away from the road and the city, along a wild, fast route through the desert, Brennan and Lindhout were taken to a house and held in a room under armed guard.

In a wave of panic we discuss what the hell’s going on. She is calm, believing that we are going to be all right—she points out that the room is pink, a good omen as it’s her safe colour. We both have an almost-drunk hysterical moment, laughing as we confirm what’s just happened: Holy s–t, we’ve just been kidnapped.
– The Price of Life

The air was musty. Along the back was a small window with closed metal shutters. A very long time ago, the room had been painted a pale shade of pink. The floor was strewn with bits of electrical wire. Nigel had lit a cigarette and was looking distraught … Nigel glanced at me. We hadn’t had a moment alone since we’d been taken. “What are we going to do?” he said.
“I don’t know.”
“We’ve been kidnapped, right?” he said. “Or is this something different?”
– A House in the Sky

The separation
About two months after they were taken, the kidnappers—without explanation, and suddenly—split Lindhout and Brennan into separate rooms. The isolation lasted for the duration of their kidnapping.

At around 9:30 a.m. we’re shaken awake by four of them, carrying guns. Something has changed.

I quickly pull my jeans on while Assam puts our stuff into a plastic bag. Donkey and Mr. Handsome move toward me, and I think I’m about to be hit but they brush past, taking my bed and mosquito net with them. We’re about to be separated.
Mr, Handsome grabs my arm and frogmarches me out the door. I’m not even given the chance to say goodbye to Amanda.
– The Price of Life

And then Yahya picked up one end of Nigel’s mattress and started to drag it toward the door. It dawned on me then what was happening. Abdullah unhooked the mosquito netting form the wall on Nigel’s side of the room and walked out. There was a smaller bedroom right next to the one we’d been staying in. We’d peeked into it plenty of times, coming and going from the bathroom down the hall. Through the wall, I could hear someone hammering—Abdullah, most likely, rehanging the mosquito net in the next room. And then they were back for Nigel, guns levelled at his chest, motioning him toward the door. They were separating us.”
– A House in the Sky

The torture
Roughly a year after being kidnapped, Lindhout was subjected to a 48-hour long torture; the kidnappers did not torture Brennan.

Amanda’s screams penetrate the bricks and mortar. The volume of her screams increases as her door opens and closes. There is no begging or pleading, just screams of terror … Any thoughts of bravery are quickly reduced to ashes when Mohammad appears in my doorway. His AK-47 is held across his chest, his eyes burning … In the evening they again go to work on Amanda, and this time it seems even more brutal … The screams for help seem to last for hours, and there’s constant movement of the boys going in and out of Amanda’s room. Each time the door opens her screams sound as though she is right next to me, begging me to help, begging for mercy.
– The Price of Life

My hands and feet were roped together, pulling in opposite directions. I was immobilized. My body had been drawn into a taut bow. My muscles immediately started to scream. Mohammed tugged off my headscarf and refitted it as a blindfold over my eyes, yanking it tight. My eyeballs instantly throbbed, the nerves behind them stabbed with pain. I saw white light. My head felt like it would pop.
– A House in the Sky