Lost in Somalia

New peace talks may be the best hope for kidnapped journalists

Lost in Somalia

Abdifatah Mohamed Elmi has been free for almost two weeks, but his mind is still shackled. “I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I just walk around,” he says from his Mogadishu home. For 146 days, the Somali photographer was held in a dark room, cut off from the outside world, and allowed only the curtest exchanges with his captors. But since his sudden release on the night of Jan. 15, it is the fate of the foreign journalists he was guiding when he was snatched late last summer—Amanda Lindhout of Sylvan Lake, Alta., and Australian Nigel Brennan—that preoccupies his thoughts. “I am very worried for my colleagues,” he says in a soft voice. “I wish that they will be free.”

On the morning of Aug. 23, the Toyota Land Cruiser carrying Elmi, Lindhout and Brennan was stopped by a group of gun-toting men on the road just past the Sarkus check-point on the outskirts of the former Somali capital. Elmi and the two local drivers—also now freed—were blindfolded and stuffed in another vehicle. It was the last they saw, or heard, of their foreign friends. “I tried to find out, but my guards told me ‘don’t ask us that question,’ ” says Elmi. “I am very sorry. I am very sorry.”

The last public view of Lindhout, 27, and Brennan, 35, freelancers hoping to enhance their careers by reporting from one of the world’s most dangerous places, came a week after their kidnapping, surrounded by masked gunmen in a grainy video released to the Al-Jazeera television network. Their captors—identified in the tape as the Mujahideen of Somalia, an Islamic militia, but understood by those close to the situation to actually be a criminal gang led by a member of the Duduble sub-clan—initially demanded US$5 million for their release. The figure was quickly halved. Now, according to a local press advocacy group, the Somali Journalists Rights Agency, the ransom stands at just $100,000.

It’s not clear what spurred the kidnappers to release their Somali captives and dramatically drop the asking price for the foreigners. “Allah saved me,” is all Elmi will say. (His father Mohamed, who last fall told Maclean’s he was ready to fight for his son’s freedom, also now refuses to discuss the hows and whys. “I can’t explain it to you how this happened,” he says. “Please don’t ask me anymore about that.”) But the political landscape in the anarchic nation—without a functioning central government for most of the past two decades—has again shifted in recent weeks. Neighbouring Ethiopia, which invaded in December 2006, with America’s blessing, to push out the radical Islamic Courts Union, found itself battling a grinding insurgency and completed the withdrawal of its 3,000 troops last week. Its ally, the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), racked by infighting, is on the verge of collapse, as fighters from the Islamic al-Shabaab group took control of its capital Baidoa. And a 3,400-strong force of African Union peacekeepers, which was supposed to take the Ethiopians’ place, is so far showing little desire to fill the vacuum.

“The pullout isn’t going to end the fighting, but it has changed it,” says Ken Menkhaus, a Horn of Africa specialist at North Carolina’s Davidson College. When the Ethiopians came under attack, they tended to respond ferociously and indiscriminately, he says, shooting and shelling anyone in the vicinity. TFG troops were even more capricious, and prone to looting. Now, with both forces gone from Mogadishu, residents are starting to trickle back to their battered neighbourhoods. “The city still isn’t secure, but the violence isn’t as unpredictable from a Somali point of view,” says Menkhaus.

And in what may be the most hopeful development for the families of Lindhout and Brennan, peace talks between the moderate factions, dubbed the Djibouti process, have hit a crucial juncture. If a new compromise government is formed, clan militias, including the one believed to be holding the journalists, can be slowly coaxed into the tent, says Menkhaus. “They will still want money, but they can also be convinced to release them as an act of goodwill.”

One Western security consultant specializing in Somalia, who did not want to be named, agrees that the Ethiopian withdrawal changes the dynamic, making it easier to strike inter-clan deals. But he doubts that more fighting can be avoided with 13 major armed groups primed and ready to go. The situation remains too dangerous for even the bravest aid organizations, he points out. CARE, the largest NGO in Somalia, has shut down its operations, and the United Nations World Food Program last week threatened to abandon the country after two of its local workers were killed earlier in the month. “The crystal ball for Somalia has been smashed,” the security consultant says.

Just what the Canadian government is doing to secure Lindhout’s release is unclear. Foreign Affairs in Ottawa refuses to comment on the situation beyond statements about pursuing “all appropriate channels.” But the security consultant has some free advice for Canada’s diplomats and decision-makers. “I think $100,000 is the best deal they are going to get,” he says, noting that kidnapping and piracy remain Somalia’s only real industries. “And at the end of the day everybody pays.”

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