Amanda Lindhout traveled to Somalia hoping to find a story that would launch her career as a television reporter. Four days after arriving in the country with a photographer friend, both were taken hostage by Islamist insurgents. While in captivity, she was “starved, beaten and sexually brutalized” according to her memoir of the 2008 saga set to be released next month.
According to the description of her book, A House in the Sky, Lindhout spent fifteen months “of harrowing captivity” after being pulled from the car in which she was traveling by a group of masked men.
During her 460-day ordeal, the aspiring reporter converted to Islam in order not to be killed, received “wife lessons” from one of her captors, and made a daring escape attempt with her fellow hostage.
Canadian Press reports that Lindhout was trussed up like an animal, tied for days with her hands and feet pulled together tightly behind her back.
In the book, Lindhout who is now 32-years-old concedes she was naive to have traveled to such a dangerous country for the thrill. In an interview last year, she said “it was not a wise decision to make” and agrees with criticism she has faced for having traveled there.
Prior to that, she had worked as a cocktail waitress in Calgary, saving her tips for backpacking trips, then later picking up freelance reporting work in other dicey locations, including Afghanistan and Iraq, where she was hired by Iran’s English language Press TV before realizing she was “part of a propaganda machine.”
Then it was off to Somalia with an ex-boyfriend with whom she had worked in the past, Australian photographer Nigel Brennan. “The reasons to do it seemed straightforward. Somalia was a mess. There were stories there — a raging war, an impending famine, religious extremists and a culture that had been largely shut out of sight,” she writes.
“She knew it was dangerous but hoped to find a story that would launch her career,” the Canadian Press wire service reports.
“They had only been in Somalia a few days when they got into a car with a hired fixer, driver and security guards and headed for a camp of displaced people outside the capital city of Mogadishu. On the way, armed men stopped and dragged them from the vehicle,” CP adds.
It turns out the abductors were staking out their hotel, but were really targeting two men on assignment for National Geographic. She says they were surprised when they pulled a woman out of the car. CP writes:
While Lindhout and Brennan were kidnapped together, they had different experiences in captivity. Brennan was kept in a room with windows, furniture and books to read, but Lindhout was holed up in a dark room with rats. It was simple: he was a man; she was a woman.
They both told their captors they wanted to convert to Islam. They recited the Qur’an and prayed five times each day, hoping it would provide them some protection.
Back in Canada, Lindhout’s family feared she was being sexually assaulted, but Canadian officials assured them Muslims were unlikely to do such a thing.
However, one of the kidnappers would routinely sneak into her room and force himself on her.
In early 2009, Lindhout and Brennan tried an escape. They dug bricks and metal bars out of the bathroom using only a nail clipper, allowing them to crawl out and run to a nearby mosque.
Their kidnappers chased them with guns. Nobody offered to help them, except for an older woman.
“She clung to Lindhout’s arms then threw herself onto Lindhout’s body as the men dragged their hostage out of the building. Lindhout says she later heard a gunshot echo from inside the mosque, though she says she never learned the fate of her helper,” CP writes.
Lindhout paid the heavy price the next day. Her captors whom she has described as teenagers placed a sheet over her head in a prayer room, stripped her naked and took turns sexually violating her.
More than a year later, in November 2009, Lindhout and Brennan were told they were being sold to a more violent group. As they were being handed over, Lindhout was so afraid, she clung to the car door and had to be forcefully pulled out.
Turns out, they were being released, as the ransom had been paid.
The physical toll was heavy: broken teeth, aching ribs from being kicked, skin fungus on her face, hair failing out in clumps due to malnutrition.
While at first it appeared the Canadian and Australian governments considered giving into the kidnappers’ demands for a ransom, Lindhout and Brennan’s families eventually gave up on a government solution, hired a private hostage negotiator and paid $600,000 for their release, less than the $3 million ransom initially demanded. The $2,000 per day hostage negotiator’s fee brought the final bill to $1.2 million.
Lindhout reveals that the Canadian and Australian governments offered the abductors $250,000, which Canadian Press explains “was categorized as ‘expense’ money to maintain official policies of not paying ransoms.”
That amount was rejected.
Lindhout writes that though she initially considered killing herself, even putting a rusty razor to her wrist, she survived the ordeal by imagining a “house in the sky” where she could embrace family and friends and eat whatever she wanted.
“She made a promise to herself that, if she were ever freed, she would find a way to honour the woman who tried to save her at the mosque,” CP writes.
In 2010, she founded the non-profit Global Enrichment Foundation which supports girls’ and women’s education in Somalia and Kenya.
Watch a video of Global Enrichment Foundation founder Amanda Lindhout speaking at the University of Calgary about her experience in captivity in Somalia: