By Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett
August 28, 2013
Adapted from “A House in the Sky,” by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett, to be published by Scribner this month
Adapted from “A House in the Sky,” by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett, to be published by Scribner this month
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.
After our car was searched that day, we were pulled from the ditch and then driven about 45 minutes through the desert, swerving off the paved road and into a brushy wilderness. My heart pounded loudly in my ears. The car — piloted by one of the masked men — dodged thorn trees and ran right over bushes, not following any sort of path. With every passing minute, I knew we were moving farther off the grid.
One of the three men sitting in the front seat was unmasked. He turned back, smiling in a way that gave me some hope.
“Sister,” he said, “don’t worry, nothing will happen to you. There is no problem here. Insha Allah.” God willing, it meant. He added: “Our commander would like to ask you some questions. We are taking you to our base. We think maybe you are spies.”
I could feel the fear spike in my throat. I tried to keep talking. I started babbling, listing off every Islamic country I had been to, as if that made me more of an insider.
The man ignored me. We drove on. Eventually, we pulled into a walled compound and were put in a darkened room inside a low, tin-roofed building. The Somali men with whom we were traveling — our cameraman, driver and a representative from the displaced-persons camp we were hoping to visit — arrived in a different vehicle and were installed in a nearby room.
Nigel and I sat glumly on two foul-smelling foam mattresses on the floor, our shoulders pressed against the dirty walls. We whispered in low voices, wondering what was happening: Was this a robbery? Did they really think we were spies? Some part of me believed that we had just overstepped our boundaries as foreigners, that we would receive some sort of militiaman reprimand and be sent back down the road. Outside, I could see a cooking area underneath a lean-to made from scrap wood and a thick tree whose branches hung heavily over the yard. In front of the house was a small outhouse. The sun radiated across the metal roof above, heating the room like an oven. Beyond our door, men were murmuring.
A man who had earlier told us his name was Ali came into the room and demanded our money. “Where is it?” he screamed. I fumbled with my backpack and produced $211 — U.S. dollars being the currency of choice in Somalia. It was all I brought for the day, having left the rest of my cash under lock and key at the Shamo Hotel (sometimes spelled Shamow), where we were staying in Mogadishu. Nigel was carrying a few coins and a folded-up hundred-dollar bill he had stashed in his front pocket.
The men had already confiscated our cellphones, and now Ali grabbed my bag and dumped out its contents. He inspected everything disdainfully. My camera, my notebook, my water bottle. He took the cap off my lip balm. He examined both sides of my hairbrush. He handled each item delicately, as if it might explode.
It wasn’t until later that day, when a new man arrived, introducing himself as Adam that it became clear they were after more money than we had in our pockets. Adam looked to be in his mid-20s, thin and serene. He wore an orange-striped polo shirt and Ben Franklin eyeglasses. He asked for the phone numbers for our families and told us that he no longer believed we were spies. “Allah,” he said, “has put it into my heart to ask for a ransom.”
The thought was crushing. My parents were divorced. My father had chronic health issues and lived on disability checks. My mother had a low-paying job in a bakery. My bank account was just about empty. I’m not sure anybody I knew back home could even find Somalia on a map.
Nigel and I were allowed out of the room that evening, to use the bathroom and to get some air. Ali ushered us to a straw mat laid out alongside one of the compound’s walls. He handed us two tins of tuna fish and a flask of tea. As darkness fell, the air cooled off somewhat. The sky became a screen, shot through with pinpricked stars. Beneath it, I felt small and lost.
Over near the lean-to, I could see the soldier boys lolling around. They were listening to a silver battery-operated boom box that was tuned to the BBC Somali Service. A male newscaster’s voice blared; speaking Somali, delivering what I assumed was news of the war. Then, with bizarre clarity, I heard him say the words “Shamo Hotel.”
The words caused a stir. The soldiers were sitting up and beginning to talk. Ali waved at us excitedly, pointing toward the radio. The newscaster said “Canadian” and then “Australian.” My eyes met Nigel’s. The story was about us. The feeling was devastating. It was confirmation that our troubles were both real and deep.
I know now that kidnappings for ransom happen more frequently than most of us would think. They happen in Mexico, Nigeria and Iraq. They happen in India, Pakistan, Algeria, China, Colombia and plenty of other places. Sometimes the motivation is political or personal, but most often it’s about money. Hostage-taking is a business, a speculative one, fueled by people like me — the wandering targets, the fish out of water, the comparatively rich moving against a backdrop of poor. The stories pop up in the news and then often disappear: an American traveler is grabbed in Benin. A Dutch consultant is held for ransom in Johannesburg. A British tourist is dragged from a bus in Turkey.
Families are phoned; governments are contacted. A certain machinery quietly goes into gear. Nobody would ever call these situations common, but they happen enough that there are procedures in place, a standard way things go.
The first call to my family from Somalia came on Aug. 24, a day after we were taken. A rumbly voice surfaced on my father’s voice mail, the man named Adam saying, “Hello, we have your daughter.” He said he would call again to talk about money and then hung up.
By nightfall, three agents from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (R.C.M.P.) arrived at my father’s home in Sylvan Lake, several hours’ drive north of Calgary, and were sitting around the dining-room table, along with my mother, who had arrived from her home in British Columbia. The agents listened several times to Adam’s message. They requested permission to tap my parents’ phones and offered talking points for what to say when Adam called again. When it came to money, they were to tell the truth: They had none, and the government wouldn’t pay a ransom, either.
Kidnappings happened, my parents were told, but they also ended. The R.C.M.P. agents then offered a bit of hard comfort: Nigel and I were now commodities. We were worth money. If our captors killed us, it would be their loss, too.
In Somalia, of course, we knew none of this. The hours crawled. Our hopes sagged. A day became a week and then a month. The kidnappers moved us several times, hiding us in vacant buildings surrounded by high walls and in tucked-away desert villages, where all of us — Nigel, me, the three Somali captives, plus the eight young men and one middle-aged captain who guarded us — remained invisible. When they moved us, it was anxiously and usually in the quietest hours of night. Riding in the back seat of a Suzuki station wagon belonging to one of the group’s leaders, I saw mosques and night markets strung with lights and men leading camels and groups of boisterous teenagers, some of them holding machine guns, clustered around bonfires along the road.
Each time we arrived at a new place, the captain shuffled through his set of keys. The boys, as we called our young guards, rushed in with their guns and found a room to shut us inside. Then they staked out their places to rest, to pray, to eat. Sometimes they went outside and wrestled with one another in the yard. The leaders of the group — Adam and three other men who wore expensive clothes and spoke a polished English — all lived off-site, visiting us once or twice a week, sometimes bringing supplies.
Our captors practiced a fundamentalist form of Islam, interpreting the words of the Quran in the most literal way possible. Most of the boys, we learned, had gone to insurgent training camps in rural areas. They were part of a loosely organized movement that was fighting their country’s own faltering transitional government and Ethiopian troops, who were sent over the border in 2006 to support Somalia’s attempts at democracy. They described this fight as their jihad. Nigel and I came from what they termed “bad countries.” We belonged to the Western world, which to them was inscrutable and immodest and ruled over by Satan. Presumably, some portion of any ransom money they got for us would go to support the larger cause.
Every day I worked to make myself — to make us — harder to kill, by being friendly and remaining neutral on politics. If we could bore our captors without frustrating them, I figured, maybe they would deliver us back to the Shamo, like two boxes that spent a month uselessly collecting dust in a warehouse.
When the leaders weren’t around, the boys often loitered nearby. The air around us hummed with what I can only describe as male energy, a buzzy mix of repression and young strength. I felt it when they came to deliver food, when their eyes fell on me and then quickly moved away, as if the sight of me, or whatever thought that followed was shameful. A number of them seemed curious about us, though, and eager to practice what little English they knew. We spoke most often with a guard named Jamal. He sat on the floor of our room, cross-legged, in a T-shirt and a pair of tan dress slacks with cuffs that rode high over his skinny dark ankles. He was 18, a clear work in progress, with long spindly legs and narrow shoulders that sloped forward, as if he were trying to shed some of his considerable height. On his chin, he had a few sprouting hairs, the very beginnings of a beard. He told us that his father had been killed by Ethiopian soldiers. The memory of it was fresh enough that it caused his eyes to water. “For me, this was start of jihad,” he said.
Before jihad, we learned, Adam worked as a teacher. The captain was a farmer. Before jihad, some of the younger boys went to school. Now they were paid to guard us, though it wasn’t much.
Jamal was openly interested in me and Nigel, asking questions and smiling at the ground as he heard our answers. Where did we live? What did we think of Somalia? Did we own cars? He brimmed with plans for his life after the kidnapping. He was engaged to marry a girl named Hamdi. He also wanted to study information technology in India, because he had heard there were many universities there.
His closest friend in the house was a young man his age named Abdullah, who was more heavily built and somber. Abdullah sometimes carried in our twice-daily meals — a couple of tins of tuna, several buns, a flask of sweet tea and a mango or a few soft bananas. Unlike Jamal, he seemed stuck on the war. One day I asked him what he was going to do later in life. He gave me a fierce look, mimed the act of putting on a jacket and made the sound of an explosion.
It took me a second. “Suicide bomber?”
Abdullah nodded. He believed that at the gates to paradise, soldiers in God’s army got to enter through a special doorway.
Jamal, sitting nearby, shook his head as if to say no, no, no. “I don’t want him to die,” he explained. “He is my friend.”
In early October — roughly six weeks after we were taken — they moved us into a concrete building where we sometimes heard gunfire between warring militias outside our windows and sometimes a mother singing nearby to her child, her voice low and sweet. The sound of it filled me with longing. The three Somali men who were kidnapped with us were put into a room down the hallway, their shoes lined up outside the door. Abdi, the freelance cameraman, occasionally sat in the threshold, reading the Koran in the light from the hall. A few times I peered out and flashed him the hand sign for “O.K.,” as in “You O.K.?” Each time he shook his head, looking forlorn.
Our room was large and unfurnished. Nigel and I lived like a two-person family, doing what we could to fight off depression, to distract ourselves from the gnawing hunger. I poured the tea, and Nigel washed our clothes. Our captors had given us basic supplies — two tubes of toothpaste, some Q-tips, nail clippers, a packet of acetaminophen tablets as large as horse pills. I received a cloak like dress and head scarf, both made from red polyester. Nigel was given a couple of collared shirts. Between us, we had two tin plates and a single spoon. With what little food we were given, we made menus, eating our meals on a table-size square of brown linoleum the boys had tossed in our room. Some days we ate the buns followed by the tuna; other days it was tuna followed by the buns.
To pass the time we tracked insects as they climbed the iron window grates. Once, looking outside, we saw a fat brown snake, maybe eight feet long, rippling through the sand in the alleyway behind the house. Otherwise, there was little to see.
Nigel fashioned a small backgammon game, crafting playing pieces from our Q-tips — one of us, using the cotton nubs, the other using pieces of the plastic handles, which he clipped with a pair of beard-trimming scissors. On a sheet from a notebook we received, he drew two rows of triangles and then, using a couple of acetaminophen tablets and the scissors, carved a set of dice, itty-bitty white cubes with tiny numbers written on the sides in pen.
We played for hours. We played for days. He won. I won. We played rapid-fire and without much conversation or commentary, like two monkeys in some sort of deprivation experiment. If we heard footsteps in the hallway, we quickly slid everything under my mattress. Games, like so many other things that might divert us from religion, were forbidden, Haram.
Early on, Nigel and I told our captors that we wanted to convert to Islam. It was a survival move and not a spiritual one, made in the hope that it might garner us better treatment. Five times a day now, prodded by the craggy voice of a muezzin calling from a nearby mosque, we went through the motions of prayer. We each received English translations of the Koran. A few of the boys spent time teaching us how to memorize verses in Arabic, so we could gain favor with Allah. In the evenings, the group of them sat on the patio, chanting Quranic verses.
Back at home, my mother had become the de facto negotiator for both my family and Nigel’s. I was allowed to speak with her a handful of times. Our phone calls were quick, conducted over faulty Cellphone connections, and wrenching every time. It felt as if the two of us were swimming between enormous ocean waves, shouting into walls of water. She told me that she loved me, that people at home were praying for us. Our captors were demanding $3 million for the two of us. She told me they were trying to get some money together. Those were the words she used, “get some money together.” What that meant, given their financial circumstances, I couldn’t imagine.
Anytime I thought of my parents, I was overcome with guilt. My one hope was that our captors would simply get tired of waiting and let us go. Each night, as we were getting ready to sleep, I would turn and say to Nigel, “Now we are one day closer to being free.”
Then one morning late in October, several of the boys stormed our room, surprising us as we sat eating breakfast on the floor. They dragged away Nigel’s foam mat and unhooked his mosquito netting from the wall. A few minutes later, they returned for Nigel, guns leveled at his chest, motioning him toward the door. There was no explanation, no dialogue. I watched the back of his shirt as it moved away from me. There was no goodbye or anything. He was just gone.
They put him in a small, bare room right next to the one we had shared. We’d peeked into it plenty of times before, as we came and went from the bathroom down the hall. We were worried from the start that they would separate us, because in traditional Islam, unmarried men and women were not supposed to consort. I couldn’t guess why they chose that particular day to finally do it. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that it had been eight weeks since we were taken from the road, and there was no sign of a ransom payment.
The boys’ anger seemed to be percolating. There were days when nobody spoke to me at all — when Jamal said nothing as he delivered food, when Abdullah, the would-be suicide bomber, hovered menacingly in my doorway. The isolation put me in a cistern, dark and deep. The leaders of the group holding us mostly stayed away, though every so often one would arrive at the house and pose a question sent from home, breaking my solitude with a query flung over continents, evoking something both intimate and concrete.
“What award did Dad win recently?” Communities in Bloom, for his gardening.
“Where does Oma keep her candy?” In a pumpkin-shaped jar.
My answers were to furnish proof to my family that I was alive. To me, the questions also felt like gifts, an invitation to pass an afternoon conjuring my grandmother’s tidy house or the quivering dahlias in my father’s backyard.
Sometimes I was despairing, but other times I felt my mind beginning to carry me. I didn’t know if it was a survival tool or the first flutter of lunacy, but I began to feel as if my thoughts held new power. One morning I ate a tin of tuna and then sat for an hour holding the spoon in front of me, trying to see if I could bend it with my mind. I couldn’t, not even a little, but still, the idea seemed less crazy, more possible, than it once had.
During the hottest hours of the day, the boys dozed in the shade of the veranda outside, while one of them stayed awake for guard duty. Usually in the afternoons, it was Abdullah on patrol. He often opened my door without warning. He didn’t say anything, clutching his gun, keeping his gaze on me for several full minutes without moving. Sometimes, he searched my room, noisily rooting through my belongings, throwing things against the wall. I realized later that he was just testing the waters — seeing what he could get away with as the others slept outside.
One day he showed up and closed the door behind him. He leaned his gun against the wall. I knew right away what was happening. It didn’t matter that I had worried about this. It didn’t matter that I tried desperately to fight him off as he forced himself on me. In less than three minutes it was over, three impossibly long minutes.
I felt as if I had been evicted from my body, as if I no longer fit in my own skin. My mind ticked through every mistake I ever made. Why had I come to Somalia? What had I done? Every fear I ever had came back to me — darkness was scary, noises were scary. I felt like a child. I hated facing the uncertainty of every afternoon, not knowing whether Abdullah was coming or not.
Eventually, to ease my own agony, I began to walk circles. I did one lap around the room and then another. Soon, I was walking six or seven hours a day in my bare feet. A dirty pathway took shape on the floor, a miniature one-lane track. In motion, I told myself things, the words resonating right down through my legs: I will get out of here. I will be O.K.
When I wasn’t walking, I spent time standing at one of the two windows in my room, feeling the outside air float through the grilles that covered it. One afternoon, a light rain began to dapple the concrete wall across the alleyway from my window. The sky darkened to a powdery gray. A wind gusted, rushing through trees I couldn’t see, causing the rain to spray sideways on the wall.
“God, it’s beautiful,” a voice said, clear as day, articulating my exact thought at the exact moment I had it.
The voice wasn’t mine. But it was a voice I knew. “Nige?”
The voice said, “Trout?” Trout was a nickname I had since high school.
For a shocked second, we were both silent. He was maybe 10 feet away from me at the window in his room. Because the alleyway was narrow and the tin roof of our house overlapped slightly with that of the house behind it, the acoustics were perfect. Our voices carried clearly, sheltered by the rooftops. It was a little miracle of physics. We had gone weeks without figuring this out, but now we had.
Standing at our windows, Nigel and I spoke each day for hours on end, keeping our voices low and our Qurans open on our sills in case anyone walked in. We ran through old stories, adding new details every time. We discussed our nighttime dreams, our interactions with the boys. I started one day to tell him about Abdullah, but then stopped myself: It didn’t seem fair to involve him in something he could do nothing about. Instead, we made guesses about what was happening with ransom negotiations. We talked about the future as if it were arriving at any minute. When Christmas came, marking the end of our fourth month as hostages, we quietly sang carols together.
On Jan. 14, a Wednesday, I stepped into the hallway, headed toward the shower, and noticed a new stillness in the house. The shoes belonging to our Somali colleagues — Abdi, Mahad and Marwali — had disappeared, all three pairs. A while later, I was able to ask Abdullah where they went. He didn’t hesitate. Seeming pleased with himself, he lifted a finger and made an emphatic throat-slitting gesture. My stomach churned. Before we were captured, Abdi had proudly shown me pictures of his children — two boys and a girl, smiling little kids in school uniforms, who it now seemed, thanks to me, had no father. If our captors had killed their fellow Somalis, Muslim brothers all three, it didn’t bode well for me and Nigel.
Was there some way out? There had to be. Nigel told me he had been studying the window in the bathroom we shared and thought we could climb through it. I, too, had looked at that window plenty of times, seeing no option there. About eight feet off the bathroom floor, recessed far back in the thick wall up near the ceiling, was a ledge maybe two feet deep, almost like an alcove. But what was at the end of it hardly counted as a window. It was rather a screen made of decorative bricks with a few gaps, serving as ventilation holes for the bathroom. The bricks were cemented together. And then, as if that weren’t enough, laid horizontally in front of the bricks was a series of five metal bars anchored into the window frame.
“Are you crazy?” I said to Nigel. “It’s impossible. How would we get out?”
“You should crawl up there,” he said. “I’ve been looking at the bricks. The mortar is crumbling. We could dig it out.”
“Yeah, but the bars. . . .”
“I think I could pull them loose. They’re not that secure. I don’t know,” he said, sounding not entirely confident, “but I think it could work.”
It took some effort to pull myself up to the window in the bathroom. I had to stand with one foot planted on either side of the toilet seat, reaching up past my shoulders to boost myself up, as if levering my way out of a swimming pool.
With my face up close to the window, I could see that Nigel was right. The bricks covering the opening were only loosely cemented. The mortar between them crumbled at my touch, coming away in small cascades of white dust. I had brought my nail clippers, and using them, I was able to reach between the metal bars and poke into the cement between the bricks. With some diligent chipping, it seemed possible that we could remove a few rows of bricks.
The metal bars were another matter. They were about three feet long and appeared to be sunk deep into the walls on either side of the window, though Nigel had already managed to loosen one of them from its anchor points. He swore to me earlier that he could muscle at least one more out of its hold. Feeling elated, I dropped back to the bathroom floor, covered in grit and cobwebs. I hurried to my room, for the first time in months not thinking about danger or hunger or worry, consumed instead by the idea that we could make a hole to the outside, a body-size hole, and slip through it.
Standing at our windows, we began to work on a plan. What time of day would we go? What would we bring? Which direction would we run? Who would we seek out, and what would we say? The considerations were enormous.
All the while, we traded shifts in the bathroom, hauling ourselves onto the ledge with fingernail clippers in hand, chiseling at the mortar in hurried 5- and 10-minute bursts. The work was gratifying, like digging for gold. Sometimes I got dust; other times, with some careful prying, I managed to extract a nice little slab of fully intact cement.
Because my door was in easy sight of the veranda where the boys spent their time, I had to be cautious — knocking for permission to leave my room, never staying too long in the bathroom. I was also frail. The muscles in my arms had become wasted and wobbly, my elbows often buckling when I tried to pull myself up to the window ledge.
Given where his room was located, Nigel was in a better position than I to make undetected trips to the bathroom and to stay there longer. He worked methodically, but there was no hiding the mess we made, the skewed bricks and mounds of loose mortar sitting on the sill. I tried to take solace in the knowledge that the boys walked into our bathroom only once or twice a week — mainly to take the oversize bucket we used for water and refill it at a tap outside. The risk still felt huge.
On the start of the third day, Nigel announced that he had carved out the final brick. He then had to contend with the metal bars, but the first one was already loose, and he said it would take only one more to create enough space to pass through.
We decided that we should make our break that same night, slipping out the window around 8 p.m., just after the evening’s final prayer. We were banking on that night being like every other night in the house, governed by the mind-numbing clockwork routine — prayer followed by dinner, followed by prayer, followed by bedtime for everyone but the two boys on guard duty, who would sit outside, and talking idly in the darkness.
I was startled, then, when Jamal arrived in my room with dinner a full hour ahead of when the meal usually came.
“Assalam Alaikum,” he said with a slow smile. Peace be upon you.
My thoughts spun. Did they suspect something? What was happening?
Jamal waved for me to pull out my tin plate and lay it on the floor. He then opened a plastic bag and slid something onto it — a slender piece of deep-fried fish, golden brown and glistening with oil. From his pocket, he pulled out two small limes and set them next to the fish.
It was protein, a gift. It seemed that he was worried about my diet. “You like?” Jamal said, pointing at the fish.
We stood for a few seconds, regarding each other. I gave myself an internal kick. Snap out of it. “Oh, Jamal,” I said, lifting the plate, “this is so nice of you.” I smiled at him, feeling a touch of guilt. I hoped the leaders wouldn’t punish him too badly after I was gone.
Following the day’s last prayer, I rapped on my door and pushed it open slightly to see who responded. It was Abdullah who peered down the hallway, which meant that he was on nighttime guard duty. My heart sank. Abdullah liked to roam.
“Mukuusha,” I said in Somali, pointing at my stomach. Bathroom. “I am feeling sick. Very sick.”
Abdullah snapped his fingers to indicate that I could go.
Slowly and coolly, I left my room and walked down the hallway in the direction of the bathroom. Earlier in the evening, I smuggled my backpack to the bathroom and left it on the window ledge. Inside it, I had put a head scarf and the heavy black Abaya I wore the day we were kidnapped, so that once outside, I could better blend in. Nigel stood waiting for me at his doorway. He had done some advance work in the bathroom, wrenching two bars out of the walls, then putting them back in place, propped up precariously with chunks of loose cement.
Up in the alcove, Nigel removed the two bars and next began gingerly un-stacking the bricks from the window frame. I could hear him panting. One brick came away, then two, then three, then four. When they were all out, he jumped back to the floor and motioned that we were ready. After I put on my Abaya, Nigel lifted me toward the window and the 18-inch gap that was now there.
I looked through that hole for no longer than two seconds, but it was enough to see everything. I could see the alleyway beneath, and the darkness of a village with no lights and everything uncertain beyond. We had worried about breaking our ankles in the drop. We had worried about so many things, and as I stared at the gap in the window, every one of those things felt there, right on the other side, along with our freedom. I turned around and started to back my way through the remaining window bars, sliding both feet through the gap — with two of the remaining bars above me and one bar beneath — lowering myself slowly into the air outside. I could feel a breeze on my ankles. It worked until it didn’t: I pushed myself back and felt my rear end jam up against one of the bars still in the window. The gap was too small. If I couldn’t fit, Nigel never would.
“Go, go, come on,” Nigel whispered from below.
“I can’t. It’s not working.” I thrust again at the bar to show him my predicament. He looked distraught, his forehead slick with sweat. I said, “Can you take out another bar?”
“Not now,” he said, almost hissing. “It makes too much noise.”
Nigel waved a hand, telling me to climb down. “Get back to your room,” he said. “Quickly. I’ll try to fix this up.”
I walked to my room as casually as I could and closed the door noisily, to let Abdullah know I had returned. I lay on my mattress in the dark, trying to muster one calm thought. I knew it was only a matter of time before our plan was discovered — before one of our captors spotted the jury-rigged pile of bricks and bent bars that comprised the bathroom window or just read the whole stupid plotline in my eyes.
After dawn broke and the boy named Hassam came to open our window shutters before prayer, Nigel and I stood at our sills, deciding that we had to leave immediately. Quickly, we redrew the outline of our plan. We knew from the calls of the muezzin that there was a mosque somewhere close by. It seemed like the one good option, a place to find a crowd. We waited for the midday prayer, for the heat to arrive and the boys to start nodding off. I knocked for the bathroom, and Nigel met me there, holding my backpack. Early that morning, he pulled out a third window bar. I waited while he quickly un stacked the bricks again. This time, I didn’t hesitate. I got one leg out the window and then the second. I slid a few inches on my stomach to lessen the distance to the ground, holding on to one of the remaining window bars for support, and then I let myself drop.
We hit the ground one right after the other, me and then Nigel, two soft thumps in the sand. My heart lifted and crashed with the impact.
Things were bad. I knew it the instant I touched the soil. Nothing appeared the way I had imagined it. To the left was a sideways-leaning fence made of patchwork pieces of coloured tin and old, flattened oil cans. To the right was a row of shanties, built from more tin and pieces of loose burlap. There wasn’t a bit of vegetation in sight, beyond a few brambly thorn bushes, low and leafless in the sand. More alarming was the emaciated child, a boy of maybe 7, standing only a few feet away from me, naked but for a pair of shorts, swaybacked and wide-eyed and looking like he might scream.
The boy took off at a sprint — heading, I was sure, toward the first adult he could find.
It was as if a starting gun had been shot, as if a seismic disturbance had unsettled the air, rippling over the rooftops to the patio where our captors lay in repose. Everything became instinctual then. Nigel and I didn’t even look at each other. We just started, madly, to run.
Every strategy we plotted at our windowsills flew out of our heads. Every bit of reason lifted away as we dashed down the alleyway.
At the end of the alley was a rutted sand road, and on the road there were shacks and some market stalls and the land beyond was a flat brown. Nigel was yelling at nobody and everyone, screaming ‘‘I caawi, I caawi,” the Somali words for “help me.”
I saw it all in a high-speed panic, which is to say I barely saw it, or caught it only in flashes — a half-collapsed wall, a few nervous goats, a donkey lashed to a cart by two thin poles. We ran through it and past it, this landscape we had spent hours imagining, this place to which we were colossally mismatched, me behind Nigel, Nigel shouting, the heat warping the air around us, all of it with the unreality of a bad dream. People on the street spotted us and fled. Later, I would look back on it and realise that if you are running in a place like Somalia, everyone understands that you are running from danger. Which means that they, too, should run.
The mosque was tall and wide, painted green and white with a crescent moon on top and a short set of wooden steps leading to a wooden platform and an entrance. The platform was heaped with shoes, signaling that the place was full of people. Moving up the stairs behind Nigel, I felt the first trickle of relief, a feeling so unfamiliar that I almost couldn’t identify it.
Just then, a lone person came skidding around the street corner. It was Hassam, one of the younger guards. His expression was one of disbelief and selfish terror. I saw Abdullah run up, just behind him.
I bolted forward into the mosque, forgetting to remove my shoes. What I saw first was a field of men — kneeling, sitting, and milling about in small groups. There were prayer mats spread in lines across the floor. Heads turned. A few people stood up. The interior of the mosque was vast, a single room with a vaulted ceiling. I heard myself calling out Somali words and English words and also some Arabic, my brain blurry with distress. I shouted, “Help!” and “May the blessings of Allah be upon you!” and “I am Muslim!” Nigel, too, was yelling.
A crowd magnetized around us, men with puzzled faces, some showing alarm. And then Abdullah was upon me, having blasted through the door with Jamal right behind, both of them holding guns.
Abdullah lunged and I dodged, feeling his grasp slip off my shoulder. I ran to a far corner of the room, where another group of men sat on the floor. I said every Arabic word I could think of as they lifted their bearded faces toward me, dumbstruck. Off to the side, Jamal had corralled Nigel against a wall and was hitting him repeatedly in the head, pounding on him with a closed fist, beating him with every ounce of strength he had. Nigel, I could see, was trying to hit him back, all the while shouting, “Jamal! Jamal!” as if to remind him that, in a weird way, they were once friends.
My fear organized itself into speed. I ducked through a doorway leading out into the air. With Abdullah two paces behind me, I leapt over the three stairs that descended from the side door of the mosque, landing in heavy sand, shedding my flip-flops as I ran. A gunshot ripped overhead, hollowing out the air. I looked back to see Abdullah, who had stopped running long enough to fire at me. My mind circled back toward the mosque. Nigel was inside. Inside was safer than outside. Keeping my shoulders low, I did a high-speed 20-yard end run around Abdullah, throwing myself back up the stairs and into the mosque.
The scene inside was oddly calm. Nigel had managed to shed Jamal and was sitting, not quite placidly but pretends placidly, at the front of the mosque, in the semicircular area that served as the imam’s pulpit, surrounded by a loose cluster of maybe 15 bearded men, most of them standing. I dropped to my knees next to Nigel, who was speaking English with some of the men, sounding like he was answering to some skepticism that he was Muslim.
Through a large, low window to one side of the pulpit, I could see a woman, sheathed entirely in black, peeking in at us, until one of the men strode to the window and slammed its metal shutters closed.
Abdullah had re-entered the mosque. He was creeping his way into the group of bystanders, his gun canted loosely in my direction, sweat dripping through his hair and shining his cheeks. Nigel, meanwhile, was loudly reciting verses of the Quran like a schoolboy.
One of the men explained to us that someone was phoning the local Imam, who was in the next village but would come to hear our story and give his judgment. “Insha Allah, everything will be fine,” he said, indicating that we should remain seated on the floor. “Insha Allah, maybe 15 minutes.”
I felt relieved by this. An Imam, I figured, would want to help us. I could hear Abdullah and Jamal arguing — politely — with some of the men.
Abruptly, a woman parted the quarreling crowd, elbowing her way past the men with the guns. I recognized her as the woman who had been looking through the window. She wore a black Abaya and full Hijab, including a Niqab draped over her nose and mouth, covering everything but her eyes. Every man in the place was staring at her. The woman noticed no one. She came right over to me, kneeling down at my side without a word. Automatically, I reached for her hand. Her fingers wrapped around mine. I felt, for a second, safer than I’d felt in ages.
Her eyes were brown and somehow so familiar that it was as if I knew them from somewhere. The tops of her hands were painted with delicate, tendril patterns of rust-colored henna, the sort of ornament that one woman draws painstakingly on another. She was speaking in Somali to the men around us. I watched her, my nerves firing. I couldn’t understand what she was saying. I knew she was helping me somehow. I heard distress in her voice. When she looked at me, her eyes swam with emotion.
Without thinking, I reached out and brushed my fingers over her face, feeling the warmth of her cheek beneath the fabric.
I said, “Do you speak English?”
“A little,” she said, moving closer. “You are a Muslim?”
“Yes, from Canada.”
“You are my sister,” she said. “From Canada.”
She reached out both arms, and I let myself fall. I sank my face into the pillows of her body. Her arms fit snugly around me. I felt the edges of my vigilance soften, the domino fall of my defenses. I began to cry. As men jabbered around us, the woman tightened her hold on me. She was the first woman I interacted with in five months. Lifting my head to find her eyes again, I told her I had been a prisoner that I wanted to go home. My voice rose and fell unevenly. Uttering the word “home” caused me to sob. I pointed toward Abdullah, who was scowling at us, probably 10 feet away. “He is abusing me,” I said, suddenly desperate. To be sure she understood, I used my fingers to mimic the mechanics of sex.
I watched the woman’s eyes get wide. “Oh, Haram,” she said. “Haram, Haram.” She looked up to the crowd, her expression ferocious, and shouted a few agitated Somali words.
But before anyone could respond, the dynamic in the room changed suddenly. Two of the leaders of the kidnappers had marched into the mosque, looking disheveled and furious, with the captain next to them, waving a pistol.
One of them — a man called Ahmed — located me and pointed a finger. “You!” he shouted. “You have made a big problem!” The air in the mosque had grown stuffy and uncertain, filled with noise. Then came a loud, concussive crack, a gun going off somewhere inside the room.
The sound of it broke the spell, the holding pattern. I saw Abdullah pushing through the crowd in my direction, his head lowered like a bull’s. I screamed as he dove at me. He caught my feet with his hands and began dragging me in the direction of the side door. I clawed at the ground as he pulled. I don’t remember any of the onlookers trying to stop him.
It was only the woman who tried.
She clamped on to my arms and pulled me back, using her weight for leverage, letting loose a torrent of Somali. For a few minutes, my body was strung between them, with Abdullah yanking my legs while the Somali woman proved herself a stubborn anchor. We were being towed along — the two of us, linked like train cars — inch by inch across the floor of the mosque. My shoulder sockets ached to the point where I thought they would pop.
Finally, she could hang on no longer. I managed to lift my head and look back to see her sprawled on the floor and weeping openly. Her head scarf and Niqab had been torn off in the struggle, leaving her exposed. I could see that she was my mother’s age, in her early 50s, with a gentle plump face and high forehead. Her hair had been braided in tiny cornrows over her head. She still had one arm outstretched in my direction. Three men with guns now surrounded her.
Someone lifted my shoulders, maneuvering me roughly over the stairs outside the mosque and into a courtyard. My Abaya had ridden up over my waist. My jeans, which were already baggy because I had lost so much weight, were slipping toward my ankles as Abdullah jerked me forward, holding my legs on either side of his chest as if pulling a cart. As we moved over the courtyard, my body skimming the dirt, I felt my frayed underwear sliding off as well. I was naked, basically, stomach to knees.
I felt something wet hit my stomach and realized I had been spat on. We were moving through a crowd, past a metal gatepost marking the edge of the courtyard and the entry to the road. I reached out and caught the post, latching on to it with both hands.
Abdullah turned to see what had stopped his progress. Beyond him and through the gate, I could see a blue truck waiting with its engine running. Another gunshot echoed from inside the mosque. Nigel, I thought. They’ve killed Nigel. The thought was like a suck hole, a thing that could kill me. I spotted a woman’s narrow face looking down at me from the crowd, her expression unreadable. I screamed at her in English: “Why won’t you help me?”
She looked stricken. “I don’t speak English,” she said in perfect English.
Suddenly, the knuckles on one of my hands exploded in pain. Someone had kicked it to loosen my grip on the pole. I howled and let go. Then I was being pushed to my feet and toward the truck. I saw two other men hauling Nigel through the door of the mosque and in our direction. The sight of him brought a wash of solace and a hammer blow of anxiety. It had been all of 45 minutes since we slipped through the window. We made it out but not truly out. We crossed the river only halfway. Things would get worse from here. Everything that followed would be aftermath, punishment.
Nigel and I would remain hostages for another 10 months. We were freed, finally, on Nov. 25, 2009, 460 days after we were taken, and only after our families managed to raise just over $1 million for a ransom and the services of a private security company. They held fund-raisers, accepted other donations and borrowed where they could. (Later, we learned, to our relief that the three Somali men who were kidnapped with us had not been killed, but rather released unharmed.)
For a while, I kept track of my freedom, counting the days and the weeks and eventually the months that separated me from my captivity, sliding them like beads on an abacus, hoping that at some point one thing would feel stronger, more significant, than the other. But it doesn’t work that way, exactly. What I’ve learned is that freedom can’t fully overtake its absence. Once lost, a part stays lost forever.
I live with what happened. Memories leap the border between then and now. One sensation abruptly rivets itself to another — hot sand, the smell of an overripe banana, the rattling of a diesel truck — and tosses me, with a pounding heart, into the past. But that day, in particular, stays with me. The sweaty paranoia of slipping through the window, the frenzied dash into the mosque, the confusion that followed all of it sits locked in my mind, surreal and forever vivid. I don’t know what happened to the woman in the mosque, the stranger whose name I never knew, who fought until I was dragged out of her arms. But I recall the elemental comfort of her embrace and all the terror and sadness she seemed to be beating back with it.
During the rest of my captivity, the memory of the escape became a sustaining one. It held an electrical charge, a force. We had been hopeful for how long? Ten minutes? Twelve? Whatever it was, in the context of the dark months to come, the feeling turned out to be vital. I craved it, just one hit of lung-clearing, odds-stacked-against-us, nearly impossible possibility. And when I most needed it, I found I could summon it — that mad, dim hope. It was like bending a spoon with my mind.
Lindhout is the founder of the Global Enrichment Foundation, a nonprofit that works with women in Somalia and Kenya. Corbett is a contributing writer for the magazine.
Editor: Ilena Silverman