CALGARY — Canadian Amanda Lindhout’s days while held captive in Somalia got darker after a foiled escape attempt in which she and a fellow hostage fled to the steps of a mosque before being recaptured, says a man hired to help negotiate her freedom.
Lindhout and Australian Nigel Brennan were held together in relative comfort before they loosened the bricks in the walls that held them early one morning in January, says John Chase of the U.K.-based hostage negotiation group AKE.
The two slipped out and made a dash for freedom, reaching a nearby mosque before their captors caught them again, he says.
“Some people were too scared to help them and the gang caught up with them. “There was actually a story of some people trying to help them that got beaten down and they got recaptured,” Chase said.
“From that point on, things got a lot worse for them. They were shackled (and) kept in separate rooms.”
Rumours were often spread by the kidnappers and others about the two freelance journalists after they were snatched by armed gunmen by the side of the road in a lawless area south of Mogadishu in August 2009. The pair were released last week after 15 months in captivity after a ransom was paid.
Somalian media reported the attempted escape, but the organization Reporters Without Borders said in June that it was unable to confirm whether it actually happened.
The Canadian government has refused to comment on what, if any, role it played in the release while Lindhout’s parents said in a statement last week they wouldn’t comment until she had some time to heal from the 15-month ordeal.
Immediately after the kidnapping, the Brennan and Lindhout families turned to the Canadian and Australian governments for help. After 340 days, they asked AKE to take on the case, says Chase, who is the group’s managing director of crisis response.
AKE provides training for journalists and others who venture into war-torn countries and usually works exclusively for insurance companies that cover organizations with kidnapping insurance for employees venturing into dangerous regions of the world. In this case, Chase says, the company’s CEO felt compelled to make an exception because of the families’ situation.
Negotiators gave the families scripts to read to convince the kidnappers they were gathering as much money as they possibly could. In a series of phone calls, the families talked directly with Brennan and Lindhout, who spoke lines fed to them by their captors, while their families responded with words from AKE.
Negotiations had been rocky for the final month as AKE tried to coax a jittery spokesman for the kidnappers into committing to an exchange.
Six days before their release, a team was sent into Somalia to pick up the hostages, but the kidnappers pulled back. Negotiators then began to play hard ball, telling the kidnappers that every time they reneged on a deal, the ransom would go down, Chase says.
Brennan and Lindhout were eventually freed by two Somali MPs with clan ties to the kidnappers who acted as intermediaries between the company and the captors, says Chase.
The final rescue was meant to take place in daylight, but time ticked away as the kidnappers took time for tea, meals and prayers before finally proceeding with the exchange, Chase says.
They finally drove away after dark, a dangerous time to travel in Somalia. Warning shots were fired at their rescue car after the Somali MPs tried to take Lindhout and Brennan to the airport and approached a checkpoint without warning. They turned around and spent the night in a hotel in Mogadishu and flew to Kenya the next morning.
The average length of time for a kidnapping in Somalia is about 80 to 90 days, says Chase. He wouldn’t reveal exactly how much the families paid for Lindhout and Brennan to be released, but says it was around the half-million dollar mark.
There have been reports that the ransom ranged from $600,000 to $1 million.
While in captivity, the two were forced to tell their families they were in failing health, frequently beaten and vomiting up blood.
“They were physically quite a lot better than we had feared,” he says. “We thought we might have to get stretchers and the aircraft was fully equipped for them to lie down, but they were perfectly capable of walking, they were quite strong.”
Both Lindhout and Brennan were undernourished and had parasites from eating contaminated food, Chase says. Lindhout also had complications from a pre-existing dental abscess that had flared up again while in captivity.
He declined to speak on the families’ behalf about how they felt during the ordeal, only saying they were frustrated with the government response and would likely have more to say once they’d had a bit of time.
But he says the Canadian consulate in Kenya, while refusing to talk about anything related to a ransom, was instrumental in helping obtain some intelligence that helped negotiate the release.
“They couldn’t be involved with the money at all, transporting, even acknowledging it existed. But as far as information and things like that, whenever they could help they did.”
Lindhout has said she doesn’t think her captors will ever be brought to justice. Chase says his organization passed all the information it obtained on to Somali authorities as soon as Lindhout and Brennan were safely out of the country, but he doesn’t know whether anything will come of it.
“The place is so screwed up and people will stay silent for a little bit of money,” he says.
In the end it’s enough to know that Lindhout and Brennan are home safe.
In a normal hostage negotiating situations through insurance companies, Chase deals with companies rather than families, but he got to know the Brennan and Lindhout families well during the three months he coached them.
“This case broke a lot of rules for us,” he says.
“At the end, it’s just triply emotional for everybody,” he adds, saying he was impressed by how both families stayed close to each other and dealt with the case throughout.
“They were just amazingly strong.”