Inside a hotel in one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Robert Draper met a young Central Alberta woman eager to tell the stories of Somalis uprooted by violence.
Draper, contributing writer for National Geographic, and his photographer Pascal Maitre, had been in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu for about a week in August 2008 when freelancers Amanda Lindhout, formerly of Sylvan Lake, and Nigel Brennan of Australia showed up. With no other guests staying in the Shamo Hotel, they quickly befriended each other over the next four days.
The journalists saw each other during meals and again at night because, for safety sake, “after 5 o’clock you are best staying off the streets.”
“They were young, adventurous freelancers hoping to score a good story or two in Somalia,” Draper said from North Carolina on Thursday.
Draper learned Lindhout was an experienced traveller who had covered war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan as an embedded reporter. They shared experiences, plus a little of what they would be doing in Somalia.
At one point, Lindhout was dissuaded from travelling to the Bakaara market. The Mogadishu neighbourhood was under repeated gunfire between Ethiopian troops, who were there on behalf of the federal transitional government, and the Muslim extremist group al Shabaab which controls most of the city.
“It was life-threatening,” said Draper. “She was very anxious to capture a dangerous aspect of Somalia and being a television reporter, she wanted not only to interview people but to have footage of it. That’s a dangerous proposition.”
Journalists can’t easily move about in the city because they must hire security and get clearance in certain areas. The country has no permanent national government, only a transitional one.
Draper said there’s a very slim margin for error.
“We were by no means invulnerable ourselves and it was a terrible, unlucky thing that befell them,” he said. “I don’t fault them for going over there and I think it’s important for journalists to go into dangerous territories and report about them to the rest of the world. But risks are entailed and they knew about them going in there.”
Working for an international magazine, Draper would have more security at his disposal than the freelancers would have.
Draper spoke with Lindhout and Brennan about an hour before they were kidnapped on Aug. 23, 2008. They all travelled on the same road that day.
Lindhout and Brennan planned to interview displaced Somalis now living at a camp a few kilometres from Mogadishu while the National Geographic crew was travelling 80 km south to the town of Merka. Draper and his team were about 15 minutes ahead.
Trouble emerged when Draper’s fixer — a citizen who offers local assistance to a foreign reporter — tried phoning Lindhout’s phone and that of her fixer’s, but got no answer.
“He said ‘When somebody is kidnapped, the first thing they do is turn the cellphones off so the satellite can’t be captured,’” Draper said.
About an hour later, Draper’s fixer received a phone call from a lieutenant who informed them that Brennan and Lindhout had been kidnapped for a ransom, likely $1 million each.
“And he told us our lives were in jeopardy as well,” Draper said.
Draper’s crew stayed in a safe house in Merka for a shortened stay and then hired heavily armed militia to take them by vehicle along the beach of the Indian Ocean back to Mogadishu. Draper surmises Lindhout and Brennan had hired the necessary guards within Mogadishu city limits, but not the clan militia guards once they left Mogadishu.
“The possibility they didn’t have security may have been tipped off to the kidnappers in advance, likely by someone at the hotel,” Draper said. “But we can’t prove it.”
When he learned of his friends’ abduction, Draper tried phoning Lindhout’s mother Lorinda Stewart in British Columbia. Members of the FBI, on behalf of the RCMP, visited Draper a couple weeks after returning home to Washington, D.C.
Draper did get in touch with Stewart to let her know of his upcoming story, which was published in the September 2009 edition, and tells of two unnamed journalists who had been kidnapped. They began corresponding in October. Draper was then invited by Stewart to attend a fundraiser in Calgary, where people were raising money for Lindhout’s ransom. Draper gave a speech on the importance of covering stories in dangerous places, as a way to allay any criticism leveled at reporters for heading there in the first place.
Lindhout and Brennan were released on Wednesday by their captors after 15 months. They said they were tortured and beaten.
Families of both paid a ransom, an amount that hasn’t been officially confirmed but some reports are saying anywhere from $600,000 to $1 million US.
Draper is overjoyed with the pair’s release because “every day spent in captivity has got to be misery.”
“It was clear after the first year, that the Canadian government wasn’t making any headway and that it wasn’t practical to go hire a bunch of mercenaries to charge into Somalia and secure her release by force — that the only way was to negotiate with the kidnappers,” Draper said.
Former Red Deer MP Bob Mills said federal officials were working on the ground from Kenya.
“I’d like to know what that work was — I am highly skeptical that they have any work to show for that,” Draper said. “I find it impossible that any work could have been done from Kenya. It happens to be next door from Somalia, but the difference between (these two countries) is like the Earth and the moon.”
“You might as well have been in Canada.”