Thoughts of family and freedom helped Lindhout through hostage ordeal

Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout, freed after 15 months of captivity in war-torn Somalia, said Wednesday she was isolated, beaten and tortured, and dreamed of walking through Vancouver’s Stanley Park to stay sane and not lose hope.

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Freelance journalist Amanda Lindhout credits her family’s tireless efforts for her successful release from Somalian kidnappers who beat and tortured her during her 15-month ordeal.

On Wednesday, the former Sylvan Lake resident was released by her male captors to Somalian government officials.

Two hours later from a hotel in the Somalian capital, Mogadishu, Lindhout spoke with CTV News to share some insights into what she has endured since Aug. 23, 2008.

“It was extremely oppressive,” said Lindhout, 28. “I was kept by myself at all times, I had no one to speak to. I was usually kept in a room with no light, no window and had nothing to write on or with — very little food. I was allowed the use the toilet exactly five times a day.”

She spent every day sitting in a corner, on the floor. She was beaten and tortured by her kidnappers, who thought it would give them leverage towards getting millions of dollars they wanted from the family or the Canadian government.

Lindhout and Australian photographer Nigel Brennan, 38, had been on their way to interview Somalis uprooted by the ongoing conflict in their country when gunmen ambushed their vehicle.

They were taken hostage, along with three Somalian natives who were released 145 days later.

“They proceeded to take us around the country and keep us in different houses,” said Lindhout.

She figures they were moved to 11 different places, most of which were in Mogadishu.

At one point, they travelled as far as Chisimayu, 400 kilometres to the south.

Lindhout told Global National that she would be reunited today with her mother, Lorinda Stewart, in Nairobi, Kenya. She planned to give her a big thank-you because “I know that she’s been working really hard to get me released.”

Early Thursday, Mohamed Abdullahi, Somalia’s national security minister, said the Lindhout and Brennan had flown to neighbouring Kenya in a chartered plane.

Journalists waiting at the airport were not able to speak to them because they were in a convoy of vehicles full of government soldiers and African Union peacekeepers.

The families of the pair paid a ransom. Lindhout said she didn’t know how much was paid. Conflicting reports placed the figure at between US$700,000 and US$1 million.

Stewart lives in British Columbia. Lindhout’s father, Jon, lives in Sylvan Lake and couldn’t be reached for comment.

They largely kept quiet for fear of jeopardizing their daughter’s safety in Somalia, one of the world’s most dangerous countries.

Reached at home in Red Deer on Wednesday, Janice Lindhout expressed happiness over her niece’s release.

“This is like Christmas, New Year’s and birthday all rolled into one,” said the aunt when contacted by the Advocate. “It’s a miracle, it’s a miracle. We’re all so happy. . . she’s still not free, she’s in Mogadishu.”

Sarah Geddes read a statement in Calgary on behalf of Lindhout’s family.

“Jon and Lorinda have asked me to express their eternal gratitude to those who have and continue to support them through this ordeal . . . .,” Geddes said. “If there is anything positive to come from this horrific ordeal, it’s a renewed belief that human compassion is alive and well; that there are still people in this world who are willing to put their own interests aside for the genuine benefit of others . . .”

Gary Bomhof, senior pastor at Red Deer’s First Christian Reformed Church where Lindhout’s grandparents and one of her uncles attend, said he will likely discuss Lindhout’s release during Sunday services.

“Sunday we begin our advent season and I think it’s just a wonderful way to start it,” Bomhof said. “Why it had to take so long, we don’t know, but God has his own timing.”

Nigel Brennan’s sister-in-law Kellie Brennan told reporters in Sydney, Australia, that the family is overjoyed, but also stressed the journalists weren’t out of danger yet.

“In terms of Nigel’s health, he will receive a full medical check once they are in a safe location . . . . as soon as he is safe and fit to fly he will be coming home,” Brennan said.

On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the abduction, the families of Lindhout and Brennan issued a joint statement to say they had been tirelessly working on their children’s release, but added they had received little outside support.

Canadian Foreign Affairs provided little comment on Lindhout’s release.

“We are aware of the reports,” said Foreign Affairs press secretary Natalie Sarafian on Wednesday. “We will not comment or release any information which may endanger the safety of a Canadian or other citizen.”

Bob Mills, who was Red Deer MP at the time Lindhout was abducted, said this is an “early Christmas present” for the family and he couldn’t be happier for them.

A couple of weeks ago, Mills and Red Deer MP Earl Dreeshen met with Lindhout’s parents and several others. The family asked for the meeting because they were growing anxious about their daughter’s ordeal.

The family was assured Ottawa was doing everything it could to seek the young woman’s release from a bunch of “thugs,” Mills said.

He said Canadian authorities were working on the case, mostly from Kenya.

Dreeshen was on a plane in the Arctic and couldn’t be reached for comment on Wednesday.

News of her release was welcomed by Central Albertans and others from around the world.

Dave MacLean, principal of Red Deer’s Hunting Hills High School where Lindhout took some of her schooling, told the Advocate that students and staff are thrilled by the news.

“We’re pleased to hear that she is finally coming home,” he said.

Friends and journalists who knew her are also confident Lindhout will overcome this huge trial.

Jeremy Kroeker of Calgary met Lindhout in Damascus, Syria, where she was waiting to get her visa to go to Iraq. The two kept in touch for six months before her abduction.

“She was, and remains I imagine, the most optimistic person that I know,” Kroeker told the Advocate. “She has obviously gone through 15 months of very trying circumstances and I hope the spark that she had remains, and I believe it will.”

Eva Manasieva-Singh, a correspondent with the Iranian broadcaster Press TV, never met Lindhout in person but was in touch with her former colleague through the Internet. Manasieva-Singh works from Vienna, Austria, while Lindhout worked in Baghdad.

“She’s got a lot of guts,” Manasieva-Singh told the Advocate. “She’s been to Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa and she loves her job. Those journalists are very precious and very valuable.”

Lindhout quit Press TV earlier in 2008 and began pursuing freelance work, including with the Advocate.

She had arrived in Somalia only a few days before she was kidnapped.

“When I heard the news (on Wednesday), I was so emotional and almost started crying,” Manasieva-Singh said.

Red Deer Advocate managing editor John Stewart said the staff is extremely relieved that Lindhout and Brennan are free.

“Beyond the obvious concern for fellow journalists who are working in danger zones, Advocate staff have been particularly anxious about the fate of Amanda because of her roots in Central Alberta and because of the tremendous work she did for us,” Stewart said.

Lindhout’s stories began appearing weekly in the Advocate in March 2008 and by her last one in August of that year, she had a large following.

“Her column gave our readers a remarkable window into some of the most dangerous places on Earth,” Stewart said. “She told stories of destruction and despair with rare compassion and courage. That resonated with our readers, who have never stopped expressing their concern for her.”

Barbara Schiavulli, an Italian who had worked with Lindhout in Iraq, was “really happy and moved” to hear the Canadian had been freed.

“It will take time to recover from this experience,” Schiavulli said via e-mail to the Advocate. “But she was a strong girl, and no matter how weak and afraid (she may) be now, I’m sure she will manage to find and to become the young woman she has always wanted to be.”

Arnold Amber, president of the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression organization, said this has been the longest period of captivity for a Canadian journalist.

“It’s wonderful to hear the long ordeal is over,” he said.

Mary Agnes Welch, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, questions what should be done federally to help Canadian journalists overseas.

“We have a policy of not paying ransoms, which is a policy that has merit. But I think as journalists we need to start thinking seriously about what kinds of actions we want our governments to take, and our news outlets, and our fellow colleagues when this kind of thing happens — because I don’t think this is going to end.”

ltester@bprda.wpengine.com and sobrien@bprda.wpengine.com

— With files from The Canadian Press.

• Related Advocate blog: Lindhout release has Advocate newsroom hopping

• Click here to watch CTV interview with Amanda Lindhout



A chronology of events in the 15-month captivity of Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout:

Aug 23, 2008: Lindhout is abducted along with Australian freelance photographer Nigel Brennan, Somali guide and reporter Abdifatah Mohammed Elmi and two Somali drivers. The group was en route to a site 20 kilometres south of Mogadishu to cover a story on war refugees.

Aug 26: Media freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders says Lindhout and her fellow abductees have not been harmed and are being kept in acceptable conditions.

Sept. 3: Media reports emerge that government officials have made contact with the kidnappers and that negotiations to secure the release of the prisoners have begun.

Sept 8: Reporters without Borders says abductors are demanding a US$2.5 million ransom.

Sept. 16 Arab television network Al Jazeera airs interview with Lindhout, Brennan and their captors, during which the abductors accuse the Canadian and Australian governments of taking part in the destruction of Somalia. The two journalists were shown surrounded by armed militants.

Oct. 13 Kidnappers reportedly tell an Iranian news correspondent that Lindhout and Brennan will be killed if ransom is not paid within 15 days.

Jan. 16, 2009: National Union of Somlai Journalists says Elmi and two Somali drivers are released. Somalis were said to have been held separately from Brennan and Lindhout.

May 25: Agence-France Presse reports that Lindhout phoned the news agency and begged the Canadian government to secure her release. Lindhout described her situation as “dire,” saying she was in failing health and did not receive enough food or drink clean water.

June 10: CTV reports receiving a call from Lindhout, during which she says she is being held in chains in a windowless room. Lindhout once again appeals for government intervention.

June 12: Reporters without Borders issues a statement saying it is unable to confirm rumours that Brennan and Lindhout escaped their abductors in February, but were recaptured in a nearby mosque.

July 24: Australian media reports Nigel Brennan’s mother appealed directly to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to secure her son’s release.

Aug. 22: Lindhout and Brennan families issue a joint statement to mark one year since the kidnapping. They say they are working tirelessly to free the journalists, adding they are receiving “little outside support.” They describe the past year as a “horrendous ordeal.”

Nov. 25: Lindhout and Brennan are freed in Mogadishu.

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