In an east African country rocked by violence and instability, a young, kidnapped Central Alberta woman has languished for nearly 365 days.
Sunday marks one year since freelance journalist Amanda Lindhout, 28, of Sylvan Lake, and Australian photographer Nigel Brennan, 38, were abducted at gunpoint near Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, as they worked on a news story about a refugee camp. Three Somalian natives travelling with the pair were released 146 days after also being abducted.
A ransom of $2.5 million was sought.
What has happened since then with Lindhout and Brennan has been mired in secrecy.
The occasional pleas for help from the pair through various media have often appeared staged.
Lindhout arrived in Somalia only a few days before she was kidnapped. She was experienced in covering stories in dangerous places, including Iraq, where she was just prior to Somalia.
Red Deer Advocate managing editor John Stewart never met Lindhout in person, but knew she was determined. He normally asks prospective freelancers to provide an extensive list of story ideas and a number of samples of their writing. Unlike many would-be writers, she never hesitated.
“She was beyond keen,” Stewart said. She was already overseas when she first phoned Stewart.
Her 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.
“When she had difficulty delivering columns, we’d certainly hear from readers who wanted to know what happened,” Stewart said. “As time went by, the Internet readership was really strong and growing all the time. She was telling stories about people and circumstances that really resonated.”
Lindhout wrote of several close calls in Iraq. During a trip to Baghdad’s Sadr City district, Lindhout and others she was travelling with came under intense gunfire.
Iraqis warned her of the possibility of being kidnapped for money, simply because she was a foreigner.
Eric Rajah travels regularly to Africa for humanitarian work through A Better World, the Lacombe charity he co-founded. When he travels with volunteers to a volatile spot, like the Darfur region of Sudan, he makes sure they are inconspicuous.
“We don’t take any security with us, we’re very low key,” Rajah said.
In Afghanistan, he has established solid local contacts who give him good advice. It’s the same in Sudan.
Foreign women, like the young and attractive Lindhout, “definitely” get noticed in Africa, Rajah said.
During a recent trip to Sudan, he didn’t let one woman go on her own to buy a pop.
“People often remind me of (Lindhout),” said Rajah. “The fact that she is in Somalia, there are a whole bunch of concerns. Cultural issues can be big.”
Brennan’s family recently broke a long silence to criticize the Australian government for not doing more to secure their son’s release.
His mother even had a meeting with the Australian prime minister about her son’s plight.
Lindhout’s father, Jon, lives in Sylvan Lake while her mother Lorinda Stewart lives in B.C.
The family has not spoken out, keeping to Canada Foreign Affairs advice that doing so could jeopardize her safety. Friends have declined interviews at the family’s urging.
Bob Mills, Red Deer MP at the time Lindhout disappeared, taught Lindhout’s parents when he was a high school biology teacher in Red Deer.
“I think the parents and myself are pretty happy with what (the Canadian government) is doing,” Mills said. “The more publicity you give, the more valuable that person becomes. You can ask for a higher ransom.”
As soon as governments start paying ransoms, then every Canadian citizen is potentially a target, he added.
He feels for the family when rumours of Lindhout being abused by her captors surface.
Mills is convinced the government is “doing a lot” for Lindhout’s release.
The RCMP are heavily involved, he added.
“It’s horrible when you have a failed state and you have a bunch of warlords running things,” Mills said. “There’s no government to government (dealings). There’s no pressure from neighbouring governments because there is no government (in Somalia).”
Red Deer MP Earl Dreeshen is in regular touch with the family and Foreign Affairs.
“I think Foreign Affairs is constantly working and monitoring the situation and putting all of their efforts into it,” he said. “The situation she is in is uppermost in our minds.”
Dreeshen said it’s important to remember that the Somalia situation is much different from at least two other high-profile cases.
Canadian United Nations envoy Robert Fowler was kidnapped in western Africa and released four months later, in April, after the Canadian government helped secure his release. Earlier this month, former U.S. President Bill Clinton met with North Korea’s leader, who then pardoned two imprisoned American journalists.
Public sentiment has been growing that the government hasn’t been doing enough and particularly after a woman claiming she is Lindhout pleaded for help through two television stations in Canada, once in June and then again earlier this month.
“I’m in a desperate situation, I’m being kept in a dark, windowless room in chains, without any clean drinking water and little or no food. I’ve been very sick for months without any medicine,” she told CTV News.
She said she feared dying in captivity unless the Canadian government helped her family to pay her ransom.
Several thousand people have joined various Facebook groups in allegiance to Lindhout. Opinions abound on what should be done to get the two freelancers home.
Hussein Warsame, a Somali who is an associate professor with the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, said he thinks the groups holding Lindhout are in Mogadishu and the clan they are from is known by the government.
He would like the Canadian government to encourage the Somali government to send government members from the same clan to negotiate Lindhout’s release.
Warsame said there is no shame in the Canadian government upgrading its engagement with the Somalian government and especially the prime minister.
“(The government) is weak, but it is legit,” he said.
Daniel Clayton, chief executive officer of Diligence Ltd., a Calgary risk management company specializing in kidnapping and ransom consulting, has harsher words for Ottawa.
“Frankly, the lack of federal government intervention is disgusting,” said Clayton, who met Lindhout a few years ago in Iraq.
He said the fact the Lindhout family has been told to say nothing by Canadian Foreign Affairs doesn’t hold water.
“They say they don’t want to compromise the situation,” Clayton said. “From what I can see, there’s no information being compromised.”
According to his information, the kidnappers reduced Lindhout’s ransom to $1 million.
“We are now being informed that as little as $100,000 to $250,000 could release Amanda!” Clayton said.
Mohamed Hashi Hussein, a Somali journalist in Mogadishu, said in an e-mail to the Advocate said that many journalists in his country are puzzled by the apparent lack of attention by the Canadian government.
“We hear many things about her but to find out what is happening is difficult for us in our nation,” he said.
Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Emma Welford said that Canadian authorities continue to pursue all appropriate channels to seek further information about Lindhout’s welfare and to assist the family in securing her safe release as well as that of Brennan.
“We will not comment or release any information that may compromise these efforts and jeopardize the safety of a Canadian or other citizen,” Welford said. “Good judgment and caution are called for in reporting on a situation where lives may be at risk.”
Four aid workers and two pilots were released last week after being held captive in Somalia for nine months.