After about a year of being starved, beaten and sexually brutalized, Amanda Lindhout decided it was time to kill herself.
The Alberta woman, taken hostage in Somalia in August 2008, says she reached her breaking point after spending three days trussed up like an animal, her hands and feet pulled so tightly behind her back that she could barely breathe.
When her captors did untie her, they told her it was only a reprieve. They promised to use the same torture technique on her again each day until they got their ransom money.
Left alone, Lindhout resolved that she was better off dead. She would take a rusty razor to her wrists.
But as she held the blade in her hand, a small, brown bird flew in the doorway of the room where she was being held. It hopped on the dirty floor, looked at her, and flew away. It was the first bird she’d seen since shortly after she was taken.
“I’d always believed in signs … and now, when it most mattered, I’d had one,” she writes. “I would live and go home. It didn’t matter what came next or what I had to endure. I would make it through.”
In an advance edition of a book, which is set for release next month, the 32-year-old details the brutal 15 months she spent in captivity along with Australian photographer Nigel Brennan.
Titled “A House in the Sky,” the book is co-authored by Sara Corbett, a contributing writer with the New York Times Magazine.
The book reveals how Lindhout and Brennan’s families eventually gave up on the Canadian and Australian governments and co-ordinated the pair’s release themselves.
The final price for their lives: $1.2 million.
About $600,000 went to the kidnappers as ransom. They’d originally asked for $3 million. The remaining money was spent on other costs, including a $2,000 per day fee for a private hostage negotiator.
The two families split the bill evenly. While Brennan’s family was more well off, Lindhout’s parents came up with their half with the help of donations.
Lindhout says both the Canadian and Australian governments made the kidnappers an offer of $250,000. It was categorized as “expense” money to maintain official policies of not paying ransoms.
It was rejected.
Ottawa officials also tried to enlist the help of people in the Somali government, she writes, but its leadership was in constant chaos.
Lindhout doesn’t condemn the federal government for failing to save her, but she does write about countries around the world that quietly pay ransoms, “strike diplomatic deals or send in armed commandos” for their citizens.
“Many, including the Canadian and U.S. governments, try to provide family support while also maintaining a hard line about further fuelling terrorism and hostage-taking through ransom payments … Still, try telling that to a mother, or a father, or a husband or wife caught in the powerless agony of standing by,” the book reads.
Lindhout admits she was naive and inexperienced, travelling to a dangerous country for the thrill of adventure. As a Calgary cocktail waitress, she had saved her tips for backpacking trips around the world before turning to freelance journalism to further fund her travels.
She had earlier travelled on her own to Afghanistan and sold a story to her hometown newspaper, the Red Deer Advocate, and some photos to an Afghanistan magazine. She thought her career was advancing when she landed a job in Baghdad for Press TV, the English division of Iran’s state broadcaster, but she says she quickly felt she was “part of a propaganda machine.”
She decided to take a chance on heading to Somalia. “The reasons to do it seemed straightforward. Somalia was a mess. There were stories there—a raging war, an impending famine, religious extremists and a culture that had been largely shut out of sight.”
She knew it was dangerous but hoped to find a story that would launch her career.
She spoke on the phone with Brennan, a former boyfriend she’d met on a previous trip to Ethiopia, and blurted out an invitation for him to join her and take photos while she did TV news. He agreed.
They had only been in Somalia a few days when they got into a car with a hired fixer, driver, and security guards and headed for a camp of displaced people outside the capital city of Mogadishu.
On the way, armed men stopped and dragged them from the vehicle.
Lindhout says she later learned the group had been watching their hotel and were actually targeting two men also staying there—a writer and photographer working for National Geographic. The kidnappers were surprised to end up with a woman, she says.
While Lindhout and Brennan were kidnapped together, they had different experiences in captivity. Brennan was kept in a room with windows, furniture and books to read, but Lindhout was holed up in a dark room with rats. It was simple: he was a man; she was a woman.
They both told their captors they wanted to convert to Islam. They recited the Qur’an and prayed five times each day, hoping it would provide them some protection.
Back in Canada, Lindhout’s family feared she was being sexually assaulted, but Canadian officials assured them Muslims were unlikely to do such a thing. She says one captor, however, routinely snuck into her room and forced himself on her.
Things got worse, she says, when she and Brennan tried to escape in early 2009.
The pair used a nail clipper to dig bricks and metal bars out of a bathroom window, then crawled out and ran to a nearby mosque. When some of the gun-toting kidnappers caught up with them, no one in the crowd would help—except one older woman.
She clung to Lindhout’s arms then threw herself onto Lindhout’s body as the men dragged their hostage out of the building. Lindhout says she later heard a gunshot echo from inside the mosque, though she says she never learned the fate of her helper.
The kidnappers blamed Lindhout for the escape, even though it had been Brennan’s idea. The next day, in a prayer room, they put a sheet over her head, stripped down her clothes and took turns violating her body.
In November 2009, Lindhout was told she and Brennan were being sold to a more violent, rival group. As they were being passed over to strangers, Lindhout clung to a car door and had to be pulled away, screaming.
A few minutes later she realized they were actually being rescued. A ransom had been paid.
Lindhout was taken to a hospital in Kenya. She had broken teeth, ribs that constantly ached from being kicked, and a skin fungus that had spread across her face.
Her hair had been falling out in clumps. She was extremely malnourished and had trouble walking because her feet had been in shackles for so long.
She returned to Canada after about a week in hospital. Her recovery included a specialized treatment program to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and repeated visits with therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, nutritionists, acupuncturists, and meditation guides.
What kept her going for 459 days?
Lindhout writes she got through the most painful times by constructing, in her mind, a house in the sky, where she got to eat whatever she wanted and embraced her friends and family.
She made a promise to herself that, if she were ever freed, she would find a way to honour the woman who tried to save her at the mosque. In 2010, she founded the non-profit Global Enrichment Foundation to help support education for women and girls in Somalia and Kenya.
Now living in Canmore, Alta., Lindhout says she still thinks about her kidnappers. She tries not to hate them and understands they are products of a violent environment and an unending war.
“Forgiving is not an easy thing to do. Some days it’s no more than a distant point on the horizon. I look toward it. I point my feet in its direction. Some days I get there and other days I don’t.”
“More than anything else, it’s what has helped me move forward with my life.”
With files from The Canadian Press