CALGARY—Worsening violence in Somalia has heightened concerns for the safety of Alberta journalist Amanda Lindhout and a colleague who were kidnapped for ransom last August.
According to news reports, increased fighting in and around Mogadishu means negotiations to free Lindhout and Australian Nigel Brennan have ground to a halt.
The pair is reportedly being moved from house to house in an effort to stay ahead of the fighting, which has encroached on the part of the city in which they are said to be held.
Lindhout and Brennan, a photographer, were among several people kidnapped near Mogadishu on Aug. 23, 2008. The other abductees, a Somali journalist and two drivers, have been released.
Lindhout was last heard from on May 24, when she told the Agence France-Presse news agency in a phone interview that she had been held hostage for nine months and was in a “very dire and very serious” situation.
“Unless my government, the people of Canada, all my family and friends can get $1 million, I will die here, okay. That is certain,” she said.
Brennan also spoke, saying he had been shackled for four months and that his “health is extremely poor and deteriorating rapidly due to extreme fever.”
AFP said the pair seemed to be reading from a prepared script. When asked for more details about her health, Lindhout said: “I cannot answer any question that you have. What I just said, that’s all I can say.”
Julie Payne, manager of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), says the AFP interview at least shows that Lindhout and Brennan are still alive.
“It’s awful that it’s been nine months, but on the other hand, I think the fact that they’ve lived this long is perhaps a very strong indication that that’s a reason for hope.”
Foreign Affairs, which declined to comment, has been working to secure Lindhout’s release. Payne says the instability of the Somali government has likely inhibited negotiations.
“It’s an extremely lawless country, and there’s not even a stable government with which the Canadian government can work. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons that it’s been so drawn out.”
Payne added that the government “is in touch with Amanda’s family and I’ve heard that Amanda’s family trusts that the Canadian government is doing everything in their power to free her.”
Battles between radical Islamist militia groups Hisbul-Islam and al-Shabab in Mogadishu have displaced more than 60,000 civilians since 7 May, causing one of the worst humanitarian crises Africa has ever seen, Oxfam said on Tuesday.
Pro-government forces last week launched a counter-offensive against the insurgents, who control much of southern and central Somalia.
CFAJ, along with the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ), has called for the release of Brennan and Lindhout. NUSOJ reported an “appallingly brutal” wave of violence against Somali journalists in 2008, particularly in the southern regions of the country.
Payne says Somalia “is one of the most dangerous places on Earth to be working as a journalist, and I think that this goes for foreign journalists and local journalists. We’ve been in touch with local journalists who have had to flee.”
Lindhout, who was working on a freelance project in Somalia, has reported as well from Iraq and Afghanistan—countries that are also known to be perilous for reporters.
Canadian journalist Khadija Abdul Qahaar, formerly known as Beverly Giesbrecht, was kidnapped by the Taliban last November. Today, she remains held for ransom somewhere in Pakistan. In a March 20 video, Qahaar said she believed she would be killed by the end of the month.
“She was obviously under a great deal of stress and extremely worried for her safety, and believed that the kidnappers would kill her if the government didn’t pay the ransom. We have not heard anything since,” says Payne.
In Canada, Lindhout’s friends and colleagues are trying to raise awareness and keep her case in the spotlight through Facebook pages, YouTube videos, and a website.
—Additional reporting by Jasper Seren