“The world called out to me from a very young age. The world as I knew it, was simply images from National Geographic magazines.”
These are the words of Amanda Lindhout from Red Deer, Alberta. She was held captive for 15 months by a jihadist group in Somalia. She came from a low-income family with a single mom who worked as a cashier at a grocery store and has two brothers. Lack of resources restricted her family to travel and see places. This inclined her to see the world through books. She had big dreams to explore the world and experience different cultures.
After graduating high school, she never thought of going to University; instead, worked three-part time jobs and saved paychecks and tips to travel to Venezuela for six weeks. This was a pattern which continued for seven years, where she explored countries considered “off limits” such as the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. While experiencing the culture and sharing the same way of day to day life as the natives, she realized that the headlines were worse than the actual reality. During her excursion in Africa, she came across an Australian photographer, Nigel, who shared his stories with the world through his camera. This inspired Amanda and guided her to another path of life.
After settling back home in Alberta, she enrolled herself in a journalism program and had the urge to share the stories of people who didn’t have a voice for themselves. Post graduation, she got a job in Baghdad as a war reporter covering the atrocities occurring in the country. For the first time, she felt that what she did mattered and would bring about change. During her time in Baghdad, she couldn’t help but notice numerous news stories from Somalia where the Civil war had now been stretched for three decades since its commencement.
In 2008, she initiated a conversation with Nigel that would see them going to Somalia and covering the country’s ongoing events. A few weeks later, she found herself at Mogadishu, which is the capital city of Somalia. Nigel joined her the following week. The drive from the airport to the hotel was unnerving for her, as she witnessed pick-up trucks filled with teenage boys holding AK47s on the road. She wasn’t very afraid as she had previously lived in war zones. “In your twenties, you never think you’ll be the one that something bad happens to.” expresses Amanda as she recalls her memories of her initial days in Somalia.
Nigel arrived in Mogadishu and they had planned a visit to a camp to record the narrative of the commoners. With a translator, cameraman and a driver, they wasted no time getting on the road. Mid-journey, they noticed a car parked on the road, and as they halted their own vehicle, a dozen fearsome men emerged from the car with guns. The men spread out around them and pointed guns from all directions. They opened the doors, and in no time Amanda found herself on the ground face down with a gun to her head. The men drove them for about an hour off-road through the desert while nobody uttered a word. Amanda noticed that the man pointing the gun at her in the car was a teenager, whom she discovered later, was named Ismail and had recently celebrated his 14th birthday.
They arrived at an abandoned house where Nigel and Amanda were separated but had rooms sharing the same wall. The dark room without electricity felt eerie and suffocating. A man in his early thirties introduced himself as Adam, the group leader; he wore round glasses and a striped polo shirt, holding a notebook and pen. He inquired about Amanda’s family’s contact details to which she gave her father’s phone number as she didn’t want to alarm her mother. Her father did not answer the phone, but Adam left a threatening voicemail demanding 1.5 million in ransom for Amanda or else his daughter won’t see the light of day. The same call went to Nigel’s family in Australia.
“Canada does not - and will not - pay ransom to terrorists, directly or indirectly.” Stated clearly by Justin Trudeau in 2016’s statement, sharing the same thoughts as his father did in 1970. The law stands the same in Australia, where the government doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. It was a worrisome state for Amanda as she knew that it was impossible for her family to pay the ransom because her mother baked bread for a living and her father survived on disability cheques. “Those first few days in captivity were the longest days of my life,” affirms Amanda. Her days being captive turned into weeks and then months. They moved to several houses during that time and thoughts of killing herself were always on Amanda’s mind.
After two months in captivity, Adam arrived at the house once again. A few men barged into Amanda’s room and demanded her to follow them outside to the courtyard. She was on her knees along with Nigel; a camera pointed at them, and Adam asked them to look into the camera and beg for their life. They had to follow the script he provided, and the tape was later sold to a Middle Eastern news channel. After shooting the video, Nigel and Amanda were separated and guided to their rooms. She had never felt more alone in her life as there was no possibility of communicating with anyone outside their prison. She was aware of her mental state and knew if circumstances were the same for a long time, she would not be able to keep herself sane. So, she woke up every morning and paced her room and thought of escaping. She trained her mind to think she was taking a stroll in Vancouver with the gentle cold breeze hitting her. Nigel and Amanda whispered an escape plan to each other, through the wall.
Over the week they had begun damaging the window grill in the toilet and one day managed to escape the facility. They ran to a nearby mosque, where they found Somalian men who simply glared at them but didn’t comprehend what they were saying. In no time, Adam and his men reached the mosque and started dragging them out. There was a Somalian lady in the mosque who tried to help them but didn’t succeed. She did however, leave a strong impact on Amanda as she represented to her the best of humankind at a moment when she felt completely lost.
Following her failed escape, she was taken to a new house the same day. As she named all the 13 houses, this one was called ‘The Dark House’ as the room was pitch black because the window was covered with garbage bags which restricted even a single ray of sunlight from entering. They tied her with a thick chain wrapped around her ankles for ten straight months. She couldn’t sit up but was forced to lay on her side as a result, all day. There were new rules imposed such as no talking, using the toilet five times a day for three minutes at a time. Food was provided to her in small quantities.
Her entire day came down to just listening to footsteps outside the dark room. They were addressed by their new names Noah and Amina. She realized the importance of simple things such as looking at the sky and the sun. A lot went in her head during those days, especially feelings of regret, anger, guilt, bitterness, injustice and especially hopelessness. However, there was always a voice which affirmed, ‘this too shall pass’ which kept her going. One day, when she was being hurt by one of the kidnappers, she realized that people who hurt her were also suffering themselves. “They were not innocent for sure, as they had a choice” expressed Amanda. For her own self, she started looking for ways to survive. She started digging the toolbox which each one of us has; that inspires us, and she discovered positive self-talk. She had always been a spiritual seeker and this was her time to discover herself.
A year had passed by, the kidnappers were getting frustrated, they called Amanda’s mother and threatened her; “If you want to play games, we shall too.” They tied Amanda and over the course of the next three days, hurt her, until she felt as like she was about to die. The kidnappers brought a phone and she was ordered to talk to her mom, but for the first minute, she couldn’t speak and cried out “Mummy Mummy.” When she was left in the room, she thought of ending her life with the razor they had provided her to remove body hair. Right before she caught the razor, something caught her eye, she glared at the little light coming from under the door and saw a little insect had flown in, it was a messenger in kind for Amanda. She had the opportunity to learn the power of the moment. In an instant, the desire to kill herself left her mind. The determination to survive no matter what filled her. Ever since, she reflects on her days in the Dark House and forces herself to be grateful for something every day, little things, such as the birds singing.
On one fortunate night, Amanda and Nigel were summoned to leave their rooms and sit in the car, from where they were moved to Kenya through the desert, where they were reunited with their families. 460 days after being a captive, Nigel and Amanda were released. The ransom was crowd-funded, paid by strangers across Canada and Australia. For the first time in 460 days, she saw her face in the mirror in the hospital and couldn’t recognize herself; she had seven missing teeth as a result of violence and torture.
The next and the most difficult chapter had started for Amanda, the time for recovery. She had become a news story, she felt a sense of shame and guilt. She was diagnosed with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She was flooded with symptoms such as violent flashbacks, nightmares, aching ankles and loneliness. She didn’t have a community who could understand her pain, she saw 21 different psychologists, but, no one could really comprehend the magnitude of what had happened to her. She was afraid to admit that she was diagnosed with PTSD.
However, a new psychologist came into her life and she saw drastic changes and a ray of hope. The psychologist asked her to reflect her time in Somalia and think of the gifts she received in Somalia. Initially, she frowned upon this, but later, realized that the purpose of life is to grow from experiences and that there were many gifts she received in Somalia especially the gift of hope that the lady in the Mosque gave her.
On her 34th birthday, she received a call and was informed that her kidnapper Adam was arrested in Ottawa. She was unable to respond and collapsed, hit by flashbacks. Later that year in October, she had the chance to face Adam in a courtroom and she testified against him along with Nigel, who flew from in from Australia for the trial. Adam was sentenced to 15 years in prison. She thinks that there is a deeper purpose when she tells her story; it heals her every time.
Since then, life has changed for Amanda positively. She wrote a book ‘A House in the Sky: A Memoir’ and travels across the world talking about her experience dealing with PTSD and how she is overcoming it every day. Annapurna Pictures bought the rights to ‘A House in the Sky’ and plans to share Amanda’s story with Rooney Mara portraying Amanda. On the other side of the world, Nigel works for an Australian insurance company, specifically dealing in ransom insurance.
Amanda’s story continues to be an inspiration to the people she meets and works with; it helps us realize the magnitude of how important it is to be grateful and positive for each new day. ‘Life doesn’t happen to you; it happens for you.’