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Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Canadian journalist's year in hell

Friends and family despair while Canadian government stays mum on kidnapping in Somalia

As anniversaries go, it's a bleak one – and only Amanda Lindhout herself truly knows how bleak.

It was one year ago today that the Alberta-bred journalist and two colleagues were kidnapped at gunpoint in Somalia, plucked from a road near Mogadishu.

Since then, little has been seen or heard of the 28-year-old Sylvan Lake native, aside from a mute video of her and Australian reporter Nigel Brennan kneeling before their masked and armed captors aired on Al-Jazeera television weeks after they disappeared, and a few scattered, horrifying calls to media outlets by a distraught woman claiming to be Amanda Lindhout in recent months in which she essentially pleads with the Canadian government to save her life.

'I don't know how much longer I can bear this'
AMANDA LINDHOUT, Canadian journalist being held captive in Somalia

The last was made to Omni TV three weeks ago: "I don't want to die here and I'm afraid I'll die in captivity if I don't get help soon," she sobbed, saying she was kept in shackles in a windowless room and suffering from fever, dysentery and an abscessed tooth. "I don't know how much longer I can bear this."

Just days before, the Somali news site furthered long-circulating rumours of rape by reporting that Lindhout had given birth to a baby boy and was "very contented with her marriage relationship with one of her captors."

It has also been reported that Lindhout has escaped at least twice, only to be recaptured.

She and Brennan are being held for a ransom initially set at $2.5 million (U.S.), but reportedly reduced to several other sums since. One of the journalists captured with her, a Somali, was released in January.

Lindhout's father, John, and her mother, Lorinda Stewart, have been silent, likely for fear of upsetting fragile negotiations. But on Friday, they offered a statement with the Brennan family through Reporters Without Borders.

"Together, the two families continue to work tirelessly to secure Nigel's and Amanda's safe release," it read.

"With little outside support, the families, who have been united as one throughout this horrendous ordeal, continue to do everything and anything to gain the earliest possible release for their loved ones Amanda and Nigel. Our thoughts and all our love are with Amanda and Nigel today, just as they have been for the past 365 days, and just as they will be until they are safely home with us."

If the government has made any progress towards bringing Lindhout home, it's keeping mum.

Enquiries are greeted with variations of the terse response given all year that, "Canadian authorities continue to pursue all appropriate channels to seek further information about Miss Lindhout's welfare" and will not share information that might "compromise these efforts and jeopardize the safety of a Canadian or other citizen."

Foreign Affairs spokesman Rodney Moore acknowledged this is "roughly what has been said before. ... Nevertheless, that's where we are on this and we remain there."

Rightly or wrongly, a perception of inaction on Lindhout and Brennan's case is growing – especially in cyberspace, where a Google search of "Free Amanda Lindhout" now yields more than 10,000 returns.

It's sufficient, in any case, that a Calgary-based risk-management firm, Diligence Ltd. – one of whose specialties is "kidnapping and ransom support" – was moved on Friday to hand the Department of Foreign Affairs its own extensive intelligence file on the kidnapping.

"If they decide to act on it, at least they've got some information. If they don't, then at least we tried to help. Somebody's got to do something, right? If we don't do anything, who is?" said Diligence CEO Daniel Clayton, who met Lindhout in Iraq when they were working there, and has quietly taken up her cause even though she's not a client.

"We have the location of where she is. We have a cellphone number for the group that's actually holding her. We have a lot of credible intelligence. Enough to mount a rescue if the government was so inclined."

Part of Lindhout's problem, he said, is that she's a freelancer who willingly went into a war-ravaged country where she was flatly advised by her government not to go and has neither the might nor the money of a huge corporation nor "kidnap and ransom insurance" to support her. What would be best for her situation now, he suggested, is a "high-profile visit from a Canadian diplomat, somebody like Peter MacKay or even (retired) general Rick Hillier. Government to government."

Brennan's mother recently cornered Australian Prime Minister Paul Rudd to demand he do something to free her son. But until Friday's statement, Lindhout's family had been even more silent than Foreign Affairs. Even friends had a hard time finding anything out.

"I talked to her dad on one occasion four months ago. He sounded a little bit hopeful that things were going to go down, but he couldn't tell me anything at the time," recalled Lindhout's former travelling companion, Taron Hall, reached in Vancouver. "I was trying to pry a little bit more out of him and he said, for her safety, he couldn't say anything."

Reporters Without Borders had little to add to the families' statement, but Canadian vice-president Dennis Trudeau did remark it was "strange" that this kidnapping had taken so long to resolve.

"In the past, kidnappings and hostage takings in Somalia have not gone on this long, and we don't really understand why it's gone on so long," he said, urging the government to do everything it could "to make it all work out."

At the same time, Canadian Association of Journalists president Mary Agnes Welch was preparing "a diplomatically worded angry letter" to Prime Minister Stephen Harper "just to ask him again to take a personal interest in this case." All Lindhout and Brennan's journalistic colleagues would like to see, she said, is "tangible evidence" that there's been some forward momentum.

"We have no idea if they're making progress, if they know where she is – we just have no idea if anything has really changed in the last year," said Welch from Winnipeg. "We would never want the government to shoot its mouth off and put her in even more danger, but we would like some assurance that this is at least on their radar and that some progress is being made."

Strong words and letters will be no comfort to Lindhout and Brennan until they yield results. The two have both reportedly become grievously ill after a year of bad water, little food and daily mistreatment, and Lindhout's most recent pleas – "My government must have some duty to help me," she told Omni TV – suggest they feel as though they've been forgotten by their own nations.

It's a helpless place to be, said James Loney, a Toronto resident who was kidnapped in Baghdad in 2005 and held for four months while serving with Christian Peacemaker Teams .

"I remember the first day, I thought I couldn't stand this for 24 hours and they'd better let us go immediately," Loney said. "And then, after that first day, I thought `Oh my god, I can't imagine doing this for another day.' And then it was a week. And then I thought `I can't imagine doing this for another week.' And then it was a month and I couldn't imagine doing it for a month.

"And I remember the 100th day was kind of a milestone. I just thought a lot that morning of 100 days and how did this happen that it was 100 days, and part of me was not exactly proud, but surprised and astonished that I'd got through 100 days somehow ...

"If Amanda goes to a year, I suspect for her it will be a grim and desperate anniversary."


  1. I just learned of Amanda's plight today...One whole year later. It broke my heart to read about her plight... I am extremely upset that I never heard about this during the past year until today!

    The Canadian government needs to take action and show leadership on this. I hope they've got a team assembled working 24/7 on this, but I somehow doubt that.

    Amanda must come home.

  2. One of the reasons Amanda and Nigel were in Somalia is likely the fact that major news organizations have no budget or true intention to cover much of the atrocities going on outside Canada. This is not unrelated to profound changes in the press, and governmental cuts in news and media funding. Can we blame sensitive citizens to try and see, in this time of hyper-communication tools, what is endemically un-shown?

    One would hope the media, who increasingly depend on freelancers, realize some form of ethical responsibility; and the government as well, if a least in the way our country has provided the education, security and caring that has infused someone like Lindhout to seek, learn, show and - hopefully - try to help.

    One would only hope that citizens who gather news from growing numbers of independent sources, some of them good, most caring, would care to support any effort to show and tell.

    Indifference to their tragic situation from our perspective of western comfort is unacceptable; refusing to try to help is denying the fundamental mandate of information in the press – as imperfect as it might sometimes be carried out - and negating the responsibility of a government towards its citizens.

    One can only hope, but not rely on, the fact the Australian, Canadian governments, and those country’s media are somehow intensely working to free these hostages. If not, this is a sad day indeed.

    Luc Bourgeois

  3. can you give us a source for this article? thanks

  4. In case anyone else feels the urge, here's the contact info for Lawrence Cannon, the Canadian Minister of Forign Affairs.

    Telephone (613)992-5516
    Fax (613)992-6802
    Web Site

  5. we hope amanda free

    Alessandro , from Italy



  6. I also only found out after reading an article on the french prisoner who escaped from his captors. I am shocked that it has been a year. I am not sure whether a media circus would result in an increase in ransom, but i know of no other way to put pressure on the respective governments to act. With all our modern technologies it is difficult to accept that Amanda has been held prisoner for a year. I hope something is done soon to free/release her. In fact i am praying for it.

  7. This must be so embarrassing for The Canadian Government, and the australian. For God sake DO something!!!

  8. I have just returned from Somalia and firmly believe a ransom of under a million dollars could free Amanda Lindhout. Locals who know also told me she was still being held in Mogadishu. And that she has NOT given birth to a child. As a fellow journalist I feel for every journalist that has been kidnapped or worse. Having said that, it is my firm belief that Western journalists, however experienced, are poor judges of people and situations in countries like Iraq,Afghanistan and Somalia.

  9. how about us doing something instead of waiting for some one else?? better then watching tv..wait the shows back on

  10. We should all get a behind the scenes fundraising campaign going..

  11. Start a fundraising campaign to nuke Somalia and eliminate those pesky crooks.


  13. 2, 144 people have signed on the petition web site... thats awesome...:)