Mogadishu (HAN) April 8, 2014- By. Patricia Nicol, Metro Books Editor – Starved in Somalia, raped in Somalia, tortured in Somalia... but Amanda Lindhout’s book about her kidnap ordeal A House In The Sky is no misery memoir. She explains why. It was important for me to find a dignified voice,’ says Amanda Lindhout. ‘That was our goal when writing those dark, difficult, personal scenes about abuse and torture.’
Lindhout’s powerful, riveting memoir, A House In The Sky: A Memoir Of A Kidnapping That Changed Everything, is full of potential indignities.
In the course of the 460 days she was held captive in war-torn Somalia, she was kept in squalid conditions, semi-starved, repeatedly raped and tortured.
Yet she emerges from the story with grace. This is no misery memoir but a hopeful, inspiring page-turner that finds resilience and redemption in a terrible misadventure.
One of the questions the book – co-written with American journalist Sara Corbett – sets out to explain is what the hell a 27-year-old Canadian, who had only eight months earlier been waitressing in Calgary, was doing in ‘the most dangerous place on Earth’?
‘I faced a lot of criticism, particularly in the Canadian media,’ admits Lindhout, 32. ‘A lot of it is justified. I hope I have written with some kind of self-awareness about my younger self.’
The seeds of Lindhout’s restlessness were sewn in a hardscrabble childhood. At nine, she and her brothers were living with their mother and her occasionally violent lover, at the wrong end of Sylvan Lake, Alberta. Her father, who had recently come out as gay, lived 15 minutes away.
Even then, Lindhout’s focus was further afield: she and her elder brother, Mark, would ‘dumpster dive’ for bottles they could exchange for a few coins, which she used to buy back issues of National Geographic.
At 19, Lindhout moved to Calgary, found work as a waitress in a bar for high-rolling oil-workers and funded her first backpacking adventure to Venezuela. Over the next six years her tips would fund lone trips to ever more daring places.
In Ethiopia, in late 2006, she fell in love with Nigel Brennan, an Australian photographer. The relationship foundered but his work inspired her to pursue journalism as a means of getting paid to travel. A stint as a rookie stringer in Afghanistan led to her naive acceptance of a Baghdad-based job as a television reporter for an Iranian press agency.
Having found post-war Iraq an isolating challenge, only Lindhout would have concluded that lawless Somalia was the obvious next destination. When Brennan, who was now involved with someone else, got in touch she suggested he came too.
In August 2008, three days into a four-week trip, their vehicle was pulled over by Kalashnikov-armed kidnappers. Their families were asked for $3million (£1.8million) ransom – an unimaginable sum for Lindhout’s parents. In the book she writes that her mother worked a minimum-wage job, and her father lived off disability payments under the strain of chronic ill health.
Despite their cruelty to her, Lindhout speaks with compassion about the ‘soldier boys’ who kept them captive for 15 months.
Her teenage guards were, like her, products of their upbringing, with little to show for life but a gun and a mobile phone – on which they would spend hours watching suicide bombers and jihadi training videos.
‘They were shaped by war and violence,’ she recalls. ‘Most of them hadn’t been to school but all spoke of a desire for an education.’
That their actions transgressed all acceptable codes of behaviour seemed beyond their ken. As she was released – with the help of a private security firm and a payment of about £600,000 for her and Brennan – one of them slipped her his email address. A year later, she was shocked to discover a Facebook message from one of the group’s leaders congratulating her ‘on all the good works I was doing for the sisters of Somalia’ (see below).
Early in their captivity, Lindhout and Brennan pretended to convert to Islam in the hope it would make them more difficult to kill. Studying the Koran, she says, gave her a deeper insight into her captors who believed they were living by the book, even in the way that they tortured her.
‘A lot of the worst stuff that happened isn’t in this book,’ says Lindhout. ‘We wanted to balance the moments of darkness with the very real moments of transcendence, of understanding. It’s a hard way to learn about the strength that we have inside ourselves but I had to go searching for that and I found it.’
Four years after her release, Lindhout cuts a groomed, glamorously feminine figure. ‘When I came out I didn’t know who I was any more and it took a while to make that reconnection with my femininity,’ she says. ‘But putting myself together is now something I enjoy even more.’
But she is more vulnerable than she looks. She will never eat normally again because of a damaged digestive system and she speaks to a psychologist most days to help with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Having been close at points in their captivity and having thought they would be afterwards, she is now estranged from Brennan. ‘It’s complicated,’ she says. ‘We came out of that experience very different people. Our perspectives on what happened are very different. We just don’t have a lot in common.’
As yet she feels unready for a partner, or the family she would like. ‘I’m just not there yet,’ she says. But in September she will go to university for the first time to study psychology. Before that there will be a trip to Mongolia. She takes pride in the fact that she still travels alone.
Does she regret going to Somalia? ‘It’s not as black and white as that,’ Lindhout says. ‘Captivity changed me in many ways. Most of them for the better: I am a much more thoughtful and compassionate person than I was. But I would take back my family’s suffering in a heartbeat.’
Equally, ‘there is a closeness to my family that wasn’t there before’. Physically too: today Lindhout lives ten doors away from her mother in Canmore, a small town in the Canadian Rockies. As she jokes drily: ‘She likes to keep me in her sights.’
How a failed escape inspired a charity
A few months into their captivity, hostages Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan tried to flee by burrowing beneath a crumbling window and sprinting to a mosque.
When their angry captors pursued them shooting guns, the mosque-goers, who had at first seemed sympathetic, retreated frightened. But one brave middle-aged Somali woman stood up to all the men, admonishing their cowardice and refusing to let go of Lindhout, even as the kidnappers dragged their Western captives away.
It was in part to honour that unknown woman that Lindhout founded the Global Enrichment Foundation, a charity dedicated to educating Somali women. So far, it has helped more than 200,000 women in Somalia and in Kenyan refugee camps.
At a camp outside Mogadishu, run by Dr Hawa Abdi – the female gynaecologist Lindhout was en route to interview when she was kidnapped – the charity has built a primary school, roads, wells, a library and resource centre. It had 6,000 applicants for its first ten university scholarships.
Though education is its primary aim, when there was famine in Somalia in 2011, GEF distributed more than 2million meals. Through this work, Lindhout has returned to Somalia five times since her ordeal, ‘though making quite different decisions’, she says
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