The power of forgiveness: Amanda Lindhout on giving back to the country that took her freedom

Mahatma Gandhi said “forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

That certainly applies to Amanda Lindhout.

Amanda, from Canada, was kidnapped in Somalia in 2008 while working as a freelance journalist. She endured 460 days in captivity – many of those in solitary confinement, chained by the ankles in total darkness, after a failed escape attempt.

She survived to tell the tale, after money was raised for her freedom, and has since worked tirelessly on humanitarian efforts in Somalia with different initiatives to help in the troubled African country.

It is an extraordinary story, so we caught up with Amanda, who was in Dubai this week to talk to ‘The Entrepreneurs Organisation’ about the power of forgiveness.

An adventurous spirit

I was determined to make it as a war correspondent and had been working in Baghdad after a spell in Kabul. But there was another story on my mind – Somalia, a place that has been at war for 25 years. I wanted a specific story, to visit the camps where a million and a half displaced people lived without access to food, water, safety or education.

First impressions

Somalia is beautiful from the air but as soon as we touched down I understood  that this was a different war zone. As we drove, the streets of Mogadishu were empty. That was unnerving. In other war zones there was always activity in markets but things were so severe here, people fled or were too afraid to leave their houses.

Capture

After three days myself and Nigel Brennan, the photographer I was with, set off by car with our security guards for the camp. After an hour, we saw a car pulled over – very rare on those roads. As we got closer it was like Hollywood. A dozen armed men emerged and forced me on the ground with a gun to my head.

Taken hostage

We were taken to a house and after a few hours one of the leaders turned up. He was in his early 20s, from Somalia and he knew the potential value of a kidnap. They were demanding $1.5 million dollars from each of our families. We did not have anything like that. The kidnappers told us they were going to behead us if the money wasn’t paid.

The captors
These were young men who had not been to school. Many were orphans with scars and injuries. Some tried to speak English and we heard really sad stories, about watching siblings die of hunger or having families massacred in front of them. It was obvious they were brought up in a culture of war, they had been shaped by war and violence.

Elman Peace and Human Rights Center.

Captivity

Days turned to weeks, which turned to months. We were in separate rooms, and warned not to try to communicate. Losing my mind was one of my greatest fears so I would spend my days walking in circles around the room and I would use my imagination to launch myself out of there. I would think of all the things I would do with my life if I had a chance at it.

Escape
Amanda and Nigel managed to escape to a nearby mosque, but were chased by their captors and quickly re-captured. One local woman tried to plead with the captors and help Amanda in her time of need…

‘My sister’

The Somali woman was the first woman I had seen in five and a half months. She made her way through the mosque, the crowd of angry and armed men and she reached me and pulled me into her arms and, in English, she called me her sister. She began pleading with my captors to let me go. They started pulling me by my ankles across the floor but this woman didn’t give up.  But I was dragged until she just couldn’t hang on any longer and we were separated from each other. Right before they pulled me out the door I looked back and I saw her on the floor with her niqab fallen off her face – she was my mum’s age and she had tears pouring down her face.

Inspiration
Right before we drove off we heard a gun shot inside the mosque. To this day I don’t know what happened to her, though I have tried to find out. For the 10 months I was in captivity after that, I thought about that woman every day. I thought about her courage, and her courage really gave me strength when I needed it most.

Worse to come

Everything that followed the failed escape attempt was punishment. I was taken to a room which I was locked up in for the next couple of months, the place I called the dark house. It was pitch black and I couldn’t see my hands.  I couldn’t move my body any more because they had taken a think metal chain and wound it round my ankles and secured it with heavy padlocks. It stayed on for the next 10 months. I couldn’t sit up or even lie on my back.

Torture

I couldn’t understand that these people could behave like they didn’t have a conscience. I became consumed by my anger and self pity and despair and in my chest I felt a great pressure building up. I felt like I was approaching the point where I couldn’t take it any more and I was terrified if it snapped, I would lose my mind.

smallssss2Breaking point
One day I felt the snap when one of my captors, an 18-year-old, came in to my room to hurt me, as he did every day. He was maybe the cruellest of all my captors. He was hurting me and I was protecting myself and in my mind I was raging against him, hating him. And I found myself at my breaking point. What happened next was difficult to explain but I got this feeling of calm and peace, flooding through my body and I became detached from the excruciating physical pain, I was an observer looking down on those two people below.

Understanding forgiveness
I began to understand for the first time who this person hurting me was. I saw his life story, I could picture him as a boy, finding a piece of his aunt’s leg which had been blown off during an explosion that killed her. I saw him hungry and orphaned, hiding behind a truck while he watched all his neighbours massacred. With absolute clarity I understood that this person hurting me was also really suffering and it was his own misery and depression and rage and anger and his life experiences which allowed him to inflict that suffering on me. I’m not calling him innocent but I do believe that his layers of pain covered his conscience and he was driven by the need to make someone suffer. I felt like I finally understood the saying ‘hurt people hurt people’.

Amanda and Nigel were finally freed after 15 months, after the ransom was paid.

Although initially traumatised, Amanda quickly remembered “the promise she made to herself, and the woman who may have risked her life in the mosque”, and founded the ‘Global Enrichment Foundation’, which is dedicated to empowering women in troubled countries. The foundation, just one of many initiatives Amanda works on, has raised $3 million to help more than 200,000 people in the past four years.

Fighting back
Five and a half years ago I decided to see myself as a survivor, not a victim.

Forgiveness has helped me move forward but it is still difficult. It is not something that happens overnight, it is a process I am dedicated to. Sometimes I get there and sometimes I don’t. But there are real tangible ways that my life has become a lot richer because of everything I experienced.

Visit amandalindhout.com

Interview with Chris Fraser chris.fraser@7days.ae

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