Author Interviews
12:28 am
Tue May 14, 2013

In Somalia, Surviving A Kidnapping Against 'Impossible Odds'

Originally published on Tue May 14, 2013 10:19 am

In 2011, Jessica Buchanan was an aid worker in northern Somalia, helping to raise awareness about how to avoid land mines. The north was the relatively safe section of the country; that October, she traveled to the more dangerous southern region for a training. The night before she left, she texted her husband, Erik Landemalm, also an aid worker in Somalia. She asked him a question: "If I get kidnapped on this trip, will you come and get me?"

On the trip back from the training, Buchanan and a colleague found their convoy surrounded by armed Somalians. The man responsible for protecting them had sold them out to land pirates, who demanded a ransom of up to $45 million. Buchanan has a thyroid condition and was developing a kidney infection, but the kidnappers provided no medicine. They forced Buchanan and her co-worker to sleep on mats in the open desert for 93 days, until U.S. special operations forces — the Navy's SEAL Team 6, famous for killing Osama bin Laden — came to the rescue.

In a two-part interview with David Greene, Buchanan and Landemalm describe the months she spent as a hostage. In part one, which aired Monday, Buchanan remembers her confusion during her capture while Landemalm recalls the agony of not knowing if he'd ever see his wife again. In part two, Buchanan recounts the details of her rescue, and she and Landemalm describe the moment they were finally reunited.


Interview Highlights

On the drive back from the training, when she and colleague Poul Thisted were captured

Buchanan: "About 10 minutes into the ride, a big SUV Land Cruiser comes roaring up to the right of us and slams its brakes and blocks us, and splashes mud all over the car and the windshield and the windows. And I think that's strange, like, 'What a jerk,' like, 'Who drives like that?' And the next thing I know there are all these AK[-47]s, like the butt of AKs, banging into the windshield and banging into the windows.

"And I'm sitting next to the security adviser who is in charge of protecting us and taking care of us — I later found out he was the one who arranged the entire abduction, and basically sold us to this group of land pirates. And next thing I know, there are some crazy Somali guy with an AK pointing at my head, screaming. He pulls the security adviser out of the car and climbs in, and another guy gets in the back and we just take off — like 60, 70, 80 mph. And we just roar out of town.

"When [my colleague Poul] turned around and looked at me — he's still in the front seat — I asked him, you know, what's happening. And he just looked at me and he said, 'We're being kidnapped.' This is so far from my comprehension. All I could think was two thoughts: 'This is so bad — this is very, very bad,' and, 'My life has changed forever. However this ends, good or bad, my life has changed forever. My work is changed forever.' Yeah, it's changed the course of my life."

On how Landemalm, working farther north in Somalia, found out about the kidnapping

Landemalm: "I was just waiting to hear back from her that, you know, 'We have arrived.' Instead, I received a phone call from Kenya. It was Jess' organization's regional security adviser, Dan, and he told me that, yeah, something bad has happened. And that Jess and Poul, they've been kidnapped and we don't know where they are. We don't know the reason for the kidnapping.

"Shortly after that I took the decision to call Jess' dad and tell him about it. And, of course, this was the worst phone call, up till then, at least, that I've ever had."

On the phone call that was even harder than calling Buchanan's father

Landemalm: "It was actually later on, a month into the kidnapping. The crisis management team had been set up. We had agreed that we, as a family, we would not talk directly with the kidnappers or with Jess or Poul. But it happened that the kidnappers, that they demanded for me to let them know that the person that we had as our family communicator was actually the person that he said he was.

"I made the call, and there on the phone was, suddenly, Jess. And it was the strangest feeling that you can ever have to have the person that you love on the other side of the phone, but you have no idea if she has guns to her head. You have no idea if she will make it. You have no idea if we will ever meet each other again."

On how Buchanan and Thisted coped with being hostages for months

Buchanan: "I think the No. 1 rule that my colleague Poul and I made, at the beginning of this whole ordeal, was that we could feel any emotion: fear, anger, rage. But despair was not an option. Because we knew once we got to that point there was no turning back. We would tell ourselves and tell each other every day that we will get out of this.

"And so I think anybody who finds themselves in some sort of situation such as this, where complete control is taken away from you on the outside, you struggle to find some sort of control on the inside. Every morning became about establishing a routine, which was difficult because we moved around so much — as much as 40, maybe 50 times.

"A couple months in, once they realized, I think, that we weren't going to run away or try to escape, they gave us a little bit of freedom. So they would let me maybe go and boil some water to make some tea or, you know, help make bread in the morning. There were many weeks where we were separated, and I spent what I call my time in solitary confinement, where I had no interaction with anybody."

On her increasing fear that one of her captors would sexually assault her

Buchanan: "He was actually the translator; he was the one who was negotiating on the pirates' behalf. So he was the one that we were supposed to trust and the only one we could communicate with. And, yeah, he just, every time I saw him was a little bit friendlier, if you will. You know, I'd wake up with his hands under my blanket on me. And I knew — I knew that it was coming.

"I knew it was a miracle that it hadn't happened up to that point. But I knew that it was inevitable. And the longer we were out there, the greater my risks were. ... And they would separate Poul and I. So there was no one to protect me. There was no one there and I was completely on my own, you know.

"So sleep was the only escape that I had from all of this and I — so I desperately needed it. But I never knew when I was going to wake up and what I was going to wake up to."

On her 93rd night in captivity, when they were rescued

Buchanan: "As was normal procedure, if i needed to get up off my mat to go to the bush to use the bathroom, I would stand up and say 'toilet' and wait for someone to acknowledge me. There were about nine guards that night. I was sleeping within 12 inches of at least six of them, but they had all passed out. So I kept saying 'toilet, toilet' — no one would acknowledge me, and so I was afraid that if somebody woke up and they saw that I was gone that they would think I had tried to escape, and so that the repercussions for that would have been worse than if I really had tried to escape. So I took my little pen light with me and kept flashing it while I went so they would know I was there. And I came back and laid down. ...

"I laid there for probably five minutes, then the entire night just erupted into automatic gunfire. My first initial thought is that we were being re-kidnapped by another group, or maybe it was al-Shabab [the Islamic military group in Somalia] — that was always the eminent threat, and then I knew there was no hope for survival if it was al-Shabab. And I just, I laid there and I prayed and I also just said, like, 'I can't survive another kidnapping. I've already learned this group. ... I'm so tired, I can't, I can't do this anymore.'

"The next thing I know, somebody pulls the blanket from my face and then I hear a man say my name. You know, I haven't heard anybody say my name in so long. And then he says, 'We're the American military, and we're here to save you, we're here to take you home. You're safe now.' And I ... was just in so much shock I just couldn't wrap my brain around it. The American military, they knew I was here? Americans are here? I'm not alone? One of them just scoops me up, I mean, like a movie, and just, you know, runs across the desert with me to a safe place, and they quickly give me medication and at one point form a ring around us because they weren't sure if the premises was completely safe."

On how she responded when a Navy SEAL asked if she'd forgotten anything at the camp

Buchanan: "I can't believe I did this, but I had a small little powder bag that they had let me keep, and inside I had re-stolen from them a ring that my mom had made, and I thought, 'I can't leave it here in the desert.' [Her mother had recently died.]

"And so I ask him to go back and get the bag for me. And, I mean, these men are just, they're incredible. He goes back out, into a war zone basically, to go get my ring. And then he comes back with the bag."

On being reunited at a base in Italy, where military personnel told them to take things slow

Buchanan: "Our first meeting was one hour. I don't think either one of us could have handled any more."

Landemalm: "No. No, it was — I mean, inside of yourself you want to talk about everything. But I think that [in] one hour you are able to kind of relay the main message that you love each other and that whatever has happened during these 93 days we have the rest of our lives to talk about it."

On the warning from experts that the trauma could harm their relationship

Landemalm: "I think a lot of families that are on the outside sitting there waiting for their loved one to come home, we were told that many of them might have problems. We were fortunate enough to kind of make a decision initially that we need to trust each other — this was I and Jess' dad and her siblings — that we need to do whatever we can to get Jess back. The focus was on our future together. "

On how the kidnapping has affected their marriage

Landemalm: "I don't think that our marriage is the same. I think that it has become stronger. We have gone through one of the worst experiences I think a couple can go through. I think my admiration for my wife is something that many husbands never get to feel."

Buchanan: "I definitely feel like we're in it for the long haul. There's no turning back now. Any questions that I had about Erik or about me or about us together have long since been answered."

On their continuing passion for aid work and Africa

Landemalm: "We went back to Africa shortly after the rescue and, you know, we wanted to take back the power. We wanted to make sure that they did not force us out of Africa — it should be our decision. We had been there for seven years. And we stayed there for a few months and kind of reclaimed our lives, and then we made a decision that it's time to go somewhere else, and we went back to the U.S. ... I think in the future what we want to do is to continue working with humanitarian development in one way or another."

Buchanan: "Absolutely. In our hearts we'll always be just aid workers, and so there's a lot of work to be done, no matter where we are."

Landemalm: "And it should be said that this happened in Somalia, but it was not Somalia that did this to us. These were gangsters. ... It could have happened anywhere in the world. Now, it ended up happening in a place where the administrations don't have a lot of power and so on, but this has not made us ... have any bad feelings toward Somalia or definitely not Somalis."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yesterday on the program, we met Jessica Buchanan, an American aid worker who was kidnapped by Somali land pirates in 2011. When we left off, Jessica was approaching three months in captivity, sleeping on a mat each night out in the open desert. Her captors were demanding a ransom of $45 million, no less. In the meantime, Jessica's health was deteriorating. She had no access to her medication for a thyroid condition. She was also suffering from a urinary tract infection that was causing complications with her kidneys.

On her 93rd night in captivity, Jessica had a request.

JESSICA BUCHANAN: As was normal procedure, if I needed to get up off my mat to go to the bush to use the bathroom, I would stand up and say toilet and wait for somebody to acknowledge me. There were about nine guards at night. I was sleeping within 12 inches of at least six of them, but they'd all passed out. So I kept saying toilet, toilet, and no one would acknowledge me.

And so I was afraid that if somebody woke up and they saw that I was gone, that they would think I had tried to escape. So I took my little penlight with me and kept flashing it while I went, so they would know I was there.

GREENE: Jessica then quietly returned to her mat to go back to sleep.

BUCHANAN: And I laid there probably for five minutes. And then the entire night just erupted into automatic gunfire. My first initial thought was that we were being re-kidnapped by another group. Or maybe it was al-Shabaab, that was always the eminent threat, was that...

GREENE: And this is the Islamic militant group that operates in this area.

BUCHANAN: Exactly, in Somalia. And then I knew there was no hope for survival if it was al-Shabaab. And I just - I laid there, and I prayed. And I also just said, like, I can't survive another kidnapping. I've already learned this group. I'm so tired, I can't - I can't do this anymore.

The next thing I know, somebody pulls the blanket from my face, and then I hear a man say my name. You know, I haven't heard anybody say my name in so long. And then he says: We're the American military, and we're here to save you. We're here to take you home. You're safe now. And I just was so - in so much shock, I just couldn't wrap my brain around it.

The American military, they knew I was here? Americans are here? Like, I'm not alone? One of them just scoops me up, I mean, like a movie, and just, you know, runs across the desert with me into a safe place, and they quickly give me medication, and at one point form a ring around us, because they weren't sure if the premises was completely safe. And...

GREENE: One of them actually asked you - one of them asked you at one point if you have forgotten anything, right?

BUCHANAN: Yeah.

GREENE: That's amazing to me.

BUCHANAN: Yeah, which I can't believe I did this, but I had a small, little powder bag that they had let me keep. And inside, I had a ring that my mom had made, and I thought, I can't leave it out here in the desert. And so, I asked him to go back and get the bag for me. And, I mean, these men are just - they're incredible. I mean, he goes back out into a war zone, basically, to go get my ring.

GREENE: You hear him running back to the...

BUCHANAN: Yeah, and then he comes back with the bag.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Jessica's rescuers were 24 U.S. Navy SEALs ordered by President Obama to attempt a dramatic rescue of her and her colleague. That rescue was a success. The SEALs carried them safely to Djibouti, and then to a military base in Italy. And that's where Jessica was first reunited with her husband, Erik Landemalm, also an aid worker in Somalia.

As part of Jessica's hostage reintegration program, the couple was told initially that they had to take things slow.

BUCHANAN: Our first meeting was one hour. I don't think either one of us could have handled any more.

ERIK LANDEMALM: No. I mean, inside of yourself, you want to talk about everything. But I think that one hour, you're able to kind of relay the main message that you love each other, and that whatever has happened during these 93 days, we have the rest of our lives to talk about it.

GREENE: Some of the experts seem to worry about your marriage surviving this, and talked about that there's experiences with relationships never being the same after something like this.

LANDEMALM: Yeah. I think a lot of families that are on the outside sitting there waiting for their loved one to come home, we were told that many of them might have problems. We were fortunate enough to kind of make a decision initially that we need to trust each other - this was I and Jess' dad and her siblings - that we need to do whatever we can to get Jess back. We...

GREENE: You never gave up and thought about life without her.

LANDEMALM: No. No. No, I mean, the focus was on our future together.

GREENE: Do you both feel like your marriage is the same?

LANDEMALM: I don't think that our marriage is the same. I think it has become stronger. We have gone through one of the worst experience I think a couple can go through. And I think my admiration for my wife is something that many husbands never get to feel.

GREENE: You two are looking at each other right now. It's really - that's very meaningful.

LANDEMALM: Yeah.

GREENE: Now, Jessica, do you feel things have changed?

BUCHANAN: Yeah. I definitely feel like we're in it for the long haul. There's no turning back now. And any questions that I had about Erik or about me or about us together have long since been answered.

GREENE: And what is next? Both of you have such passion for doing work in Africa. Can you go back there?

BUCHANAN: I think so.

LANDEMALM: Yeah. We went back to Africa shortly after the rescue. And, you know, we wanted to take back the power. We wanted to make sure that they did not force us out of Africa. It should be our decision. We had been there for seven years. And we stayed there for a few months, and kind of reclaimed our lives. And then we made a decision that it's time to go somewhere else. And we went back to the U.S. now.

And I think, in the future, what we want to do is to continue working with humanitarian development in one way or the other.

BUCHANAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah, absolutely. In our hearts, we'll always be just aid workers, and so there's a lot of work to be done, no matter where we are.

LANDEMALM: Yeah. And it should be said that this happened in Somalia, but it was not Somalia that did this to us. These were gangsters, that it could have happened anywhere in the world. Now, it ended up happening in a place where the administrations don't have a lot of power, and so on. But this has not made us feel like - have any kind of bad feelings toward Somalia, or definitely not Somalis.

GREENE: Erik Landemalm and Jessica Buchanan. They're authors of "Impossible Odds: The Kidnapping of Jessica Buchanan and Her Dramatic Rescue by SEAL Team Six." And they both joined us in our Washington studios.

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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