'Impossible Odds' Details Aid Workers Rescue From Somalia

May 13, 2013
Originally published on May 13, 2013 10:59 am

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now a story of "Impossible Odds," that's the title of a new book by Jessica Buchanan. She's an American aid worker who was kidnapped in Somalia back in 2011. Her new book recounts the terrifying experience. It's co-written with her husband and fellow aid worker, Erik Landemalm. The couple was based in northern Somalia, considered the safer part of a country that to this day they feel an affection for.

Jessica worked for a group that raised awareness about landmines. And in October 2011, she and her colleague Poul Thisted were called to a training session in the more dangerous south. She knew the risks and she decided to go.

JESSICA BUCHANAN: I figured, you know, I have my security. I have my convoy. I have my colleagues. I'm safe. But still, I was a little bit nervous so I sent Erik a text message, I believe, the evening before, and said: Hey, if I get kidnapped will you come and rescue me.

GREENE: The morning after sending that text to Erik, Jessica and her colleague headed south. They finished the training session, then they loaded back into their convoy to head towards home, along with their armed security guards.

BUCHANAN: Then 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 AKs, like the butts of AKs banging into the windshield and banging into the windows.

GREENE: These are the AK-47s, the big guns that people are slamming...

BUCHANAN: Yeah. Yeah. And I'm sitting next to the security advisor 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's some crazy Somali guy with an AK pointing at my head, screaming.

He pulls the security advisor out of the car and climbs in, and another guy gets in the back and we just take off - like 60, 70, 80 miles per hour. And we just roar out of town.

GREENE: Poul was urging the driver to slow down. Jessica still hadn't grasped what was happening.

BUCHANAN: When he turned around and looked at me - he's still in the front seat - I ask 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.

GREENE: Erik, you were doing your own work in a place further north in Somalia, thinking that Jessica would probably be on her way back at some point soon.

ERIK LANDEMALM: Yeah, 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's organization's regional security advisor, 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's 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.

GREENE: What became an even harder phone call?

LANDEMALM: It was actually later on, a month into the kidnapping. The crisis management team had been set up. We had agreed that 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.

GREENE: They wanted to verify that this person represented the family.

LANDEMALM: Yeah, exactly. So 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.

GREENE: You mentioned this, Erik, was a month in. And we should say, Jessica, you were in captivity for 93 days. And these guys were demanding as much as $45 million. I mean, when you would wake up each and every day, what was on your mind? What did you expect would happen? What would this day bring?

BUCHANAN: I think the number one 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 themself 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.

GREENE: Without your colleague. Without English speakers.

BUCHANAN: Nothing.

GREENE: Women who are held in captivity, one of the horrific things that you often hear about is rape. This fortunately did not happen to you. But you became more and more concerned that it might. Can you talk about this guy who really worried you?

BUCHANAN: Yeah. His name was Jabril and 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 for sexual assault. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And tomorrow, we're going to hear about Jessica's rescue and how she and her husband Erik are putting their lives back together.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

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