“I just don’t like it,” my husband, Erik Landemalm, says. “I don’t either,” I respond. “But I don’t have a choice.” Erik and I both know it’s not the best time for me to go to Galkayo, Somalia, a town just across the dangerous Green Line, which separates government-controlled territory from an area terrorized by violent Islamist groups. But the nongovernmental organization (NGO) I work for as an aid worker keeps an office near there, and they’re expecting me.
I started my life in Africa in 2006 as a teacher in Kenya. That’s where I met Erik, who’d ventured to Africa from Sweden. We got married in 2009 and moved to Hargeisa, Somalia. I work for a Danish NGO teaching people how to avoid the land mines that have created a generation of amputees.
But doing charitable work is no protection from violence. Clan warfare plagues southern Somalia, and recently, a bus was bombed on the same road we’ll be using. We also worry about being robbed. Westerners represent a chance at fast money. But we never wander the region without good cause—and security.
“Go get it done, and get back here safely, OK?” Erik says. He opens his arms for a hug, and I throw my arms around him. I travel to dangerous areas often, but this time, he has special reason for concern: We’re hoping that I’m pregnant.
On October 24, 2011, I take a UN flight to Galkayo, where I meet up with my Danish NGO colleague Poul Thisted and our security officers. We spend the night at the NGO guesthouse north of the Green Line. I get a text message from Erik: “Love you. Make sure you are safe.”
The next morning, Poul and I participate in a training session at the office; then I send Erik a text. A sad one: I’m cramping, and it looks like I was wrong about the pregnancy. We’ll keep trying.
Before Erik responds, our car arrives to take us back to the guesthouse. Abdirizak, our local security manager, and I get into the backseat of the Land Cruiser, while Poul climbs into the front seat. I’ve noticed that the driver is new, and ordinarily I’d ask for an explanation. But Poul doesn’t show any concern, so I remain quiet.
Ten minutes later, as if a referee has blown a starting whistle, the attack begins. A large car roars up beside us and careens to a stop, splashing mud all over our windows. Somali men with AK-47 rifles circle our car, pounding on the doors and shouting.
Two men yank open our doors and leap in. One, who later tells me his name is Ali, grabs Abdirizak. Ali’s face is a tarmac of acne scars, punctuated by the crazed eyes of someone who has chewed plenty of khat, a plant that at high doses can cause euphoria and hyper-alertness.
Ali points his gun at my head. Our driver—it’s now clear he works for the Somali men—speeds away, slamming us around in the passenger compartment. Ali and his cohort wave their guns in our faces, and Ali screams in English, “Mobile!”
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After he takes our phones, Ali climbs into the front seat and tells Poul to sit in the back. I lock eyes with Poul and mouth, “What’s happening?”
“We’re being kidnapped,” he says.
The men scream at Poul to shut up, and the car plunges into the dark wilderness, slamming over rough roads.
“Money!” Ali bellows. Poul tells them we don’t have any, and fortunately they don’t search us. I try to recall our brief hostage training session. The instructors impressed on us the importance of hiding our anger and avoiding conflict. The attackers are in an excitable state and may be provoked into killing us even if they didn’t plan to. The instructors urged us to memorize the phone number of someone who would receive our “proof of life” phone call. The only way to aid your own survival in a kidnapping is to have the number to a potential ransom source. There’s no chance I could forget Erik’s number.
So far, there has been no indication of our attackers’ intentions. We don’t know who these people are or where they’re taking us. All Poul and I can do is exchange troubled glances.
Armed enforcers carrying huge chains of ammunition around their shoulders jump in when we change cars and drivers. We continue driving late into the night, and I’m filled with a sleepy boredom. Suddenly, the car stops, and Ali demands that we get out.
“Walk!” Ali shouts, pointing into open scrubland. “Walk!”
With that, he stomps off. He is not coming with us. More men with guns shout Ali’s orders. I can’t keep quiet anymore. “Why?” I cry out, trying to look each man in the eyes.
My stomach is a ball of ice. I refuse to move while the men scream orders. Every one of them appears loaded on khat, their eyes bloodshot.
Poul gently takes my arm. “It’s all right, Jessica,” he quietly lies. “We have to do what they tell us.”
“No!” I whisper. “They’ll kill us.”
“Jessica, unless we cooperate, we’ll have a fatal confrontation right here.”
I look around at the men with their rifles trained on us, then one last time at the useless “safety” of the vehicle. Then we turn and begin to walk off into the wilderness. “I’m too young to die,” I blurt out to Poul. He gives me a blank look and keeps on walking.
The men escort us farther into the scrub. The night air cools, and I start to shiver. Poul is close by, but we are forbidden to talk. My heavy sandals stand up to the terrain, but I keep scraping the tops of my feet on the low thornbushes.
I can’t stop crying, but I do my best to keep it quiet. Finally, we reach our destination. This is it, I think.
Our attackers order us to get down on our knees and turn our backs.
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I pray for help. I plead for strength. Then one of the men yells, “Sleep!” They push us to the ground. “Sleep!”
Sleep? Just like that? I hate the gratitude that washes over me, but the word sleep is wonderful. It’s a reprieve, something close to mercy.
When daylight comes and I am still alive, I cheer up in spite of the hangover left by lack of rest. Our kidnappers march us to a scruffy stand of acacia trees surrounded by giant termite mounds. Poul motions that he is trying to memorize everything around us. We ask, using pidgin and pantomime, if we can call our NGO. Our suggestion is rejected, but the men bark something about waiting for permission from the “Chairman.” Whoever he is, the leader goes by a businesslike title instead of a clerical one. A secular title is good news.
I ask permission to use the toilet and receive a grunt of affirmation. I select a bush for its remote location, watching for anyone who might follow. I look out and see a road. It occurs to me to run. But where? I’m in the middle of nowhere with no identification or money. Any attempt to escape would likely fail.
Back at camp, a man named Abdi introduces himself. He speaks some English and assures me they are not going to kill us. They want money, big money. Once several catnaps and numerous trips to my makeshift toilet pass without my being attacked, I relax a bit. Abdi’s assertion appears to be true, at least for now.
Our next few days are spent under the acacia trees. At night, we’re forced to sleep on mats in open fields.
Soon, we’re on the move again. We remain at one stopover for several days. There is a large thatched roof mounted on tall poles. Abdi is like the camp sergeant. He acts as point man when something needs to get done. He loves to talk, especially when he’s had plenty to chew, but he has vicious mood swings. One moment he’s discussing philosophy, and the next he’s on the phone screaming orders and demanding khat leaves and cigarettes.
I get so thirsty, I may as well have a mouthful of dirt. The small bottle of water given to us each day is far too little. Poul demands more water, persisting even when the guard yells to silence him. A moment later, the guard leaps toward Poul, cocks his rifle, and pulls the trigger. The firing mechanism clicks on the empty chamber.