“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!”
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.
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.
Afew days later, an older man named Jabreel arrives. In English, he identifies himself as a “neutral translator” from Mogadishu, and he tells us, “These men are crazy. They want $45 million for you.”
“Nobody will pay that for two aid workers,” I respond.
“I only want to help,” he continues. “I tell them the most they’ll get is $900,000.”
After darkness falls that day, the Chairman arrives. He looks about 40, with thin facial hair. He mutters something to Jabreel, who says to us, “Phone call.”
At last, it’s time for our “proof of life” call. I watch Jabreel dial and see the country code for Kenya. I hear a man answer and identify himself as Mohammed. Jabreel gives me the phone, and the man says he is an assistant to our security adviser. He asks me a few security questions, like the name of my first dog. That’s all I get. Then Jabreel snatches the phone away and talks with Mohammed, making sure he works for the NGO.
I’m glad to send the “proof of life” message, but I’m crushed I can’t contact Erik. After the quick call, we are herded back to camp, then out to an open field, ending the day with the wave of a gun barrel and a command to sleep.
The next day, Jabreel tells us of the men’s concern about surveillance satellites and high-flying planes. “We’re just aid workers,” I say. “Nobody would use such things to look for us.”
Each day begins to dissolve into the next, daylight hours dragging by under trees, followed by nights of fitful sleep in the open desert. I get a urinary tract infection, and with everyone eating out of the same bowl with their bare hands, I also develop stomach troubles. I have to keep running to a bush while diarrhea twists through me, alternating with bouts of vomiting. I ask the men to get me a doctor. I’m sobbing. They hate it when I cry and angrily order me to shut up. Finally a doctor arrives and gives me a cursory exam, tosses some pills at me, and goes off to chew khat with Jabreel.
One morning, Abdi walks in from the outskirts of the camp, where he’s been screaming into his phone. He picks up a large stick and attacks Poul, beating him to the ground.
“Where is big money?” Abdi shouts, swinging the stick.
“It’s not our fault,” Poul yells.
He swings the stick against Poul’s outstretched arms. Poul cries out for him to stop, and I sob in frustration. Abdi notices my distress, but as usual, my tears generate no sympathy. Instead he stomps over, waving the stick. “You, up! Walk!”
I start walking. Abdi screams into my face like a drill sergeant. “Where is big money?”
I force my voice into a dead calm. “I don’t know. Poul doesn’t know. You hit us, we still don’t know.”
He stops and forces me to the ground, then squats in front of me. He glares into my eyes and writes the number 18 in the sand with his finger.
“I get 18 million in seven days, or I cut off your head!”
One day, they bring us out to the desert, and we make a video, two guards standing behind us with assault rifles. They make Poul tell the camera that we’re both OK, stressing that there must be no attack by military forces. Then Poul implores our families to tap their own personal wealth to help with the ransom efforts, though I know there isn’t any wealth to tap.
It’s about this time that Jabreel contacts my husband. Jabreel hands me the phone. “This is Jessica,” I begin, holding my breath.
“Hey … uh, Jess, it’s Erik. How are you?” He somehow manages to communicate all his concern for me in those few words.
“OK. Um, we’re OK.” I urge him to confirm that Mohammed is the legitimate negotiator for our two families and tell Abdi that he is working as hard as he can to put together a ransom. Then I tell Jabreel, “Go get Abdi.”
I say to Erik, “The leader of the militia is coming so he can hear what you’re saying. But before he comes, I just want you to know I love you.”
I hear a heavy catch in his voice. “I love you too.”
“And I will get through this.”
“Good, Jess.” His voice is flat. He is obviously in a room full of people.
Abdi stumbles over, eyes puffy from chewing khat. Meanwhile, Jabreel tells Erik, “I am not one of them. I must do what I am told.”
Then Abdi listens while Erik assures him the families support Mohammed and the negotiations. Then he calls out, “Jessica! We’re praying for you and doing everything we can to get you and Poul back!”
Jabreel hangs up. It is done.
After that call, our captors separate Poul and me, and Jabreel starts making sexual advances. “No, Jabreel,” I keep telling him. “I’m married. And so are you.” But I have to avoid alienating our main English-speaking communicator. He knows it, and his unwanted attentions grow more insistent every day. Once I awake to find him beside me. His hand is reaching under my blanket and touching my legs. I pull away and turn over.
I imagine being back in the apartment with Erik, mentally moving through the rooms, picturing Erik waiting for me. I daydream about escaping, slipping away and finding help—but, of course, there is no help.
Two weeks later, they bring Poul back to camp. No explanation—just one day there he is. We try to catch up on what has been going on, but conversation remains difficult around our captors.
One day, there is a faint buzzing sound that seems to come from way up in the air. There is nothing to see, but our captors make certain we’re covered by branches overhead.
One night, I open my eyes. The sky is black. There is no moon, and a haze blots out the starlight. It’s about 2 a.m. Time for a trip to the bush. The urinary tract infection makes it impossible for me to sleep through the night. I stand and quietly say, “Toilet.” I have to get the approval to move off my sleeping mat.
Nobody answers. I stand still and hold my breath to listen. I can hear our guards snoring. I raise my voice a little louder. “Guys. Do you hear me? Toilet?”
Not a peep. They either don’t hear me or don’t care.
I make my way to the nearest bush. I am alone, everything peaceful and quiet. The darkness feels protective. I fantasize about walking to freedom. There is physical relief when I finish, but the pain stays in my lower abdomen. Escape? Yeah, right.
I pad back to my sleeping mat, lie down on my side, and curl into a ball.
Noises break into my consciousness. Maybe faint animal sounds. A tiny crackling of a twig, one dry branch of a bush scraping across another. What’s out there? Am I starting to hallucinate? Each time I start to drift off, there’s another little noise. It sounds like beetles coming out of their nests. Before long, I hear the sounds right at the edge of my mat.
At that instant, a Somali leaps to his feet and cocks his rifle. There is a long pause, then gunfire breaks out in every direction. I’m sure I scream, but I can’t hear myself above the din. Is another clan coming to steal us or kill us? I silently send out my love to Erik and repeat to myself, Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God.
I hear the Somalis screaming orders to one another, then screaming with the impact of bullets, then screaming in their death throes. Someone shouts, “Oh, no.” Then I hear him gasp when the bullets hit him.
Strong hands grab my blanket. I put up a fight to keep it.
“Jessica!” a male voice calls.
It stops me like a slap in the face. An American accent?
The black night hides the faces in front of me. They are like ghosts with deadly weapons. I can’t register that these people might be helping me. I struggle and scream with all my strength. Even though I expect to be killed, I fight back out of instinct. Then I hear it.
“Jessica! This is the American military. You’re safe. We’ve come to take you home.”
On January 25, 2012, on orders from President Barack Obama, 24 U.S. Navy SEAL special operatives parachuted into Somalia, killed an unknown number of kidnappers, and rescued Jessica Buchanan and Poul Thisted by helicopter.
Jessica and Erik now live in Virginia, and they continue their humanitarian work. August, their son, was born in October 2012.