It’s wonderful news that the two journalists kidnapped last year in Mogadishu have been freed today after 15 months. The dribs and drabs of news coming out of Somalia have at times suggested Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan might not survive. Both had been desperately ill and rumours circulated constantly that, with little prospect of a ransom, their kidnappers might simply decide to shoot the pair and call it a day. There are other horror stories that may or may not be confirmed in the days ahead.
But for now the main thing is that after $1m was reportedly paid for their release, the two are free and back at the Sahafi hotel – ironically the scene of another kidnapping this year.
Good news for both, although I dread to think what emotional and physical scars the two will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Now I just pray that no-one else ends up in the same situation. The press pack in Nairobi – of which I was until recently a part – always treated Mogadishu with the utmost respect. We only went if we knew we could do it safely. Too often though we were surprised by the attitude of others parachuting in. Veterans of Baghdad and Kabul assumed they’d seen it all. They hadn’t. Mogadishu may as well be on another planet. Here are some things to think about and some lessons to learn:
- Money talks in Somalia – whatever you think about the ethics of paying money to gunmen, this is the only way to get people out
- Diplomats have few links on the ground – negotiations apparently went nowhere for months as clueless Australian and Canadian officials dealt with numerous intermediaries with no connection to the hostage takers
- Mogadishu is dangerous – no-one has control. There are no green zones or security consultants to hide behind. Don’t trust anyone you are paying. All kidnappings involve someone on the inside
- Journalists are targets – no-one is going to believe any “I’m here to tell your side of the story” nonsense
- Mogadishu is dangerous – if your fixer says to you, “They are saying bad things,” then leave. Don’t stay for one more snap
- Everyone knows everything and everyone knows nothing – one colleague arrived in Somalia a few years back to learn that his arrival was the second item on the radio news. At the same time, if people want to disappear you, they can. Easily
- Mogadishu is dangerous – bloody dangerous. People get killed even when it is “safe”
There are ways of operating in Mogadishu. There are good fixers and stringers who can help. There is a wealth of information and advice from experts in Nairobi. But if you don’t bother asking around and taking the temperature then you only have yourself to blame. Sometimes – but not always – the place is simply best avoided. No story is worth your life.
Here’s what Amanda Lindhout has to say about her ordeal:
“My day was sitting on a corner on the floor in a room 24 hours a day for the last 15 months,” she said.
“There were times that I was beaten, that I was tortured. It was an extremely, extremely difficult situation.”