Young reporter Amanda Lindhout was aware of the risks, but three days after entering Somalia, she and her friend were seized. She told Andrew Denton of her 15-month ordeal.
She was just 26 years old. For a young reporter, the job was the opportunity of a lifetime. But, just days after entering war-ravaged Somalia, Amanda Lindhout's survival instinct would be pushed beyond all human boundaries.
Rape. Torture. The reality of death always just centimetres and seconds away.
For 15 months, Lindhout and Australian photographer Nigel Brennan were brutalised as their increasingly impatient captors demanded ransoms be paid for their freedom.
Eventually, both were freed. But the soul-searing cruelty of their captivity changed them both.
Lindhout told Andrew Denton on Australian TV channel Seven's Interview of the excruciating torture she had suffered. But she also related the moments of beauty, revelation and extraordinary courage that gave her the strength to survive.
Lindhout had simply wanted to tell the stories of those suffering from decades of internal conflict.
"It was a very important story to tell," she told Denton. "Also, as a young, mostly freelance journalist, it was also an opportunity for me."
She said that she and her friend Brennan went on what they thought was a one-week work trip to Somalia. "Only we ended up staying."
Lindhout said she was aware of the risks, and thought she had become acclimatised to war-torn lands in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Three days after entering Somalia, on August 23, 2008, she and Brennan were seized.
"Our logistics organiser had told us it was safe to travel outside of the city," she said. "There was no active fighting we were going to an internally displaced people's camp. That was going to be the big story that we were in Somalia for."
So they set out.
"We're on a big open highway road. Somalia is so poor a lot of people don't even have vehicles," she said. "So we see a car pulled over off to the side up ahead and because it was the only other vehicle on the road it right away grabbed our attention. Within minutes, what unfolded was like something out of a nightmare."
A dozen armed men spread out across the road, pointing AK-47 assault rifles at them
"I couldn't see their faces. Young men in chequered scarfs. So, our vehicle was forced to stop. They surrounded us, pulled the doors open, pulled us out … And the next thing I knew I had been abducted."
Their leader, a man calling himself Adam, demanded Lindhout and Brennan contact their families. He wanted US$1.5 million ransom — each.
"The Canadian and Australian governments don't pay ransoms," Lindhout said. "I come from a really poor family. Nigel's family is not wealthy. And so that began the start of what would be a very long time in captivity."
Initially, she said, she and Brennan were held together. "That was such a comfort. To be able to have somebody to talk to, to share the emotions with."
Her captors were very interested in her and Brennan's stories. They wanted to know about their lives.
But as time drew on, things changed for the worse.
Brennan and Lindhout were separated.
"Almost the day that we were separated, sexual abuse started," she said. "It was so devastating and so scary. And also as time was passing the conditions were becoming worse. (It cost) money to feed us and so the food was becoming less, and our teenage captors … you know, they were quite resentful."
Lindhout was raped and threatened with death.
"I will talk about it. But it's still … It's … it's that intense it's real," she told Denton.
"That night, they came and woke me up and they brought me out to a car. They had moved us to a few different houses. I thought maybe that's what was happening, only they didn't bring Nigel out. So I got really scared."
They piled into the car around her, and drove her out into the desert. "I just … I feared the worst. Abdulla, the one who had been sexually abusing me was taunting me in the car — 'How does it feel to know you're going to die?'
"They took me out of the car under this tree and pulled my head back. The next thing I knew there was a knife at my throat."
She was forced to call her mother and convince her to pay the ransom within seven days.
Things were now beyond desperate.
"At a certain point, Nigel and I tried and failed to escape."
RANDOM ACT OF COURAGE
Five months into their captivity, Lindhout and Brennan managed to loosen the bricks around a window.
"We did manage to jump out a window and we knew there was a mosque nearby because we could hear the call to prayer," she said. "(We went) down out of that window and ran a couple of hundred metres, we could see the mosque. It was right there."
But their captors had noticed their escape. "We were pleading with this roomful of Muslims …"
Then the kidnappers entered the mosque with their guns.
A member of the congregation stepped forward.
"This is the first woman that I had seen since we had been abducted," Lindhout said. "And she was dressed in the full Islamic hijab so even her face was covered. I could just see her eyes. way through the crowded mosque, and she came directly to me. And she pulled me into her arms and in English she called me her sister. And then she turns to our kidnappers begging them to let us go. "
But Abdulla appeared. He grabbed Lindhout, and began dragging her out of the mosque.
"And this woman, she didn't give up and she threw herself, she threw her body on top of mine and she hung on to me together across that floor."
But she couldn't hold on. Then, as Lindhout was being driven off, she heard a single gunshot come from inside the mosque.
"I still don't know what happened to that amazing woman, though I've tried to find out," Lindhout said. "But wow, just even the thought of her in the months that were to follow and everything that I had to endure, gave me a lot of strength."
THE LONG DARKNESS
Once back in captivity, Lindhout was locked in a dark room with no windows.
"The darkness has a weight to it," she said. "It was very … It was heavy and it was oppressive and it was terrifying every moment of the day. You start to lose track of time. I mean, it was absolutely pitch black."
There were only rats. Cockroaches. And Abdulla.
"When I had tried to escape and failed, they all felt the way to punish me was to really hurt me. (I was) listening for the footsteps, and in the moments in between, just trying to hold onto my sanity."
"I realised that my mind had a lot of power to carry me through those moments. I realised that I was a lot more than this physical body that was on the floor. I felt connected to something bigger than myself that was also part of myself and it actually became quite a spiritual experience in many ways. Now, that doesn't mean it became easier, it wasn't, but that helped me so much get through those days."
"I had a really amazing experience one day when Abdulla was raping me that I left my body," Lindhout says. "A psychologist would call this a dissociated state. It probably was that, but it was also something that felt quite spiritual for me.
"In those dissociated moments … I literally was observing the two of us on the floor and him on top of me and, you know, I was in such excruciating pain, that in those detached moments I actually understood something about him. "
She said she felt she understood him through his stories of being orphaned, finding a piece of his aunt's leg after an explosion killed her …
"Surprisingly, what I felt in that moment was sympathy, compassion for this young man who was on top of me, hurting me. It felt like relief from all the hatred and anger that I had held onto so tightly for, you know, the months that had led up to that moment."
The disassociation helped her get through the rapes.
"It was never just once in a day I would have to go through something terrible," she said. "It was, you know, consistently, day in and day out. It didn't get easier to find that understanding and compassion, it got harder as time went on. But I became more and more determined … if I could find that (escape), the experience just wouldn't break me."
Eventually the torture became so great that Lindhout decided to end it all.
She had been given a razor to remove all of her body hair. Lindhout felt calm and determined.
Then a door was opened a little. There was light.
"A little bit of movement caught my eye and I look over and there was a bird hopping around in this little bit of light. He'd flown in … I had not seen a bird in over a year."
Lindhout said she took it as a sign.
"The desire to end my life left me and it never came back and this amazing feeling just flooded through my body, which was determination to survive no matter what."
Eventually, after being sold to another Somali gang, Lindhout and Brennan were freed.
"We had gone from experiencing the worst of humanity … only to come out and find that we had been rescued by the best of humanity," Lindhout said. "I mean, quite literally, Australians that did not know Nigel and I, that had contributed to this ransom fund … for our freedom."
When giving a victim impact statement at the trial of one of her kidnappers earlier this year, Lindhout openly wept. She said she was left suicidal by her 15 months of captivity. She said she was suffering severe anxiety. Her behaviour had become anti-social. She has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
She still wakes up screaming,
"I hit the bottom when I Googled possible ways to end my life painlessly," Lindhout said from the witness stand. "For years … I couldn't believe I was free, often sure I was dreaming, and that I would wake up back in captivity with chains on my ankles in a dark room.
"For many years … I felt dead and that being in the world was an alien experience. I know the symptom is rooted to a knife being held to my neck in captivity and believing I was going to die. Flashbacks happen involuntarily, it's as though I am reliving my experience and I don't understand it's not happening in real time. It's incredibly scary."
Her scars are not just mental. She also bears a physical burden from her time in Somali prison cells.
Lindhout was tortured and starved. Her digestive system is "compromised" she said. Her adrenal glands are damaged. Her teeth are a "broken mess".
But Lindhout says she's now a survivor.
"I have learned a lot about survival and resiliency and the incredible strength and determination of the humans spirit and, every time I have the opportunity to share that, there's healing in that for me. I hope there can be healing in that for other people too," she said.
DO YOU, OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW, NEED HELP?
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.
Or if you need to talk to someone else:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Samaritans 0800 726 666
• Rural Support Trust: 0800 787 254.