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May 13, 2013

Jessica Buchanan: Kidnapped!


Photo Credit: Jehad NGA/The New york times/Rexus

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The fact that they immediately rob us actually calms me, a bit. Maybe they're just going to carjack us. Maybe they'll push us out, take the vehicles, the cash, and drive away! A rash of carjackings has recently occurred in nearby Kenya where victims were driven to distant locations and pushed out. So if we're simply being robbed and carjacked, then walking home suddenly sounds like a great way to finish off the day. The vehicle plunges out into the wilderness, slamming over rough roads. All we need is for one hard bump to meet one careless trigger finger, and there we are: dead or maimed in the middle of this horror show.

For a moment, I lock eyes with Poul and silently mouth the words, "What's happening?"

He answers in a soft, grim voice, "We're being kidnapped." Nothing else I know is of any use in this moment. Nothing I can do in my working life is relevant here. The person I am to my loved ones, my husband, my friends, doesn't mean anything. My colleague and I are objects of pursuit, nothing more. The glaring difference between Poul's situation and my own is both simple and deadly. Poul is a 60-year-old Danish male and I'm a 32-year-old American female. Homophobia is dominant here, so Poul has little reason to fear gang rape. But I do. And while the news media here did carry that story of mobs protesting outside the Danish Embassy after the uproar over cartoon images of the Prophet Mohammed, in most neighborhoods there is generally not the same danger in being a Dane as in being an American.

"Money!" Ali now bellows. He gestures to our few pieces of jewelry and shouts something in Somali that we can tell is a command to part with our bling. I start to remove my chunky necklace of costume jewelry, but he sneers and shakes his head. They only want the good stuff. I'm worried about losing my wedding band and a diamond of my mom's that was given to me after her passing. My heart sinks when he confiscates my bag.

Beyond that I can't move. All I can do is struggle to recall anything useful from our pitifully brief hostage training session, which was taken from a larger program called HEIST, for Hostile Environment Individual Safety Training. The HEIST instructors impressed on us the importance of hiding our anger and avoiding any unnecessary conflict. They stressed that attackers will likely be in such an excitable state, they may be provoked into killing even if they don't plan to. The trainers urged everyone to memorize a reliable phone number of someone who would be the right person to receive a "proof of life" phone call. Their reasoning was grimly practical: The only way to aid your own survival in a kidnapping situation is to have a line to a potential ransom source. Your chance for life is your captor's hope for money. I recall the main point of HEIST is to focus on surviving the first 24 hours. After that, survival percentages surge upward. If we can get through the first day, we might have a shot at entering that small golden ratio of people who actually come out of these things alive.

We stop several times and are forced to change into different vehicles. The afternoon bleeds into evening while we go through a process of making a series of stops, one impoverished-looking location after another. Every time we change cars or drivers, armed enforcers hop in carrying huge chains of ammunition around their shoulders. I can only guess that these personnel changes have something to do with various clan members guaranteeing safe passage from one contested territory to the next. A greater risk is that if we are spotted by a larger group, we could be kidnapped a second time—maybe by unorganized opportunists and thugs, or perhaps by people convinced they represent the will of their God.

Eventually the kidnappers pull our latest vehicle to a stop. Ali demands that we both get out. Until that moment, sleepy boredom was just beginning to fill me. Now it instantly gives way to a cold rush of fear. "Walk!" Ali shouts, pointing out into the open scrubland. With that, he stomps off and disappears. After that, everything is shouted in Somali. There isn't even an occasional English word to clarify a meaning, but the language difference doesn't shield us from knowing what they want of us from one moment to the next. They repeat Ali's order for us to start walking away from the vehicle. I can't keep quiet anymore. Somebody here has to understand my intentions if not my words. "Why?" I cry out, trying to look each man in the eye. "There's nothing out there!" Now I'm crying, but no tears are allowed. Everybody out here has a broken heart; what they don't have is money. To me, this new development has all the earmarks of a prelude to an execution. I refuse to go, clinging to my spot while the men scream orders. Every one of them appears loaded on khat. I feel desperate to stall them for no more reason than the sheer terror of the moment. I point at the small suitcase they took from me. "There is a little black bag inside and I need to bring it with me. Medicine!" I cry, pointing at the bag. I have to regulate my thyroid levels with regular medication. Without it, the wheels tend to come off as far as the rest of my physical system goes: deep fatigue, rising inflammation, obviously a long-term problem and none of this is related to the moment, but I'm grasping at shadows. Finally somebody seems to catch on and I'm allowed to remove my small powder bag. There is absolutely nothing I will actually need if we're about to be put to death. But I'll grab at anything to slow this down. I am still too petrified to obey their commands. The moment hangs like a pendulum at the tip of its arc. Then I see movement in the corner of one eye. Poul slips over to me and gently takes my arm. "It's all right, Jessica," he quietly lies. "We have to do what they tell us."

"Poul, no!" I whisper. "We can't go out there! They'll kill us!"

"Jessica, listen … no matter what they have in mind, unless we cooperate we'll have ourselves a fatal confrontation, right here."

Now the only control I have over anything here is to attempt to keep from dissolving into hysterics, if for no other reason than to avoid letting my life end that way. So we 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. I know by panicking this way I must seem weak, but there is nothing I can do about how I feel. I keep my mouth shut from that point on, while my obsessive inner voice switches from reminding me how bad this is to: I'm too young to die, I'm too young to die, repeated in a loop.

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