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May 13, 2013

Jessica Buchanan: Kidnapped!


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Subject

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They move us farther into the scrub desert. The night air is quickly cooling off. I'm shivering steadily now and can't stop. The darkness is heavy, no moon, no ambient light. The sky is crystal clear and the stars are brilliant, comforting in their familiarity. I'm not wearing boots or sneakers, but at least my heavy sandals are tough enough to stand up to the terrain. A river of small noises follows along with us. People recognize it from war movies. Soldiers call it battle rattle: the sounds of dozens of guns and ammunition belts being carried by dozens of men. There is sharp pain pulsing in both my feet from the ground obstacles, but there is also an odd form of reassurance to that. I'm gasping at life like a fish on the beach, and pain at least is evidence of being alive. This isn't a hallucination in hell; I'm still alive so far.

My blood inches through me like frozen slush. If there's a personal terror more extreme, I hope to never feel it. All I can do now is to keep silently telling myself I'm too young to die. I whisper prayers for mercy, for strength. And then the attackers order us to get down on our knees and turn our backs to them.

The terror of those moments was made more awful by the waiting. I discovered a special form of living hell in that combination of helplessness and terror to be endured while waiting for execution. No doubt the horror of that moment is known to all condemned people. They would surely recognize that sensation of sharp nausea, the loss of fine motor control, the difficulty with balance when smaller support muscles spasm and misfire. Any victim taken by force is subjected to a complicated group of insults to their humanity. Your freedom, well-being, mental state, physical state—they all suddenly mean next to nothing.

I knew these men despised female emotion. It's a common trait in the culture. A woman's emotional plea is regarded as an unfair and dishonest attempt to manipulate circumstances in the female's favor, done without regard to consequences for the male. The emotions themselves are therefore an affront to him: a honeyed attack. So short of jamming my fist into my mouth, I did everything to tamp down my rocketing emotions. I could see nothing there in the darkness, down on my knees, facing the ground. I could sense nearby men surrounding me, some of them standing still, some pacing the ground, all with guns.

When the human body moves beyond the "fight or flight" response, the best thing our ancient instincts can do is prepare the body for grievous injury; pull the blood supply away from extremities and toward the major organs, throwing out one last grab for survival. I felt the massive adrenaline surge contract my muscles so hard they began to seize up.

In most cases these symptoms would immediately be lost to permanent silence with the coming of the end. But the moment hung suspended. Nothing happened. Enough time went by for stabbing knee pains to set in, throbbing with my pulse. My back muscles started to twitch. I tried to pray for help and found that my fear was so intense it dissolved my thoughts into a formless plea for strength.

And then one of the men yelled out, "Sleep!" They pushed us to the ground. "Sleep! Sleep! Sleep!"

I hated the instinctive gratitude that washed over me, but in that moment the word sleep was wonderful. It was a reprieve, and it came across as something close to mercy. It meant for the time being we had permission to exist, to keep breathing. The knife blades and rifle bullets weren't going to be coming for us on this night.

POSTSCRIPT: Jessica Buchanan and Poul Thisted were held for 93 days, during which time Buchanan's health steeply declined. On January 25, 2012, on orders from President Barack Obama, 24 U.S. Navy SEAL special operatives took off from the U.S. military base in Djibouti and parachuted into Somalia to rescue them. Two days later, Buchanan was reunited with her aid worker husband, Erik Landemalm, on a U.S. military base in Italy. Their son, August, was born October 2012. They now live in Virgina.

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