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May 13, 2013

Jessica Buchanan: Kidnapped!

On October 25, 2011, 32-year-old aid worker Jessica Buchanan and a Danish colleague were ambushed en route from a land mine awareness training program in southern Somalia and taken by pirates who had moved their ransom schemes from sea to land. Their price? $45 million. Here, she recounts the harrowing abduction that led to 93 days in captivity and a dramatic rescue by the elite U.S. Navy SEAL Team Six. Join our Google Hangout with Jessica on Wednesday, May 15 at 11:30 a.m. EST at plus.google.com/+marieclaire. Plus, submit your questions using #MCJB — they could be answered live!

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Subject

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I know it's not the best time to leave our home in the city of Hargeisa, Somalia, and make the journey 480 miles southeast. My NGO (nongovernmental organization) keeps a field office there, next to a dangerous border called the Green Line separating territories partially held by the Islamists from those still controlled by the official Somali government.

The Green Line is invisible, known best by the people it divides, never included on official maps of Somalia. I've had my eye on the violence down there for a long time. It isn't something I actively fear; I watch it the way a farmer keeps an eye on the horizon.

My concern is getting caught in the crossfire of any one of the countless acts of clan warfare or random hooliganism that plague southern Somalia and keep it in a state of general anarchy. For potential robbers, Westerners may represent a chance at fast money. This is a part of the world where hardly anyone has any, with an average per capita income of $600.

My NGO's plan is for me to fly from Hargeisa to North Galkayo, where, for safety, the excursion from North to South is to be made in a three-car caravan. The security caravan is our standard mode of travel, but what my colleagues have neglected to tell me is that there is a kidnapping threat for expats in the area, and that our destination is situated about a third of a mile from a known pirate den. The very fact that it is unsafe is what maintains my concerns for the children who have no choice but to live there. Every time I think of quitting, I consider the lives we're saving with this mine awareness program and the mutilations we can prevent in the future with this work. Six months earlier, a busload of women and children was bombed on the same road we'll be using.

My colleague, Poul Thisted, and I bring along a few small workbags holding computers and training materials, plus one small personal bag apiece. He's already left, so I grab a U.N. flight of several hours to the town of Galkayo. We spend the night at the NGO guesthouse just to the north side of the Green Line, in the safer zone. From there I send my husband, Erik, a text message that will always stick in my memory: "If I get kidnapped on this trip, will you come and get me?" He responds, "Of course I will come but nothing will happen!! Make sure it doesn't, OK? Love you too much to even think about that, so make sure you will be supersafe."

Once our training session finishes, our convoy arrives to whisk us away from the southern office and back to our guesthouse. The distance isn't far, maybe 20 minutes of driving time. And so at 3 p.m. on October 25, I toss my small bag into the Land Cruiser and get into the backseat while Poul climbs into the passenger seat in front of me. Abdirizak, our locally hired security manager, climbs into the backseat behind the driver, someone new. After spending the entire training session eager to be anywhere but there, it feels wrong to second-guess things now. It's a routine ride for about 10 minutes.

The attack begins as if an umpire has just blown a starting whistle. A large car roars up beside us and careens to a stop. Men with AK-47s encircle our car, pounding on the doors, shouting over each other in Somali. My heart goes straight to my throat. Adrenaline sends a jolt of fear from head to toe. The terror feels like heat, like we are suddenly being roasted alive inside this car. I hear a little version of my own voice in the back of my skull chanting: This is really bad this is really bad this is really bad. Two Somali men outfitted in Special Protection Unit (SPU) uniforms yank open the doors. They may or may not be real SPU members, in this zone of dubious authority. The men close behind them have gun barrels trained on us. I know nothing in this moment except to make no reaction, avoid doing anything that looks aggressive, but also not to cower. With or without training, every mouse knows to freeze in the presence of vipers.

The attackers leap into the passenger compartment. One pulls open the rear door and grabs Abdirizak, our useless "security manager" from behind the driver's seat. The attacker's face is a tarmac of acne scars, punctuated by the crazed eyes of somebody who has had plenty of khat leaves to chew that day. The stuff is a stimulant in low doses and a mind-bender at higher doses over time. The attacker will later tell me his name is Ali, and he makes a show of beating Abdirizak to the ground to establish superiority. And with that, everything slips into slow motion. Crazy-eyed Ali climbs in next to me with his AK-47 pointed at my head. He is close enough that I can see the weapon's ammo cartridge. My body constricts, moving on its own with the expectation of being shot. The other attacker scrambles through the rear hatch, and our last line of hope for escape collapses when our "this is my first day" driver reveals who he is really working for. He speeds away with us like a furious drunk, slamming us around in the passenger compartment while Ali screams the first English word to us I have heard so far: "Mobile!" (meaning our cell phones) and then, "Thuraya!" (satellite cell phones).


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