Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan in Mogadishu, Somalia, November 26, 2009. The two freelance journalists were released after fifteen months captivity. (Reuters/Government of Somalia)
The woman who appeared in my office doorway on May 20, 2010, wearing a slim white skirt suit was absolutely startling. Maybe it was her eyes—I’d never seen such jewel-green eyes.
But the intensity of her presence was more than physical. Amanda Lindhout radiated a kind of peace I hadn’t expected. After working for fifteen months on her case at the Committee to Protect Journalists, where I was senior editor, I had imagined her many times. She was the young journalist who at the age of 27 had been abducted by Somali insurgents and whose captivity had dragged on interminably. Taken with fellow freelancer Nigel Brennan, Lindhout was never far from my mind. Of all the horror stories I’d reported and edited over my years at CPJ, hers stayed with me day and night.
Lindhout was reporting in Somalia in August 2008 when teenage boys kidnapped her along with Brennan, Somali translator Abdifatah Mohammed Elmi and driver Mahad Clise as they were returning on the Afgoye-Mogadishu road from interviews with refugees at a camp called Celasha Biyaha. The captors freed the translator and driver after 150 days.
As the months wore on, I couldn’t get past my dread that Lindhout’s story would not end well. That there had been so many unsuccessful negotiations with the two governments involved (Canadian, hers; Australian, Brennan’s) over so many, many days pointed toward an unhealthy outcome.
In the meantime, I couldn’t keep myself from imagining what she might be enduring. Was she being fed? Was she being abused? Was she being raped? The rumors coming out of Somalia weren’t encouraging: she was pregnant (untrue); she was “married” to one of her captors (untrue); she was being tortured (true).
Much of what I was imagining turned out to be right. Lindhout was being raped and treated little better than a goat before a sacrifice. She was being kept alive, but barely, fed two or three tiny squares of animal fat a day or a piece of a hot dog bun. Just enough to take her to whatever the end would turn out to be. Fortunately, though, I was wrong about something important: Lindhout would get out of her situation alive.
After 460 days, she and Brennan were released in exchange for just over $600,000, which had been negotiated down from an original asking price of $3 million. And not only would Lindhout get out alive, she would eventually do something nobody expected or could have imagined.
* * *
One thing about being a kidnapped journalist (especially a kidnapped female journalist) is that everyone wants to know whether she “should have been there.” Why go to a war zone? Are you experienced enough? Do you have enough protection with you? In Lindhout and Brennan’s case, the answer is complicated. This was not Lindhout’s first war zone (it was Brennan’s); she’d been in Baghdad as a novice journalist, working for Iran’s startup Press TV channel. Before that, Lindhout, a traveler by nature, had spent many months roaming Asia, and had pressed her luck in Afghanistan. Twice. But she had not been a journalist for long, and she had never been “trained” (although formal training is hardly a common prerequisite in this field). She went to Somalia because she “really, truly cared about the human suffering in those places,” she told me.
And she got into a mess, yes. But consider that the mess she found was awaiting any Western journalist traveling to Somalia at that time. As Lindhout writes with co-author Sara Corbett in her new book, A House in the Sky, the kidnappers were very likely targeting two National Geographic journalists who were in the city when she was. Kidnapping and death are risks for all reporters in war zones, no matter how experienced or how established the news outlet they work for. Veteran New York Times journalists Anthony Shadid, Lynsey Addario, Stephen Farrell and Tyler Hicks were abducted and held by the Libyan military for six days in March 2011 and subjected to physical and sexual abuse. Well-known journalist Marie Colvin, who had reported from many wars during her career, was killed in Syria in February 2012. At least twenty-four local and international journalists have been abducted in the past year in Syria alone, according to CPJ. The organization’s list of journalists known to be missing around the world is sobering, and it doesn’t even include those who have been abducted by known parties.
If you paid any attention to the relentless victim-blaming of Lara Logan after her rape in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in February 2011, you might guess that Lindhout’s immense suffering has not stopped many men from anointing themselves arbiters of what happened to her in Somalia. As news stories about her experience surged before her book’s publication, men swamped Lindhout’s Facebook page and e-mail inbox with judgments, threats and comments on her appearance.
From one reader:
Tragic. Not just your ordeal but your stupid decision. You’re a good looking piece of leg.… In retrospect would you have rather had you dad give you a black eye or get gang raped? You have to answer that.… Well you’re a published writer now. You traded your pussy for it.… I would have used my hands on you. Maybe even my fists. Why? Because of anger? No. To help you understand what men can do to women like you when they have no moral restraint.
And from another:
I would keep you forever and you’d only be free when DEAD!!!!! Your pussy n ass would never be empty you fucking cunt.
As easy as it might be to dismiss the crazies, it’s not just occasional twisted men who blame Lindhout for what happened to her. A women’s magazine reporter recently asked her whether she thinks she was raped because she’s “pretty”—whether she “tempted” the boys. Not a few days passed before another female reporter asked her the same thing.
* * *
When Lindhout was in captivity, her kidnappers—who were little more than teenage boys for the most part—blamed her consistently for her predicament. They pointed their fingers at her and called her dirty or evil or “bad.” Mostly just “bad.” As a woman being held among fundamentalists, she represented all the evil in the world, just as Eve will forever have guilelessly tempted Adam into wickedness in the origin story. As such, she was punished for all the sins she represented: loose morality… being female.
“The problem is you,” one boy told her before another kicked her in the ribs.
It would be a slow but steady lead-up toward the dismantling of Lindhout because she was a woman. Clothed in the jeans and green tank top she’d worn under an abaya the day she was kidnapped, she sweated in the Somali heat wearing the outfit covered by a long red dress. At one point, she writes, the moisture beneath her bra was actually rotting her skin, but she dared not remove it, feeling she needed the body armor.
Rape first came under darkness. One of the more violent of the boys came to her secretly at night and threatened to kill her if she told the others. Her description of the aftermath is eloquent and painful and self-punishing:
Between my legs, I was raw and sore. I felt as if I’d been evicted from my body, like some vicious flattening force. I was a ghost wandering the ruins of a wrecked city. I should have hated Abdullah, but I hated myself more. My mind ticked through every mistake I’d ever made, every wrong thing about me. Why had I come to Somalia?
Already, she tells the reader she blames herself, as most rape victims do. And the men who continue to write to blame her for her rape, maybe they should read why that’s not a very smart idea.
That first rape was just the beginning of what would spiral into gang assaults and beatings that would unmoor her back teeth.
They called it a search, what they went on to do to me that morning, in that room. But what they did was drag us all into new territory. All of the boys were there. I understood later how much this mattered, how it kept any one of them from judging the others in the months to come. Together, they crossed into a darker place, where there was no retrievable dignity for anybody. They became guilty, one the same as another. [Emphasis added.]
What those boys did is a common pattern in gang rapes, whether in war zones or the streets of any city or village in the world: One man starts the violation, and the others are absorbed into a twisted fraternity. Last year I wrote a piece with Gloria Steinem in The Guardian in which we outlined a concept called “the cult of masculinity” that “some men become addicted to.” These men feel they have no identity without the group. The cult is a kind of drug pushed by the group dynamic in order to make the individuals in it act violently and risk their own ethical identity as human beings. That is what I believe Lindhout experienced in that first gang rape. The boys needed to undermine their own humanity to harm her—and they did it in a way that shielded themselves in the group.
The act allowed those boys to excise whatever anger they’d built up at their own situation—the poverty, the isolation, the fighting. The built-up frustration of a horrifying life in war-torn Somalia had found its focus in destroying Lindhout’s body. While Brennan was beaten, he was not called “the problem,” as Lindhout was, nor was he the focus of sexualized violence.
Sexualized violence against women is used globally this way. It is a weapon of war for this reason. Women’s bodies are trampled and ripped apart as a means of humiliating them, their families, whole societies. They are destroyed for the sake of gaining information, silencing them, demonstrating power, to express frustration. The list is unending.
* * *
When I said earlier that Lindhout had gone on to do something nobody expected, here’s what I meant.
Since her release, Lindhout has been building a foundation that promotes peace and development in Somalia through literacy, food donations, educational scholarships and by sponsoring all-girl basketball teams. She also created a program called SHE WILL that supports survivors of rape and gender-based violence in Somalia because, she says, “I know firsthand how critical support systems are.”
Lindhout has not only thrived since her captivity, she has dedicated her life to helping other women do so as well. So this recent headline from Canada’s National Post isn’t exactly recognizing the depth of her struggle and renaissance: “Canadian woman taken hostage in Somalia says she was starved, beaten, sexually brutalized and ready to die.” It also has directly led to some of the threatening and demeaning messages Lindhout has received. A February 5 story titled “Woman of Vision” in the Calgary Herald mentioned the tantalizing detail that she was sexually abused “daily”; it spurred two men to send her frightening messages asking if she “enjoyed the daily rapes.”
Also in February, The Huffington Post came out with a remarkably insensitive headline about Lindhout: chained starved raped, it shouted. Its reason for shouting? Lindhout had finally said publicly she’d been raped during her captivity. She told me she had hesitated to do that because she knew it would spur imaginations in ways she felt were invasive and unnecessary. Exactly how was she tortured? How many times was she raped? These are precisely the kinds of questions she imagined receiving—and did.
Whether it’s the media trying to sell stories or individual men trolling Lindhout for their own amusement, the net result is the same: she has had to struggle to remain a survivor rather than a victim. She has had to yet again resist men who want to take out their anger and frustrations on her because she is a woman.
Lindhout may have left captivity, but the misogynistic punishment continues.
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