Impossible Odds CHAPTER ONE
Erik tells me for the umpteenth time, “I just don’t like it, Jess.”
“And I still agree,” I tell him. “I’ve just got no choice.”
“Oh, come on. There’s always a choice. You can get around it.”
“I’ve canceled three times already and I can’t get around it, at least not by complaining about security anymore. I’m not sick, so what do I tell them?”
This stops him for a minute, but I can see it does nothing to make him feel better. The sense of danger has gotten to us. It’s no help that neither of us has been sleeping well. We acknowledge that much; the question is what to do about it. 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 controlled 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.
Our destination is only a short distance from territories controlled by the Islamist group Al-Shabaab, which rules major parts of southern Somalia and imposes Sharia law with terror tactics. Local unrest is potentially explosive, rolling across the region in waves, but I’ve never been the soldier of fortune type. I started my life in Kenya as a grade school teacher a few years ago and ended up here in Somalia, developing classroom materials for a Danish NGO and working throughout eastern Africa. Our mission is to instruct local people how to avoid the rampant war munitions and land mines that have created a generation of amputees here.
But I realize doing charitable work is no protection from local violence. Criminals are indifferent to social work, and to those who traffic in hate I am a Westerner, which is bad—an American, which is worse, and both my appearance and my occupation are equally repellent in my status as infidel. To me this morning’s destination feels too close to their home territory, where many of their people are violently opposed to the presence of Westerners in their region. No matter how modestly a Western woman dresses or covers her hair, those who traffic in hate don’t see a gesture of cultural cooperation. They see an example of Westerners wearing disguises aimed at lulling the faithful into accepting foreign sacrilege in their homeland. And while bigotry exists all over the world, this is a region where people can really lose their heads over it, generally between the chin and the shoulders.
My continuing 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 USD. Many people have far less. But then that’s why we never wander the region without good cause and we always travel with security.
The sticking point is simple: My NGO thinks this is an important staff training session, while on top of my concerns over civil unrest, my husband Erik’s concerns are stronger still. He has worked in the local political arena here for the last six years, and his sense of the local mindset is good.
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, and I’m not at all surprised to be using it now. 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 five hundred meters from a known pirate den. My sense of dread is strong, even without factoring that into my decision.
Nevertheless, I love my job in spite of these moments of concern. The very fact that it is unsafe is what maintains my concern 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.
I realize Erik’s back is to the wall with his concern for me. Most of the time he is a big teddy bear who embraces the role of taking care of me, and I can see he’s trying hard to do that now. But six months earlier, a busload of passengers—including women and children—was bombed on the same road we’ll be using, innocently caught up in someone else’s dispute. He reminds me, now; it’s only been six months. I have to resist his objections. I tell him (and myself) that in the months since the attack on that bus, the roads between North and South Galkayo have remained calm. I add the helpful fact that earlier today, my NGO’s security advisor cleared me for safe travel in that region. After all, if we don’t rely on their information we can’t do the work.
Shortly before my scheduled departure Erik reluctantly gives in and turns to me with a heavy sigh. “Look, Jess,” he tells me, “you know I want you to do the best work you can, to feel right about it. I don’t know, maybe I’m being too protective . . .”
I beam back at him. “So you won’t be upset with me if I go?”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” he replies, then laughs and adds, “Of course I can’t be upset with you. I get that you need to do this. Just listen, please: Don’t trust anyone’s judgment but your own. Don’t trust anything but your own intelligence. Stay aware and listen to your gut feelings.”
He takes a deep breath. “So just go get it done and get back here safely and let’s move past all this, okay?” He opens his arms for a hug. I throw my arms around him, grateful for his style of loving support. Of course I’m also instantly concerned that this now means the trip is really going to happen.
But neither of us wants to argue; we’re secretly nurturing a hopeful glow that after more than two years of marriage and recent efforts to have a baby, I might be pregnant. I’m only a few days late in my cycle, but hopes are high for both of us. I know how much he prefers for us to stay close and cocoon at home, to focus on willing this child into our lives. But part of Erik’s loving nature is that he really does want to give me the space I need, so even though it goes completely against the grain for him to relent on this, he somehow manages to send me off with a smile.
My colleague Poul Thisted and I bring along a few small work bags holding computers and training materials, plus one small personal bag apiece. That’s about it. He’s already left, so I grab a UN 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 Erik two text messages that will always stick in my memory.
If I get kidnapped on this trip, will you come and get me?
He responds, Nah, 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 super safe.
“Safe” is a word whose meaning varies in our part of Somalia. I’m continually reminded of that after we arrive at our southern office and the training session plays out. Outbursts of urban violence can be heard all around the building. The gunfire becomes so bad outside the compound, people avoid sitting outside on the veranda for fear of a random bullet strike.
I spend the whole trip eager to be out of there and back home, feeling like time is just dragging along. Of course I do this still unaware of the very long and hard way time can truly drag. So far in life I have experienced time, at its worst, as a form of slow boredom—never as a form of torture.
Once we finish the training session and we’re ready to be on our way back to the safer northern zone, I send Erik the second of those two text messages. Sadly, this one is to let him know I’m cramping and it looks like I was wrong about the pregnancy.
Started period: (Guess there’s next month. Love you and miss you so much.
I assure myself that we’ll just have to keep trying. I’m only thirty-two years old. There’s plenty of time—we have all the time we need.
Before Erik has a chance to respond, our convoy arrives to whisk us away from the south office and back to our guesthouse on the north side of the Green Line. The distance isn’t far, maybe twenty minutes of driving time. It’s going to be a relief to get out of there.
And so at 3:00 p.m. on October 25, I toss my small bag in 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. I’ve already noticed this driver is new, but I don’t know anything about him. Ordinarily, I’d ask for an explanation, but Poul appears to be in a hurry to get going and doesn’t show any concern over the driver. I sit there balanced between relative safety or mortal danger and decide I’ve spoken too much of my concern.
After spending the entire training session eager to be anywhere but there, it feels wrong to second-guess things now. I remain quiet about this unfamiliar driver while the caravan pulls away with us.
It’s a routine ride—for about ten 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, splashing mud all over our windows. Men with AK-47s encircle our car, pounding on the doors, shouting over each other in Somali. Their behavior is ferocious.
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.
The men scream in hyped-up fury; there are many distinct dialects in Somali, some unintelligible among the various speakers. I can’t understand any of it except by trying to read gestures and tones of voice. None of the messages are good.
My brain is seizing up from trying to process this. 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, and for some reason I can’t get myself to stop.
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. Whatever they are, the men close behind them have gun barrels trained on us.
I know nothing in this moment except to show no reaction, avoid doing anything that looks aggressive, but also not to cower. Hold still. 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 looks somewhere between thirty and forty years old. His 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. It’s a national scourge because those higher quantities are eventually sought by all regular users.
The attacker will later tell me his name is Ali, though he doesn’t just yet, and he is bigger than the average Somali male, maybe 1.8 meters—around six feet in height. His amped behavior is completely intimidating. I turn to our Abdirizak for a little assistance, but that’s really grasping at straws, because I can’t help but notice good old Abdirizak really could look a lot more surprised. Predictably, he does nothing at all to defend us, and in the next instant the crazy-eyed Ali drags him through his seatbelt and out of the car.
Ali makes a show of beating Abdirizak to the ground to establish superiority, but he doesn’t appear to inflict any damage. It’s mostly an assault of stark male voices bellowing at the top of their lungs. They behave more like brothers in arms who just happen to be on opposite sides of the fence on this day. Maybe they’ll go for a beer tomorrow.
And with that, everything slips into slow motion.
Crazy-eyed Ali climbs in next to me with his AK-47 pointed at my head. The moment plays out in a language of images—he is close enough that I can see the weapon’s ammo cartridge, glimpse the bullets, notice there are plenty of them. The beat-up gun is probably older than I am. I imagine it’s been used to kill plenty of people.
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). He and his cohort wave their gun barrels in our faces as if there’s a chance we haven’t noticed who’s in charge.
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 simply driven to distant locations and pushed out, but left otherwise unharmed and allowed to walk back home. So if we’re simply being robbed and carjacked, then walking home suddenly sounds like a great way to finish off the day.
And in that fashion my name is changed to “Alice” and I am plunged through the looking glass. Here inside the mirror world, the notion of a gunpoint robbery passes for positive thinking.
The vehicle plunges out into the wilderness, slamming over rough roads. There is no way to avoid wondering whether an impact with a pothole will cause one of these slaughter weapons to go off. I still have no idea who has attacked us, but the way they’re bouncing us around, it might not matter. 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 all I know the only upshot to that would be Mr. Crazy Eyes giggling over our corpses and exclaiming the Somali equivalent of “oops . . .”
As soon as Ali takes our phones, he decides Poul should sit in the back next to me while he climbs into the passenger seat—just Ali and the driver with Poul and me behind them, plus one creepy-looking little guy who jumps into the very back and starts going through our belongings.
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.” The words are so quiet I can barely hear them, but they feel like they were shot out of a nail gun.
The men scream at Poul to shut up and force him to turn around. We don’t need to speak their language to understand their commands for silence. They keep whipping out cell phones to call distant cohorts, shouting at the top of their voices.
Still, even here in these first few moments, it seems apparent to me that their level of hysteria far exceeds the need. After all, they pulled off their first phase without a hitch. They have us in a clean capture and they escaped without a struggle. No one is in pursuit, as far as I can tell. But from their behavior, you’d think the guns were being held to their heads, not ours.
This hysteria is surely fueled by their khat use, amplifying their emotions. But they have us, and that’s the truth of it. The result is that every skill and ability I possess has been pulled away. 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 sixty-year-old Danish male and I’m a thirty-two-year-old American female. The proverbial elephant is not only in the middle of the room, it’s high on khat leaves and waving automatic weapons. Homophobia is dominant there, 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 Danish as in being American.
As the only female here, my local experience curses me with the knowledge of what has happened to many other women, Somali or otherwise, taken by these roving gangs of criminals. The horrible irony of my recent attempts to get pregnant with Erik is not lost on me.
All that remains of me as I know myself, in this moment, is this little voice chanting this is really bad this is really bad. The thought is just too awful, that I might die with my joking text message to Erik about getting “kidnapped” now playing out in earnest. Regardless of what I think I can accept, the attackers continue screaming orders and arguments back and forth, always seeming to be in conflict over something or other.
“Money!” Ali now bellows, waving at us to give him ours. For some odd reason, Poul responds to their demand by claiming not to have any. I wonder what he intends to say if they search us and find it. Fortunately, they let it go for the moment. Ali 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. My rattling hippie junk is of no interest.
I’m worried about losing my wedding band and a diamond of my mom’s that was given to me after her passing. I am somehow able to make my shaking hand still enough to palm the diamond down into my bag, and then offer Ali a less precious ring.
At first it seems to work. But my heart sinks when he confiscates my bag and keeps it at his side. He’ll obviously go through it at some point and catch on to my ruse, leaving me in the same dangerous position Poul just assumed. I can only hope when he finds the diamond it might make him happy enough to forget about my attempt to deceive him.
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. I rack my brains for every scrap of information given to us, wishing I had memorized it all.
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 is to have a line to a potential ransom source. Your chance for life is your captor’s hope for money.
Coming up with a phone contact is the easy part. There’s no chance I’d forget Erik’s number. But I also can’t help but recall the instructor’s warning that a “proof of life” call only matters if a kidnapping is done for money.
If we are being taken by ideologues who are out to make a political or religious statement, then there is nothing to be done for us. In that case, our only purpose here will be to endure a gruesome public execution.
Ideological attackers in this region will almost certainly be forces of Al-Shabaab. I try not to obsess over how they would use our torture and death to spread their message, but I’ve seen the same internet videos of doomed hostages as everyone else. The kindest end brought to those victims was the cessation of pain and terror with a single gunshot. If this is a death squad, that’s the best we can hope for, here in this twisted mirror world where oblivion translates as mercy. I think any American adult living abroad knows of journalist Daniel Pearl, snatched from the streets and butchered alive in horrifying close-up video. Too many other horror shows have taken place since then, and so far there’s nothing to indicate this isn’t going to be another one.
Meanwhile the car slams its way along the primitive roadways. My head and shoulders keep colliding with the door frame. I silently push myself, Think! Think! I recall the main point of HEIST is to focus on surviving the first twenty-four 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.
Some do come out alive, I silently tell myself. The numbers are small, but they do exist. Of course at this point we aren’t through the first hour yet, let alone the first day, so the twenty-four-hour tip is of no immediate help.
Ali wants everything Poul is carrying. He even demands the ballpoint pen in Poul’s front pocket. For some reason Poul refuses. I wonder, What is he doing? Is it a male thing? He’s an old hand at the humanitarian expat life, and in his world you stand up to the man. Squawk back to authority.
I try to ignore their little spat so it won’t seem as if we’re acting in concert by refusing to cooperate, but out of the corner of my eye I see Ali rip the pen out of Poul’s pocket. He makes it a point to stare back at Poul as if daring him to do anything about it while he carefully dismantles the pen into its various pieces, then tosses them out the window. I can feel reality being twisted through some kind of terrible grinder. We’re up against schoolyard bullies carrying the weapons of mass murderers. I haven’t realized until this moment, when I see Poul’s tough-guy routine fail, that I’ve been hoping it would actually work.
Still no word on what their intentions may be. We don’t know who these people are and we can’t tell where they are taking us. The horror show proceeds to that point and pauses, as far as any information about what is actually going on here. After that, things happen but nothing changes. Time drips, while the sickly awareness of how toxic and deadly the situation is builds up in my blood.
Hours move along at a slow crawl, and still nothing gives away their intentions. All Poul and I can do is exchange troubled glances. After a while I stop looking. It only makes things worse.
We stop several times and are forced to change into different vehicles. Somewhere during our ride in the third one, the sound of a certain voice inside the car finally registers on me. It’s so high and thin it could be female. I turn around to see instead a young boy who appears to be about eight or nine years old. He’s dressed like the others, in a billowing shirt over those loose trousers that are the alternative to saronglike macawiis. This child copies the older men’s fashion of wearing his traditional shawl around his head like a turban. The obvious joke about him being a miniature kidnapper doesn’t work at all. The sight of him is twisted and wrong.
I wonder, Is he the son of one of these men? My God, is this kid here to learn a trade? The strangeness of this amps me up tighter. My muscles feel as if they’re about to start snapping my bones. The feeling doesn’t wear off.
The afternoon bleeds into evening while we go through a process of making a series of stops, one impoverished-looking location after another. The kidnappers go through elaborate changes in personnel and vehicles for reasons that I can’t fathom, and that Poul and I aren’t allowed to discuss. Whatever is happening, there are certainly a lot of people involved in this operation.
I have to wonder. All this for us?
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. Here again, this implies a large amount of preorganization. It demonstrates complex maneuvering on somebody’s part.
But these guys behave like morons. They must be acting out a plan controlled by somebody smarter. Needless to say, my attempt to rationalize this as a simple carjacking and robbery hasn’t survived the evening. This isn’t just some local gang.
I’ve worked in the region long enough to understand our kidnapping presents dangers far beyond whatever intentions drive these men. 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. If that occurs—and it suddenly feels like it easily could—this lunatic game will become even more deadly.
But by this point in the night I’ve been convinced the scope of the operation makes it clear—at least to me, since I can’t discuss it with anybody—that either we are in the hands of the same people who control the Somali pirates at sea and who have moved their ransom schemes onto land, or this is an Al-Shabaab operation.
I remember breakfast this morning. It was normal.
In this fashion, “likely to die” meets “certain to die” and finds us trapped between them. We continue late into the night, rattling along over roads of inconsistent quality. I’m feeling all the little places where the bruising is beginning set in. Eventually the kidnappers seem to get some invisible clue among themselves and pull our latest vehicle to a stop.
This time it’s different. There’s nothing here. And now 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. It’s a bad one, like freezing and boiling at the same time.
“Walk!” Ali shouts, pointing out into the open scrub land. Then, just in case we haven’t heard, he shouts again, “Walk!”
With that, he stomps off and disappears. Ali is not coming on our “walk” with us. But I have to believe he really has left us. We appear to be in the middle of nowhere, but he moves off like someone who knows his destination. Anyone would recognize his movements as the intention to be gone.
His job has apparently just been to lead the muscle attackers in grabbing us and delivering us here to this place that looks like every other. With that done, his part must be complete. So he’s likely off now to collect his fee from whoever is behind this. I hate to lose a translator, but he doesn’t seem like the conversational type.
After that, everything is shouted in Somali. There isn’t even an occasional English word to clarify a meaning. It doesn’t really matter. The language difference doesn’t shield us from knowing what they want of us from one moment to the next.
And now rough shouts and the waving of gun barrels make the message all too clear—they repeat Ali’s order for us to start walking away from the vehicle. So he wasn’t just being melodramatic about his exit; they actually want us to head out into the scrub desert.
I can’t keep quiet anymore. Somebody here has to understand me, understand my intentions if not my words. “Why?” I cry out, trying to look each man in the eyes. “Why go there? 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. My stomach is a ball of ice. I refuse to go, clinging to my spot while the men scream orders. Every one of them appears loaded on khat. Their eyes are completely bloodshot and they’re hyped to frantic levels.
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 and try to get them to understand, “There is a little black bag inside and I need to bring it with me. Medicine!” I cry, pointing at the bag. “It has my medicine!” 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.
I stare into unblinking faces. “Medicine! I need my medicine!”
With Ali gone, I don’t know if anybody here will even bother to try to understand me, but I repeat over and over, “I need my medicine!” while I point at the large bag, scraping for any way to convey the information. Finally somebody seems to catch on and I’m allowed to go 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. So the bag, sure, the little bag, got to have the little bag.
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. “It’ll be all right. Come on. We have to do what they tell us.”
“Poul, no!” I whisper. “We can’t go out there! They’ll kill us!”
Why doesn’t he see that? We cannot go out there. We can’t go.
“Jessica, listen . . . no matter what they have in mind, unless we cooperate we’ll have ourselves a fatal confrontation, right here.”
I look around at the other men. Several have their rifles trained on us. They will slaughter us as easily as blowing away a mountain goat. The truth of this registers with a part of the brain that’s been around for a long time. There is no hope in this moment except to perhaps earn another few minutes of life.
I check Poul to see if he’s come up with any great ideas in the past couple of seconds, then look around one last time at the useless “safety” of the vehicle . . . and give up. 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.
The men fall in behind us. My God, there are a couple of dozen, at least. And those are heavy machine guns carried by some of them. A few of the men also have those long belts of ammunition I’ve been seeing all day, slung over their shoulders. The caliber of the bullets is very large.
I want to scream out at them. You think you need enough artillery to stage a military assault, just for me and Poul? What’s the matter with you?
What do they think we’re going to do? Do they really believe we might make some sort of hero play? I don’t even know karate.
I have to think. Clear my head. Have we done something terrible without knowing it, some cultural mistake? Do they think we’ve got something to do with their enemies, whoever their enemies happen to be?
Because otherwise, what possible purpose could it serve to use up this much manpower on the two of us? Why would anybody commit these sorts of weapons for two unarmed humanitarian aid workers?
Right there, the thought occurs: Heavy weapons only make sense if they are there for protection. But what would other attackers want that these men have? Well, there are the guns, the ammunition, and of course, there’s always Poul and me.
The heavy weapons aren’t there to keep us from running away. They’re there to keep us from being stolen. This thing is closing in around us like a cave-in.
They move us farther into the scrub desert and keep us walking out there for a long time. The night air is quickly cooling off. I’m shivering steadily now and can’t stop. We are walking in the middle of the group and all moving quickly. I guess that’s good, since it helps to generate a little body heat. Poul is close by, but we are forbidden to speak.
The darkness is heavy, no moon, no ambient light. The sky is crystal clear and the stars are brilliant, comforting in their familiarity. Nothing else about this situation or these people is familiar in the least.
We stumble between the low thorn bushes. I’m not wearing boots or sneakers, but at least my heavy sandals are tough enough to stand up to the terrain. Still I keep scraping the tops of my feet on low-hanging branches.
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. Even if they aren’t talking, these men are putting out that low undercurrent of metallic noises. I suddenly hate the fact that my taste for clunky large necklaces and bracelets too cheap for kidnappers to bother stealing means that I now make similar sounds. I’m harmonizing along with their battle rattle and for some reason I am angry about it. There’s nothing to be done with the anger, so it just adds to the curdling sourness out here.
I can’t keep myself from crying in fear, but I do my best to keep it quiet. Some of the men talk in low voices, but most of them just march along. They seem particularly grim. I wonder if they know something to be grim about.
The young boy appears close to me, walking along and toting his AK-47 like a toy. I’ve heard him called Abdilahi by some of the men. It sounds familiar enough; the name “Abdi” is used on its own and as a prefix to longer names by many men in the region.
Abdilahi jumps over next to me and snorts in derision. He gets close enough for me to see him pointing his rifle at me. He makes a few shooting noises, and this amuses him to the point of laughter. I don’t know what to do in response, so I simply turn away and avoid anything that would invite interaction. Even for his tender years, Abdilahi is far gone in both his khat use symptoms and his child soldier mentality. The wild eyes, the speeded appearance, the unformed brain of an adolescent khat addict are all over him. Abdilahi is what your brain looks like on drugs.
Fortunately, something else grabs his fleeting attention, and he fades off into the dark. It’s good to have him go, but it doesn’t stop my obsessive inner voice from continuing to spout my fears in variations of This is really bad and I’m too young to die.
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.
Finally, we reach some random place that looks no different from anywhere else out there, but either the men have decided this is our destination or else they simply agree we’ve gone far enough. Far enough for what?
This is it . . .
A life that ends this way expires in a daze of confusion. There is some small measure of comfort in this confusion, some shielding of awareness. The mind searches for a reason, any reason at all, to believe what is happening somehow isn’t real. For me, denial doesn’t help. The machine guns around us are all too real. These men are the spitting image of those familiar terrorists on internet videos—standing in the background with scarves and sleeping sheets wrapped around their faces while the captives get slaughtered like livestock.
Straining my eyes in the darkness, I see that some of these men’s weapons seem like long-bladed knives whipping by while we stumble along. There’s no way to tell whether the long thin shapes are gun barrels or blades. I don’t want to think they’re about to execute us by beheading, but I’m scrambling for any other explanation for all this. I am on a terrain of fear I’ve never known.
When beheading is the goal, a modicum of respect is granted if a single swing of a long blade is used, assuring instant death. But special contempt is expressed by sawing through the throat with a long cooking blade, assuring a fully conscious experience for the victim.
I know nothing else to do but scream to God in absolute vocal silence. I silently scream with all of my heart and soul, knowing full well I will not be able to scream once they slice in hard across my throat. God almighty! To endure this piece of Hell . . .
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. A few times I whisper the words. For the rest I just repeat it internally, as if it’s a protective mantra: too young to die, too young to die, too young to die. I whisper prayers for mercy, for strength.
I can’t imagine never seeing Erik again. It seems completely unreal for our future to be stolen from us in this way.
And then the attackers order us to get down onto our knees and turn our backs to them.