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Alberta woman held hostage in Somalia

After about a year of being starved, beaten and sexually brutalized, Amanda Lindhout decided it was time to kill herself.

The Alberta woman, taken hostage in Somalia in August 2008, says she reached her breaking point after spending three days trussed up like an animal, her hands and feet pulled so tightly behind her back that she could barely breathe.

When her captors did untie her, they told her it was only a reprieve. They promised to use the same torture technique on her again each day until they got their ransom money.

Left alone, Lindhout resolved that she was better off dead. She would take a rusty razor to her wrists.

But as she held the blade in her hand, a small, brown bird flew into the doorway of the room where she was being held. It hopped on the dirty floor, looked at her and flew away. It was the first bird she'd seen since shortly after she was taken.

"I'd always believed in signs ... and now, when it most mattered, I'd had one," she writes. "I would live and go home. It didn't matter what came next or what I had to endure.

"I would make it through."

In an advance edition of a book, which is set for release next month, the 32-year-old details the brutal 15 months she spent in captivity along with Australian photographer Nigel Brennan. Entitled "A House in the Sky," the book is co-authored by Sara Corbett, a contributing writer with the New York Times Magazine.

The book reveals how Lindhout and Brennan's families eventually gave up on the Canadian and Australian governments and co-ordinated the pair's release themselves.

The final price for their lives: $1.2 million.

About $600,000 went to the kidnappers as ransom. They'd originally asked for $3 million. The remaining money was spent on other costs, including a $2,000 per day fee for a private hostage negotiator.

The two families split the bill evenly. While Brennan's family was more well off. Lindhout's parents came up with their half with the help of donations.

Lindhout says both the Canadian and Australian governments made the kidnappers an offer of $250,000. It was categorized as "expense" money to maintain official policies of not paying ransoms.

It was rejected.

Ottawa officials also tried to enlist the help of people in the Somali government, she writes, but its leadership was in constant chaos.

Lindhout doesn't condemn the federal government for failing to save her, but she does write about countries around the world that quietly pay ransoms, "strike diplomatic deals or send in armed commandos" for their citizens.

"Many, including the Canadian and U.S. governments, try to provide family support while also maintaining a hard line about further fuelling terrorism and hostage-taking through ransom payments ... Still, try telling that to a mother, or a father, or a husband or wife caught in the powerless agony of standing by," the book reads.

She admits she was naive and inexperienced, travelling to a dangerous country for the thrill of adventure. As a Calgary cocktail waitress, she had saved her tips for backpacking trips around the world before turning to freelance journalism to further fund her travels.

She had earlier travelled on her own to Afghanistan and sold a story to her hometown newspaper, the Red Deer Advocate, and some photos to an Afghanistan magazine. She thought her career was advancing when she landed a job in Baghdad for Press TV, the English division of Iran's state broadcaster, but she says she quickly felt she was "part of a propaganda machine."

She decided to take a chance on heading to Somalia. "The reasons to do it seemed straightforward. Somalia was a mess. There were stories there, a raging war, an impending famine, religious extremists and a culture that had been largely shut out of sight."

She knew it was dangerous but hoped to find a story that would launch her career.

She spoke on the phone with Brennan, a former boyfriend she'd met on a previous trip to Ethiopia, and blurted out an invitation for him to join her and take photos while she did TV news. He agreed.

They had only been in Somalia a few days when they got into a car with a hired fixer, driver and security guards and headed for a camp of displaced people outside the capital city of Mogadishu. On the way, armed men stopped and dragged them from the vehicle.

Lindhout says she later learned the group had been watching their hotel and were actually targeting two men also staying there, a writer and photographer working for National Geographic. The kidnappers were surprised to end up with a woman, she says.

While Lindhout and Brennan were kidnapped together, they had different experiences in captivity. Brennan was kept in a room with windows, furniture and books to read, but Lindhout was holed up in a dark room with rats. It was simple: he was a man; she was a woman.

They both told their captors they wanted to convert to Islam. They recited the Qur'an and prayed five times each day, hoping it would provide them some protection.

Back in Canada, Lindhout's family feared she was being sexually assaulted, but Canadian officials assured them Muslims were unlikely to do such a thing.

She says one captor, however, routinely snuck into her room and forced himself on her.

Things got worse, she says, when she and Brennan tried to escape in early 2009.

The pair used a nail clipper to dig bricks and metal bars out of a bathroom window, then crawled out and ran to a nearby mosque. When some of the gun-toting kidnappers caught up with them, no one in the crowd would help, except one older woman.

She clung to Lindhout's arms then threw herself onto Lindhout's body as the men dragged their hostage out of the building. Lindhout says she later heard a gunshot echo from inside the mosque, though she says she never learned the fate of her helper.

The kidnappers blamed Lindhout for the escape, even though it had been Brennan's idea. The next day, in a prayer room, they put a sheet over her head, stripped down her clothes and took turns violating her body.

The Canadian Press


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