Last Friday, I had the opportunity to meet Amanda Lindhout, a young Canadian former free-lance journalist from Alberta who survived 15 months in captivity in Somalia until a ransom was paid for her release. Unfortunately, I missed most of her presentation as I had to worked but I’m glad that I came, even for the short part of the question and answer period that I was able to attend. Amanda was invited by Metropolis in association with Citizenship and Immigration Canada. I was initially reluctant to attend the session when I read the following description of it:
There are few people who can claim to personally understand what drives the growing threat of terrorism in our world. Amanda Lindhout’s extraordinary experience being held hostage for 460 days by teenage militants in Somalia has given her an inside look at how international terrorist groups are recruiting and radicalizing young men in Africa. Lindhout’s chilling discoveries about the structure and motivations of these groups, including the incredible power of the internet to disseminate terrorist propaganda, are a timely resource for anyone seeking to understand the complicated world we live in. She shares her belief that poverty and oppression are contributing factors in the phenomenon of child soldiers and presents a powerful message about the important role that education plays in countering youth recruitment.
I was invited by a friend to hear Amanda speak. After reading the description of the presentation above I really didn’t want to attend this event. I don’t like to participate in events that seem to be feeding into the paranoia of the Post 9/11 world without providing any context and/or confusing the issues. Child soldiers are a phenomenon across Africa and the groups that recruit and train them are often more driven by greed than any ideology or religion.
Luckily, Amanda herself has a better grasp on the complexities of youth radicalization in the context of failed states than the organizers of this event seemed to. One of the most interesting statements she made during the question and answer period was in response to whether or not she wanted to see her captors punished. Amanda expressed a great deal of compassion for the young men who were involved in her abduction, even those who inflicted violence upon her, because she realized that violence and chaos was all they ever knew growing up in an area of Somalia that is virtually lawless. As she said in a 2010 interview with The Toronto Star:
When you see a 14-year-old boy who has never known what peace looks like for a day in his life, there’s part of you as a human being that feels some degree, you can say, compassion for the fact that these boys have known war, famine, violence and death from the day they were born.
But she had no sympathy for the men who were the leaders of these young men as these leaders had often lived outside of war-torn Somalia and received foreign education. They knew what a world without war looked like but instead of returning to their homeland to bring peace, prosperity, and stability, they were fostering chaos to make a profit and using religion to justify it.
I was disturbed to hear about how Amanda’s captors used the Koran to justify their brutal treatment of her, which included sexual abuse. As a Muslim, although there are parts of our religious text, much like the Old Testament, that would definitely be seen to violate human rights law and were revealed during a time when the ransoming of war captives and slavery was considered acceptable, her captors treatment of her couldn’t even be justified by the most fundamentalist reading of the Koran. In the end, this was about money and the exploitation of women and it sickens me that men would try to justify this using religion.
I had a chance to speak with Amanda afterwards and she expressed that she really prefers to speak about the positive work her foundation, The Global Enrichment Foundation, is doing for Somali women in Somalia and Kenya, and the strength of Somali women, than about radicalization. I was really inspired by how Amanda had turned an experience that could have made her hateful of Somalis and Muslims in general, into a passion and committment to empowering the Somali people in concrete ways. The fact that she is investing herself in this effort while also picking up the pieces of her life, recovering psychologically from torture, studying at the graduate level, and dealing with the financial repercussions of her family having to pay her ransom is amazing. Her strength and compassion is an example to us all. She and her family are in my prayers.
The mandate of The Global Enrichment Foundation is as follows:
Our work begins with women in Somalia, but the effects reach entire communities, inspiring others to become change agents for the greater good of Somalia- and the world.
When women are educated and empowered they are in a better position to become active citizens creating social and economic change, as well as advocates for their own rights.
The Global Enrichment Foundation focuses on harnessing the power of women by providing opportunities for women to reclaim their lives from the devastating effects of war. The goal of total gender equality is the foundation of all our work.
Initiatives of The Global Enrichment Foundation include the Somali Women’s Scholarship Program, a scholarship program which includes a living allowance for Somali women to enable them to attend university in Somalia (Yes, there actually are still some functioning universities in Somalia) and SHE WILL, a microfinance program for Somali women refugees living in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya.
There will be a fundraiser this week for the Somali Women’s Scholarship Program in Ottawa on Thursday, March 10th from 9:00am to 4:00pm at the Atrium at Carleton’s University Centre. You can visit the Facebook Page for this event for details.
The following are excerpts from interviews with Amanda Lindhout about her experience in captivity and her work with the Somali community:
In an interview with Mel James from the organization Safe World for Women, Amanda had this to say about her experience:
About the strength of Somali women:
Before I even set foot in Somalia, I admired the women of the country. I am an avid watcher of the news and it was so apparent to me that the women of the country needed education and reform.The women of the country were already beginning to demand to be heard. There’s no normal government in Somalia so the education system is already expensive and many schools just do not accept female students. The women of Somalia were already asking for change and I felt these women were so brave. I was only actually in the country for 3 days before I was kidnapped, but on the second day I visited a world food program. The women there had been waiting for hours in the heat with war around them and yet still they had such grace. They were offering to share their food with me! I was so impressed by these women. When they kidnapped me and Nigel Brennan (the male journalist whom I traveled with), there was a moment, a day, where we actually escaped. We ran to a nearby mosque and, of course, they came to recapture us. The local people tried to protect us and there was one woman that risked her own life to help me! She was so brave, and that woman had a profound effect on me. The last time I saw her she was surrounded by guns. That was the last image I had of her and I don’t know what happened to that woman after that. That stayed with me. I really wanted to honor that woman and I began thinking what would I do to make Somalia a better place. Even when I looked at my captors I saw they were teenagers who were a product of their environment. I thought: I am going to do something to make this a better place for these women and I had 15 months of being held captive to focus my energy on this.
On financing Somali women’s education:
There’s so much corruption in Somalia and there’s actually no formal banking system in the country. But it does have a money transfer system and that is how people get money in and out of Somalia. It’s actually the way that my ransom was paid and the way that ransoms are paid for other situations. Like when boats are taken through piracy. So we actually use this system and we pay the fees to the university, which are around $600 a year, but we pay the living costs to the young women directly. This is because there is so much corruption. If we send the money for living allowances to them, we can be sure that it’s going directly to the women. This is an amount of $32 a month, and while that doesn’t sounds like a lot. It’s actually a large amount in Somalia. This money ensures they aren’t hungry, can buy educational supplies and even allows them to help support their family which is so important.
In an interview in 2010 for The Toronto Star, Amanda reflects on her time in captivity:
When your reality is that you’re being abused in a multitude of ways and being starved and literally in chains in the dark, there are days that are quite hopeless and in order to survive you have to find ways to let go of the anger and bitterness that have completely taken you over. Because if you just sit with those emotions for too long, I don’t know if a person can survive that intact.
I have a great deal of sympathy and empathy for what (people in Somalia) are going through, the women in particular. So it’s not as difficult as people might think to make a bridge between myself and the people of Somalia, in particular the women… I understand their suffering in a way that most other people can’t.
Amanda Lindhout’s statement upon her release available online
Canadian Somalia hostage freed when taxi lights flicked (2009 article available online)
Nightmares haunt former hostage Amanda Lindhout (2010 article available online)
The Global Enrichment Foundation Website