DAMARISCOTTA, Maine — Amanda Lindhout said she survived more than a year of captivity in Somalia by remembering the many countries she visited as a freelance journalist and imagining what life might hold if she were ever set free.
“The ‘House in the Sky’ for me was my memory and my imagination,” she said, referring to the title of her bestselling book. “They helped me survive.”
On Aug. 23, 2008, Lindhout and Australian photographer Nigel Brennan were kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists outside Mogadishu and held captive for 460 days. They were held in brutal conditions, which only worsened for Lindhout following a failed escape attempt.
Lindhout told a crowd at the Skidompha Library on Thursday that she found compassion and forgiveness for the men who tortured, starved and raped her during the darkest days of her captivity. Months after her release in 2009, she founded a nonprofit organization to support education, community and food relief in Somalia.
During her teenage years in western Canada, Lindhout escaped into the pages of National Geographic. Shortly after she graduated, she moved to Calgary hoping to travel. Several years later, armed with a camera, the young woman was reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2006, she and Brennan headed to Mogadishu, intending to visit a camp for internally displaced people.
“I felt, for the first time in my life, that what I was doing mattered,” Lindhout said Thursday.
Sara Corbett of Portland, who co-authored “A House in the Sky,” recalled watching a YouTube video of Lindhout prior to her abduction, showing “this young, exuberant, utterly free young woman riding on top of trucks in northern Pakistan and wading through crowds of children in the slums of Delhi.”
On their third day in Somalia, Lindhout and Brennan left a Mogadishu hotel with security guards to travel to the camp. Just outside the city, a dozen men armed with AK-47s blocked the road and pulled them out of the vehicle at gunpoint.
The kidnappers took them to an abandoned concrete building and called their parents, demanding a total of $3 million in ransom.
Two months into captivity, after they had been separated into two rooms and could only communicate by furtive whispers, Lindhout and Brennan plotted their escape through a tiny window high on a bathroom wall.
But they were spotted the day they jumped through the window to the ground below. Armed, angry men chased them into a mosque.
Along with her terror, what Lindhout remembers is a single Muslim woman wearing a black hijab, “pulling me into her arms and, [in] English, calling me her sister,” Lindhout said Thursday.
“We began pleading with them to let me go. They pulled her by her ankles to the door, but this woman — she didn’t give up. She literally threw her body on top of mine and held me as long as she could.”
As Lindhout was dragged away — only to be chained in a dark room where she endured even crueler abuse — she glimpsed the woman holding out her arms, with tears on her face, still hoping to help.
“To this day, I don’t know what happened to her,” Lindhout said. “But the next 10½ months, for all the punishment I would have to endure, I thought of her — her courage gave me courage.”
Throughout the remainder of her captivity, Lindhout endured repeated sexual abuse. It was, she said, “the darkest time.”
“The reality of my experience was very violent,” she said. “It was difficult to get through a day, and I didn’t know when, or if, it would end. It was almost constant abuse.”
During the very darkest time, Lindhout had what she calls a “moment of awakening.”
“Abdujllah was abusing me, he was hurting me, and I was protecting myself and had an almost out-of-body experience,” she said. “I found myself looking down on myself on the floor.”
Lindhout said she thought about the violence her attacker had endured — discovering a piece of his aunt’s leg following an explosion and one day hiding behind a truck, hungry and orphaned.
“It’s pretty clear my captors were products of war and certainly had been shaped by that. Having that understanding helped me. They’re human beings with painful stories of their own. It doesn’t make them innocent by any means, but they’re products of a culture of violence.”
In November 2009, the two families managed to pay ransom, and the two journalists were finally freed. The sky she focused on during her first few months of captivity was wide open above her, and she sensed opportunity.
Four and a half months later, Lindhout established the Global Enrichment Foundation, which provides higher education opportunities to women in Somalia.
One day, Lindhout opened Facebook only to see a message written by one of her captors. He praised her for her work in Somalia.
“The fact that they know about the work I’m doing now … that I have chosen compassion, that they could see that they didn’t break me — that’s the best justice I could have.”