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Impossible Odds

The Kidnapping of Jessica Buchanan and Her Dramatic Rescue by SEAL Team Six
By Jessica Buchanan, Erik Landemalm, Anthony Flacco

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CHAPTER ONE

Jessica:

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 cancelled 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 south. My NGO (non-government organization) keeps a field office there, next to a dangerous border called the Green Line separating Islamist controlled territories 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, who 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 occupation are equally repellant 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 ex-pats in Galkayo, and that our destination is situated about 500 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 ongoing concerns 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 concerns 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 women and children was bombed on the same road we’ll be using, innocently caught up in someone else’s dispute. He reminds me it’s only been six months. I have to resist his objections. I tell him (and myself) that in the four months since the June attack on that bus filled with women and children, 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. 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, so 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. Then we grab a U.N. 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 guest house 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 PM on October 25, I toss my small bag in the Land Cruiser and get into the back seat while Poul climbs into the passenger seat in front of me. Abdirizak, our locally hired security manager, climbs into the back seat behind the driver. I’ve already noticed this driver is new. He’s someone I’ve seen before, 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 concerns.

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.

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