Amanda Lindhout dreamed about the life she established in her “house in the sky” while in captivity.
It was only Lindhout’s third day in Somalia when she and Canadian photographer Nigel Brennan were taken by Islamist insurgents and held captive for 15 months, a harrowing experience documented in her 2013 New York Times best-selling memoir named after the imaginary place she thought about to cope with her abusive conditions.
Lindhout will speak about her experiences at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Grace Presbyterian Church. Her memoir has been optioned to become a major motion picture by Megan Ellison, producer of “Zero Dark Thirty,” with Rooney Mara playing the role of Lindhout.
“The ultimate takeaway is to leave people thinking about the strength of the human spirit in the midst of adversity,” Lindhout said. “It’s not always easy for me to talk about the most difficult period of my life, but it’s about making meaning out of trauma and suffering. If I share this with people and it helps them in some way, it’s turning something terrible into something really positive.”
Born in 1981, Lindhout grew up in a struggling family in Alberta, Canada. She read National Geographic magazines as a child and started backpacking at age 19, financing her trips with money saved from odd jobs. Lindhout visited countries on every continent for five years before she decided to become a journalist.
“I was meeting many different people along the way, who were doing what I was but had much bigger purpose to it,” she said. “They were sharing stories with people at home, and I thought that was inspiring. As a traveler, you learn so much, but what do you do with that? You go home. But as a journalist, you go and teach people.”
Lindhout was a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and Iraq before heading to Mogadishu, Somalia, in 2008 for what she thought would be a one-week trip, working on stories she pitched to Canadian and French broadcasters, she said.
“My motivation, in perhaps a somewhat naive way, was the thinking that I might be able to help by creating awareness of what was happening in Somalia,” she said.
Three days later, about a dozen teenagers armed with AK-47 machine guns surrounded Lindhout’s vehicle as she, Brennan, their driver and translator were headed to interview refugees at the Ceelasha Biyaha refugee camp. The reality of her situation hit when the captors demanded $3 million in ransom for Lindhout’s and Brennan’s release.
“It was completely devastating,” she said. “I knew it wouldn’t be resolved quickly. The Canadian and Australian governments don’t pay ransoms, and they were asking for $3 million, something our families couldn’t afford.”
After five months, Lindhout and Brennan attempted to escape and failed, running to a nearby mosque where no one but one woman seemed willing to help when the armed captors arrived. The conditions of their captivity became unspeakably brutal for the next 10 months, Lindhout said. The two were isolated in small, dark holding cells with little food or clean water.
“At that point, it was just about getting through each day,” Lindhout said. “I thought about my family, I thought about Canada, I thought about what I wanted to do with my life if I made it out. My house in the sky was a place I could go in my own mind to escape my reality.
“The longer I spent in captivity, the clearer it became to me that these young men who abducted me were products of the war-torn environment. I thought, ‘If I get out of here, I want to do something that contributes a positive change.’ ”
The captors released Lindhout and Brennan on Nov. 25, 2009, after their families negotiated the ransom down to $600,000. Lindhout was hospitalized in Nairobi for two weeks, where she was treated for acute malnourishment.
A year later, Lindhout founded her philanthropic organization, the Global Enrichment Foundation, which took Lindhout back to Somalia in 2011 and 2012. The foundation recently provided university scholarships for 48 Somalian women. Lindhout said she thought of that woman in the mosque when she founded her nonprofit.
“I don’t know what happened to her that day,” she said. “What I felt in that moment toward her and what I feel right now are much the same thing. I’m absolutely gobsmacked at her courage to help another human being in need. She reacted instinctively to help me, putting her own life in danger. What she did that day really changed my life. Maybe I’ll never know what happened to her, but at least I can do something to honor her.”
Lindhout will begin studying psychology at the University of Calgary this fall.
“I wrestle with a lot of different emotions like anger, self-pity, confusion,” she said. “But what you focus on grows. When those emotions surface, I really do my best not to let them sit there for too long.
“That’s why I talk a lot about forgiveness, which is sometimes misconstrued. It’s not something I do for my captors. When I make the choice to forgive, it’s something I’m doing for myself so I can live a life that’s free of that negative past.”