Survival

I Was Kidnapped By Pirates!

Brave Jessica faced a life-changing ordeal when a drive home took a terrifying turn
Supplied
  • Working as an aid worker in Africa, Jessica Buchanan, 44, was raising awareness about landmines.
  • Kidnapped by pirates, she was held hostage for 93 days in the depths of the Somali desert.
  • Two months into captivity Jessica developed a UTI and knew if left untreated could be fatal.
  • As the pain intensified her only hope was to be rescued. 

Here Jessica tells her story in her own words.

As the instructor rattled off survival strategies, I mentally filed them away.

‘If you make it through the first 48 hours of a kidnapping alive, you have a good chance of surviving,’ they said.

A teacher by profession, at this time I was an aid worker in Africa.

Sitting in Hostile Environment Awareness training, I thought, That will never happen to me.

My husband Erik, then 33 – also an aid worker – and I had lived in relative safety in northern Somalia for two years and loved it.

Now I was working for a group that raised awareness about landmines.

My colleague Poul Hagen Thisted, then 60, and I made a trip to Somalia’s more dangerous south for a three-day training session.

Travelling in a convoy of three Land Cruisers, with two armed guards at the front and two bringing up the rear, the car Poul and I were in was in the middle.

The training went well. Wrapping up our final day around 2pm, I was looking forward to being home.

We’re on the home stretch, I messaged Erik, from the back seat of the car.

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Me before the ordeal (Credit: Supplied)

Our security advisor Abdi was sitting beside me, and Poul was in the front passenger seat.

Driving through the dusty narrow roads, about 10 minutes in, a big SUV came roaring up to the right of us.

As the driver slammed on the brakes, the car stopped, blocking our path as mud sprayed across our windshield.

What a jerk. Who drives like that? I thought.

Then a group of Somali men started banging on our windows with the butts of their AK47 rifles.

Suddenly, Abdi’s door was torn open, and one of the men wrenched him out of the car, then smashed his rifle over his head.

Jumping into the back seat, the man put his gun to my head and screamed at our driver, ‘DRIVE!’

As we tore through the tiny streets, I was terrified.

Had we been carjacked, or was it something much more sinister?

‘What’s happening?’ I whispered to Poul when he glanced around.

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Erik and me (Credit: Supplied)

‘We’re being kidnapped,’ he mouthed back.

This is very, very bad, I panicked.

We’d been kidnapped by Somali pirates.

They didn’t just operate at sea, they also terrorised people on land.

Our kidnapper, known as Ali, barked orders at us in broken English.

Gathering up our wallets and phones, he made me take off my jewellery including my wedding ring.

He even made Poul give him the ballpoint pen in his pocket.

Taking it, without breaking eye contact, Ali snapped the pen into pieces, then threw it out the window bit by bit.

It was if he was sending us the chilling message, This is what I’m going to do to you.

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My colleague Poul (Credit: Supplied)

The city soon made way to a red, arid landscape.

After about 12 hours, the car stopped in the depths of the desert.

It was pitch black. Ordered out of the car, with armed pirates at our backs, Poul and I walked further into the desert.

After 20 terrifying minutes, Ali ordered us to get on our knees.

They’re going to execute us, I realised.

I was only 32.

Looking up into the night sky, a single star beamed brightly and I silently called out to my mum, Marilyn, who had passed away suddenly a year earlier aged 57.

Please help me, Mum, I prayed. I haven’t had children yet. I didn’t say goodbye to Erik. This can’t be the end.

Helplessly waiting in the eerie silence, you could hear a pin drop.

Then finally Ali spoke.

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Me when I was a hostage (Credit: Supplied)

‘Go to sleep,’ he barked.

Paralysed with fear, I curled up in the cold red dirt next to Poul and somehow slept.

Waking to the sweet sound of birds chirping, as my mind caught up, I realised life would never be the same.

Trying to shelter from the sweltering desert sun, I dragged the filthy mat I’d been given beneath an acacia tree, under the menacing watch of my kidnappers.

Each night, Poul and I slept outside in the freezing desert. With machine guns set up on tripods, their barrels aimed straight at my head, escape wasn’t an option.

And as the only woman in the 30-strong camp, sexual assault was a constant fear.

‘We can feel any emotion – fear, anger, rage. But despair is not an option,’ Poul and I decided as we spoke. ‘We will get out of this,’ we told each other every day.

Dragging one of us behind a tree, guards would fire shots, fingertips away from our heads.
They’d grab us by the hair and smack us with their guns, scream in our faces, and push us to the ground.

‘Are you going to kill us?’ I stuttered, fearfully.

They ignored me.

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Reunited with Erik (Credit: Supplied)

Then one day, two weeks into our captivity, I was finally given an answer.

‘We just want money,’ a pirate spat.

On day 40, Poul and I were forced in front of a video camera to make a ‘proof of life’ video call.

The price for our ransom was set at $45 million.

Moved between different camps every few days, I’d go to the loo behind a bush, and used a bucket of dirty water to wash.

We were fed a small can of tuna with stale bread once a day, and drinking water was given to us in the same bucket used to fill the cars with diesel.

Weeks turned to months, and the lack of hygiene caught up to me.

Two months in, a familiar pain spread across my pelvic area. I’ve got a UTI, I realised anxiously.

As the pain intensified, I knew if untreated it could lead to a kidney infection – and possibly be fatal.

A month later, Poul and I had another proof of life call with a colleague, Alex.

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My family (Credit: Supplied)

‘I need medication, I need to be hospitalised.

If you guys don’t get me out of here I’m going to die,’ I begged.

Nine days later, on January 25, I didn’t have much fight left.

In agony with a raging temperature, that night I curled up into a foetal position.

Just then, the night air erupted with automatic gunfire and all nine men guarding me were killed.

I didn’t know what to think. Hostages were valuable – we might have been kidnapped by another group.

‘I can’t survive another kidnapping. I can’t do this anymore,’ I cried.

All of a sudden, I felt hands grabbing me and I fought back with every drop of energy I had left.

‘Jessica, we’re the American military, and we’re here to save you.

We’re here to take you home. You’re safe now,’ a man said.

Scooping me into his arms, he ran across the desert.

While we waited for a helicopter, a medic gave me medication.

Poul was safe too.

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With my book (Credit: Supplied)

We’d been rescued by the US forces Navy SEAL 6 elite team.

My prayers had been answered.

After a brief hospital visit in Djibouti, East Africa, I was taken to Erik at a military base in Italy.

‘I thought I’d never see you again,’ Erik sobbed, wrapping me up tightly.

Later, I discovered that our security advisor, Abdi, the man responsible for protecting us, had sold us out to the pirates for cash.

Once it was clear how serious the UTI was, doctors warned I might have only had two weeks to live.

Thankfully, there had been a new moon – perfect darkness for a rescue mission.

Not long after my ordeal, Erik and I found out we were expecting our son August, now 11.

He’s such a blessing, as is his sister Ebba, nine.

Inevitably, being held hostage for 93 days left its scars.

I learned to deal with flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Despite my trauma, I managed to travel again though, and I speak about my story all over the world.

Our children know how strong I am to have survived, and that makes them feel strong too.

I went through hell, but came out stronger than I could’ve imagined.

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