A Former Hostage In Somalia Remembers

Australian photojournalist Nigel Brennan and a colleague were captured in 2008 while covering the civil war in Somalia and held for ransom. They spent more than a year in captivity before their families paid the kidnappers $1.3 million. Brennan shares his story, the subject of an hourlong broadcast on the National Geographic Channel.

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CHERYL CORLEY, HOST:

And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Cheryl Corley.

Four hundred sixty-two days, more than 15 months - that's how long Nigel Brennan was held in captivity by a gang of Somali kidnappers. It was the summer of 2008. Brennan was a 37-year-old freelance photojournalist from Australia. He was traveling with a Canadian colleague, Amanda Lindhout, to cover Somalia's civil war when they were ambushed just outside Mogadishu, the country's capital. Nigel Brennan's story is being told tomorrow night on the National Geographic Channel.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOCKED UP ABROAD: NIGHTMARE IN SOMALIA")

NIGEL BRENNAN: You have nine hours to live. If we don't get money from you, we're going to kill you. Stop. Stop.

CORLEY: I spoke with Nigel Brennan from the Sydney Studios of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and he described how he and Amanda were constantly moved from compound to compound, one filthy location after another.

BRENNAN: Cockroaches, rats in some of the houses. The rooms that we were generally kept in were incredibly stark - I guess a mattress and a mosquito net. Some houses we had windows in that were either closed or opened. It depended on, I guess, the attitude of the hostage takers and what sort of mood they're in, depending on whether we were allowed, you know, a simple privilege like being able to see the sky.

CORLEY: Nigel, after five months of confinement, most of it in separate rooms, you and Amanda were able to communicate just enough to come up with an escape plan. How were you able, first of all, to communicate?

BRENNAN: Amanda and I were separated after two months. We developed ways of communicating from simple knocking and scratching just to let each other know that the other person was still there. We began leaving notes for each other in the bathroom that we shared and then became even more brave. And as time went on, we had both external windows that were about five or six meters apart, so we were able to whisper to each other.

When the three Somalians that were actually being held with us disappeared from the house, it was explained to us after about 12 hours that they had actually been beheaded by the group al-Shabab. So we devised a plan, very quick plan, to get out of the house.

I had the ability, being down in the back of the house, to slip in and out of my room. So over a period of two and a half days, I dug through the mortar and the bricks in the window while Amanda kept an eye out, making sure that no one came down and caught me.

CORLEY: Wow. You were able to get out, but guards chased you to a mosque. You thought you would be protected there, but what happened?

BRENNAN: They did actually protect us for a period of about 15 or 20 minutes until our group came back in and forcefully removed Amanda firstly and they came back for me.

CORLEY: Well, after 462 days in captivity, you were loaded into yet another car and moved again. So, what happened to you at that point?

BRENNAN: It was late in the afternoon and I saw Amanda being dragged from her room. So they came into my room shortly after and cut off my shackles, because the locks had rusted solid, to finally then put into a vehicle with Amanda and driven what seemed like for hours until we hit an ambush, basically, of government forces. I didn't realize it was government forces.

There were about 50 - what seemed like 50 civilian-clad guys carrying like AK-47s. And at that stage, Amanda and I were pretty much hysterical. And it wasn't until we were moved to another vehicle and there was a government official there that put Amanda on the phone to her mother. So it wasn't really until then that I believed that we'd just been released.

CORLEY: Hmm. Your family paid for your release, correct?

BRENNAN: Yes. My family actually paid $658,000 for both Amanda and myself to be released.

CORLEY: Incredible. You can speak about this calmly now, but I imagine that throughout the 15 months that you were held captive that your emotions just must have run the gamut.

BRENNAN: Oh, saw a complete rollercoaster. Living with that constant fear and so many depression was certainly at the start a really difficult thing to deal with. And guilt and shame, not just for my family, but I guess, guilt when Amanda and I were separated, as well, and when Amanda was being tortured and possibly sexually assaulted. And I had no way of stopping that. So it was. It was a rollercoaster ride every single day.

CORLEY: Whatever happened to Amanda?

BRENNAN: Amanda's in Canada. Unfortunately, we don't have a close relationship at the moment. And that's quite a common thing with people that are held in a shared hostage situation. They say because that person reminds you of the trauma. But, yeah - look, hopefully, somewhere down the track, that can be rectified, and we can sort of reconnect.

CORLEY: Nigel Brennan is a photojournalist who in 2008 was taken captive in Somalia and held for more than a year. His story appears on the National Geographic series "Locked Up Abroad" tomorrow night. Nigel, thanks so much for sharing your story with us.

BRENNAN: Thank you for having me on your show.

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