In Somalia, Surviving A Kidnapping Against 'Impossible Odds' In 2011, Jessica Buchanan, an aid worker in Somalia, was kidnapped by land pirates. For 93 days she fought off despair while her husband, Erik Landemalm, wondered if he'd ever see her again. In a two-part interview, Buchanan and Landemalm recall Buchanan's capture and her dramatic rescue by Navy SEALs.
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In Somalia, Surviving A Kidnapping Against 'Impossible Odds'

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In Somalia, Surviving A Kidnapping Against 'Impossible Odds'

In Somalia, Surviving A Kidnapping Against 'Impossible Odds'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Yesterday on the program, we met Jessica Buchanan, an American aid worker who was kidnapped by Somali land pirates in 2011. When we left off, Jessica was approaching three months in captivity, sleeping on a mat each night out in the open desert. Her captors were demanding a ransom of $45 million, no less. In the meantime, Jessica's health was deteriorating. She had no access to her medication for a thyroid condition. She was also suffering from a urinary tract infection that was causing complications with her kidneys.

On her 93rd night in captivity, Jessica had a request.

JESSICA BUCHANAN: As was normal procedure, if I needed to get up off my mat to go to the bush to use the bathroom, I would stand up and say toilet and wait for somebody to acknowledge me. There were about nine guards at night. I was sleeping within 12 inches of at least six of them, but they'd all passed out. So I kept saying toilet, toilet, and no one would acknowledge me.

And so I was afraid that if somebody woke up and they saw that I was gone, that they would think I had tried to escape. So I took my little penlight with me and kept flashing it while I went, so they would know I was there.

GREENE: Jessica then quietly returned to her mat to go back to sleep.

BUCHANAN: And I laid there probably for five minutes. And then the entire night just erupted into automatic gunfire. My first initial thought was that we were being re-kidnapped by another group. Or maybe it was al-Shabaab, that was always the eminent threat, was that...

GREENE: And this is the Islamic militant group that operates in this area.

BUCHANAN: Exactly, in Somalia. And then I knew there was no hope for survival if it was al-Shabaab. And I just - I laid there, and I prayed. And I also just said, like, I can't survive another kidnapping. I've already learned this group. I'm so tired, I can't - I can't do this anymore.

The next thing I know, somebody pulls the blanket from my face, and then I hear a man say my name. You know, I haven't heard anybody say my name in so long. And then he says: We're the American military, and we're here to save you. We're here to take you home. You're safe now. And I just was so - in so much shock, I just couldn't wrap my brain around it.

The American military, they knew I was here? Americans are here? Like, I'm not alone? One of them just scoops me up, I mean, like a movie, and just, you know, runs across the desert with me into a safe place, and they quickly give me medication, and at one point form a ring around us, because they weren't sure if the premises was completely safe. And...

GREENE: One of them actually asked you - one of them asked you at one point if you have forgotten anything, right?


GREENE: That's amazing to me.

BUCHANAN: Yeah, which I can't believe I did this, but I had a small, little powder bag that they had let me keep. And inside, I had a ring that my mom had made, and I thought, I can't leave it out here in the desert. And so, I asked him to go back and get the bag for me. And, I mean, these men are just - they're incredible. I mean, he goes back out into a war zone, basically, to go get my ring.

GREENE: You hear him running back to the...

BUCHANAN: Yeah, and then he comes back with the bag.


GREENE: Jessica's rescuers were 24 U.S. Navy SEALs ordered by President Obama to attempt a dramatic rescue of her and her colleague. That rescue was a success. The SEALs carried them safely to Djibouti, and then to a military base in Italy. And that's where Jessica was first reunited with her husband, Erik Landemalm, also an aid worker in Somalia.

As part of Jessica's hostage reintegration program, the couple was told initially that they had to take things slow.

BUCHANAN: Our first meeting was one hour. I don't think either one of us could have handled any more.

ERIK LANDEMALM: No. I mean, inside of yourself, you want to talk about everything. But I think that one hour, you're able to kind of relay the main message that you love each other, and that whatever has happened during these 93 days, we have the rest of our lives to talk about it.

GREENE: Some of the experts seem to worry about your marriage surviving this, and talked about that there's experiences with relationships never being the same after something like this.

LANDEMALM: Yeah. I think a lot of families that are on the outside sitting there waiting for their loved one to come home, we were told that many of them might have problems. We were fortunate enough to kind of make a decision initially that we need to trust each other - this was I and Jess' dad and her siblings - that we need to do whatever we can to get Jess back. We...

GREENE: You never gave up and thought about life without her.

LANDEMALM: No. No. No, I mean, the focus was on our future together.

GREENE: Do you both feel like your marriage is the same?

LANDEMALM: I don't think that our marriage is the same. I think it has become stronger. We have gone through one of the worst experience I think a couple can go through. And I think my admiration for my wife is something that many husbands never get to feel.

GREENE: You two are looking at each other right now. It's really - that's very meaningful.


GREENE: Now, Jessica, do you feel things have changed?

BUCHANAN: Yeah. I definitely feel like we're in it for the long haul. There's no turning back now. And any questions that I had about Erik or about me or about us together have long since been answered.

GREENE: And what is next? Both of you have such passion for doing work in Africa. Can you go back there?

BUCHANAN: I think so.

LANDEMALM: Yeah. We went back to Africa shortly after the rescue. And, you know, we wanted to take back the power. We wanted to make sure that they did not force us out of Africa. It should be our decision. We had been there for seven years. And we stayed there for a few months, and kind of reclaimed our lives. And then we made a decision that it's time to go somewhere else. And we went back to the U.S. now.

And I think, in the future, what we want to do is to continue working with humanitarian development in one way or the other.

BUCHANAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah, absolutely. In our hearts, we'll always be just aid workers, and so there's a lot of work to be done, no matter where we are.

LANDEMALM: Yeah. And it should be said that this happened in Somalia, but it was not Somalia that did this to us. These were gangsters, that it could have happened anywhere in the world. Now, it ended up happening in a place where the administrations don't have a lot of power, and so on. But this has not made us feel like - have any kind of bad feelings toward Somalia, or definitely not Somalis.

GREENE: Erik Landemalm and Jessica Buchanan. They're authors of "Impossible Odds: The Kidnapping of Jessica Buchanan and Her Dramatic Rescue by SEAL Team Six." And they both joined us in our Washington studios.

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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