Amanda Lindhout spent much of her 460 days as a captive in Somalia in total darkness. She was bound with chains, beaten, and abused in terrible ways.
In A House in the Sky, a memoir of a life spent travelling and the adventure that became her nightmare, Lindhout and co-author Sara Corbett recount episodes of torture, but ultimately tell a story of hope.
“It’s incredibly difficult to be kept in the dark,” Lindhout tells the Georgia Straight by phone from her home in Canmore, Alberta. “So the sky became one of the things that I really missed the most. Being in the dark, there’s a real weight to it. It’s heavy.
“To survive in that darkness, I would close my eyes and go up into a house in the sky,” she continues, “a safe place where I could allow the memories of the life that I had lived, to plan the future that I wanted to have.”
Her imaginary home was in English Bay, she recalls. “The house in the sky—the life I imagined for myself—it was all set in Vancouver.”
Lindhout explains that for a brief period in her early 20s, she lived in the West End while working as a waitress at a lounge in Kitsilano.
“In my mind, it was like I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful place,” she says. “When you’re walking along the seawall and you see those snow-capped mountains in the distance and the ocean is right there…”
By 2008, Lindhout, then 27 years old, had travelled to dozens of countries and worked as a budding journalist in Afghanistan and Iraq. Looking for a break that might take her career to the next level, she travelled to Somalia in search of the war-torn country’s abundance of underreported stories.
Four days after landing in Mogadishu, Lindhout and an Australian photographer named Nigel Brennan were kidnapped by a gang of Islamic fundamentalists. The 15-and-a-half months that followed pushed her to the edge of suicide.
Abuse was routine.
“Abdullah came again, in the late afternoon, just like the last time, pushing me to the wall, his hand gripping my neck, undoing whatever resolve I’d built,” Lindhout writes in the book. “He came again several days later, and again on many other afternoons after that. Each time it felt like being robbed, like he was siphoning something out of me. Sometimes he’d just punch me and leave.”
After an escape attempt, things got much worse.
With courage that’s all but beyond explanation, Lindhout maintains a degree of empathy for her kidnappers. In the book, she relates an understanding of the violent environments in which the young men were raised.
She writes that as the cruellest of her captors abused her one afternoon, she comprehended his suffering. “It was anguish, accrued over the brief span of his life. It was rage and helplessness. It was a little kid hiding behind a truck. This was the person who was hurting me. His sadness trenched beneath mine.”
Less than six months after her return to Canada, Lindhout founded the Global Enrichment Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides educational programs in Somalia. She’s since returned to the country five times as part of her work with the group.
The plan to start an NGO took shape while she was still a prisoner of the gang of teenagers who treated her with such brutality.
“It was a slow understanding that the lack of education in a country like Somalia creates these huge social problems,” Lindhout says. “Young people, like my 14-year-old captor, are involved in that sort of criminal activity because there are almost no opportunities for youth in these villages to have access to education….So I thought, ‘Okay, I know all of this. I guess I have kind of a responsibility to respond to this—if I make it out of here.’ ”
Lindhout says she’s a different person from the one who recklessly travelled to Somalia four years ago. But not everything has changed. The first 60 pages of A House in the Sky make for an enjoyable travel memoir, and Lindhout hasn’t lost her enthusiasm for globetrotting.
“My mom and I actually just did a trip to Guatemala, I leave tomorrow for Brazil, and I just came back from India, so I still travel a lot,” she says. “I’m so proud that what happened to me didn’t rob me of that. I think that I find a lot of my healing out in the world.”