In a country notorious for armed conflict, with extremely high threats of terrorist attacks and dangerous levels of violent crime lies Australian photojournalist Nigel Brennan in a dark, ridiculously tiny room on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia. “It was fucking pandemonium,” he says almost four years after the experience.
As an attempt to free himself from the daily boredom and to repel any thoughts of harm that suffocated Nigel in the dark empty room, he would spend hours doing yoga. One day however, his captors walked in and questioned what he was doing. Before Nigel knew it he was teaching them poses. “They were overexerting themselves and falling over,” Nigel recalled, and describes how fits of laughter would fill the empty space. These men, however weren’t friends of Nigel. They not only carried AK47’s but were also prepared to end his life. They were young Somali insurgents – part of the ‘Somali Mujahideen’ who kept him, and his Canadian colleague hostage for 462 days.
Whilst sitting at the Melange Cafe at the Roma Street Parklands, Nigel’s contagious smile is hard to miss. Today, unlike back in 2008 he is all smiles, and unbeknown to some – that smile hides an astoundingly arduous tale of determination and willpower. As he sat, his smile beamed towards the French waitress as he asked for a flat white and a BLT. After ordering, Nigel’s attention soon diverted and he began to retell the courageous story of his time in Somalia.*
Nigel’s journalistic career began while he was traveling through India and Nepal during his early twenties. He became passionate about photography during this time, and decided he wanted to return to university and major in photojournalism. This was an easy decision for Nigel – he loved the news, loved traveling, and loved the idea of telling the stories of others – especially those in war zones.
Nigel met Canadian journalist, Amanda Lindhout, during 2006 in Ethiopia when he was on a photography assignment. In Nigel’s book, ‘The Price of Life’, he says they “hit it off’ from the moment they met and that it was later – during July 2008 that Amanda contacted him and suggested they should take a trip to Africa and visit Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia to cover the civil war, drought and food crisis. “I knew that Somalia was an incredibly dangerous country to be walking into” he said. “For me, it was about trying to make a name for myself as a freelancer, trying to sell my work, and trying to make money.”
It took only three days before the insurgent group kidnapped Nigel and Amanda in Somalia. On August 24 2008, Nigel, Amanda and three local Somalians who were working for them piled into the car and drove towards Afgooye where they were visiting five major camps for internally displaced people. Suddenly, they were forced to a halt by what Nigel thought was their security detail. Before he knew it the car was surrounded by men holding AK47’s, the doors were ripped open, and they were all thrown on the ground with their faces pushed into the dirt.
“At the start they interrogated us and accused us of being spies and working with the Ethiopian forces,” he said. “But once they realised that we were both freelancers they then turned it around and said it was going to be a political kidnapping because … both of our countries were at war with Islam – and their proof of that was pretty flimsy.” Nigel recalled this as he ate away at his lunch – incredibly composed whilst reminiscing on the horrific experience four years later.
It wasn’t until he spoke about the $3 million ransom that was set by the kidnappers that Nigel’s voice changed and he became more emotional. “I never expected the government to pay for me, and I didn’t expect the tax payer to pay for me. I knew … that it was going to fall on my family to pay for my life.”
The Australian Government publicly states that they will not negotiate, facilitate or pay a ransom for it’s citizens. However, Alastair Gaisford, a former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officer, explains: “despite it’s stated policy, the Australian government does negotiate and pays to obtain a safe release of Australians abducted overseas. It just says publicly that it does not.”
In Nigel’s case, a ‘special mandate’ was set by the Australian government so that a ‘payment’ – not a ransom – of $250,000 could cover the ‘costs’ for the kidnappers. However, it became clear to Nigel’s family after 10 distressing months that it was going to cost them a whole lot more than $250,000, and eventually, the Brennan family moved away from government assistance and sought private individuals to negotiate the ransom payment, which in the end totalled over $600,000.
During the 462 days Nigel was moved 13 times to 11 different houses. Each room was slightly different – some the size of a small Australian bathroom, others a little larger. However, they generally were all quite similar, where filthy old mattresses would lay in the empty space, and the rooms would be ridden with cockroaches.
Over time, simple privileges faded into hardly any at all. Especially after their attempted escape in January. “Things basically turned to shit,” Nigel recalled, as a sigh escaped his mouth.
Nigel and Amanda attempted to flee from the house that the Somali Mujahideen group kept them hostage in on the January 22 2009. “Once I hit the ground I was pretty excited and exhilarated,” he said after describing how they jerked themselves through a small bathroom window. But with a loud scream from a young Somalian child who lived next door, it was like the start of The Bush Telegraph, and Nigel and Amanda had only 10-seconds head start. Nigel put complete faith into his body, and ran.
Retelling the story quite fast with his eyebrows raised, Nigel spoke of the pandemonium that hit them when they eventually made it to a mosque. “I was king-hit by one of the guys with an AK-47,” he recalled. “He actually ripped the sleeve off my shirt as he was trying to pull me back outside and I could see Amanda fighting off the other guy who was trying to pull her by the hair. So we were both pretty hysterical and I guess in a hyperventilated state.”
After their attempted escape, it wasn’t long before the kidnappers used sleep deprivation tactics.
“Four of them would walk in at god knows what hour it was in the morning, with guns and a torch and until I woke up in complete shock and terror thinking, ‘what the fuck is about to happen’ they [then] would just walk out.”
During his time in there Nigel tried to bond with a few of the boys in the house, particularly one named Assam. As Nigel tried to explain his reasons behind this, his voice became strained. “I don’t want to say manipulate, but I guess in a way I was manipulating them.”
Although Nigel said he didn’t return to Australia with Stockholm Syndrome, he spoke about his captors in quite an understanding way. “I can understand why in some respects they did what they did,” he said. “You’re born into a country that knows nothing about war, and then you pick up a gun at probably the age of five or six and that seems completely normal to them. And then you get the master manipulators that are telling them that killing ‘infidels’ is the best thing they can do.”
November 25 2009 began like any other ordinary day in captivity. Nigel spent his day memorising his diary, reading passages from the Qur’an and sleeping. However, it wasn’t until around 6pm that he and Amanda were ordered out of the house by the kidnappers and were forced into the backseat of a car. In ‘The Price of Life’ he explains how terrified both he and Amanda were. Often threatened by the kidnappers, they feared they were going to be handed over to Al-Shabaab – a Somalia-based Al-Qaeda group. Their lives again would mean little, and the ransom price would most definitely increase if this was the case. But finally, after being thrown into a third vehicle Nigel heard the words that he least expected, “I am a Somali MP. Please, calm down, you are safe, you are free.” The Brennan family finally were able to convince the kidnappers to accept a $658,000 ransom – $2.3 million less than what was originally asked for on day one.
“Words cannot describe what it felt like to land in Australia – euphoric just doesn’t cut it,” Nigel said in his book. “My overwhelming happiness at being back with my family, though, was tinged with sadness. I could now see firsthand the pain that my selfishness and ambition had caused them. Their struggle for my freedom had taken a great toll, physically and mentally.”
After 462 gruelling days in anguished captivity, where Nigel’s life meant nothing more than a dollar sign, he returned as a strong-minded, understanding and indestructible man who’s family stopped at nothing to get him home. Turning the experience into a positive, he is now a public speaker, consultant and author and Nigel says he doesn’t intend to waste his second chance at life. “I realised during those 15 months the power of words,” he explained, and he now endeavours to be more understanding to others, more compassionate and less judgmental. Today – unlike back in 2008 – he is all smiles, but unbeknown to some – that smile hides an astoundingly arduous tale of determination and willpower. He poses a question he should have asked himself back in 2008, “is the risk versus the reward of what you’re going to achieve there worth it? Is it worth risking your life, and risking in my case, the trauma that I put my family through?”
*Paragraph added after grading (the assignment required the profile to be written in third person)