Friday, 4 December 2009

Ahmed's Story

After discussions with friend and colleague, Eva Manasieva, and Tom Rhodes from the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, we agreed that there was a story that needed to be told.

The following was posted on the Facebook site "Voice for Amanda Lindhout"


As the initiators of this Facebook page, Eva Manasieva and Chris Gelken feel the time to close it and move on is drawing near.

We are deeply indebted to the people who cared enough to add their names and post their prayers and wishes for a safe and speedy return to their families of Amanda and Nigel.

While the long journey back to anything like a normal life is likely to be difficult, we are confident that Amanda and Nigel will draw some measure of comfort in the knowledge that hardly a day of their 15-month captivity went by without someone visiting this page and leaving a message of encouragement, many of them complete strangers.

But before we switch off the lights on this page; this tribute to the kindness and humanity of so many; there is one person in particular that we’d like to thank.

His name or picture doesn’t appear among the list of Amanda’s “friends” on Voice for Amanda Lindhout. He left no words of encouragement or support. What he did was so much more.

We’ll call him Ahmed.

Ahmed is a video journalist based in Mogadishu, his war-ravaged hometown. Like almost every Mogadishu resident, Ahmed effectively risks his life every time he steps out of his home. As a journalist, the dangers are so much greater – and as a family man with a wife and children to support, he is always alert to the fact that he is there to record the story, not become part of it.

But it was without a second’s hesitation that Ahmed responded to a request by one of Amanda’s friends to make enquiries into the kidnapping. This request wasn’t made by or on behalf of a news organization looking for a story. Nor was it made on behalf of any government agency.
Within 24 hours of the abduction Ahmed already had some solid leads. He shared the information with Amanda’s friend who then – with Ahmed’s permission - passed the basic facts onto the relevant authorities in Canada and Australia.

Working through intermediaries, over a period of several days Ahmed made the first substantive contact with the kidnappers, and was able to begin passing messages from the group.

Throughout this time Ahmed was running considerable risks. He was threatened, and his family was threatened. He was questioned at gunpoint. His motives and affiliations were challenged. He recalled his makeshift home being surrounded by gunmen. One of his messages read, “I have descended into an ocean of darkness.”

He managed to convince the gunmen that his only interest was in the wellbeing of the hostages. In the name of humanity he begged for their release, or at least some proof that they were being held in a safe place and were not being harmed.

His efforts ultimately resulted in the first “proof of life” telephone contact between Nigel and an Australian hostage negotiator in Nairobi. In the darkness of a Mogadishu night about two weeks after the kidnapping, Ahmed coordinated a complicated international communication that for the first time put the Canadian and Australian negotiating team in direct contact with the group holding Amanda and Nigel.

Surrounded by masked men with guns, Ahmed handed over his telephones with the contacts of the negotiating team and the electronic record of his involvement. He had already achieved more than anyone could possibly have hoped for. He was scared for his life. He wanted to go home to his wife and children. He wanted out.

But for the time being, Ahmed was trapped. The gunmen made increasingly threatening demands for payment for giving him the proof of life. The negotiating teams, meanwhile, pressured him to maintain contact. At that time, the negotiators and their masters in Ottawa and Canberra insisted, Ahmed was their only reliable link on the ground in Mogadishu. It was crucial that he remained engaged.

While they scrambled to assemble their resources, the governments of Canada and Australia made various vacuous and what can only be described as misleading statements to Ahmed. Assurances, for example, that help was on the way. The “help” they were referring to was nothing more than extra officers being sent to Nairobi. Ahmed was always on his own, and he remains so.

As the weeks turned into months, the Nairobi-based negotiating team was able to manage affairs without Ahmed’s direct involvement. So Ahmed was effectively sidelined. His usefulness at an end, he was forgotten. Discarded.

But the gunmen haven’t forgotten Ahmed.

Ahmed is not seeking financial reward, despite the fact that his involvement actually cost him at least three to four thousand US dollars in direct expenses, not to mention lost earnings.

Ahmed is not seeking fame. In fact, he has been quite explicit – no photographs and his full name should not be revealed.

So what is he seeking?

Acknowledgement.

Acknowledgement not just for himself, but for all decent Somali citizens who have maintained their humanity and morality despite the awful conditions in which they live.

For strangers, he risked his life and the livelihood of his family. For people he never met and will likely never meet, he continues to live with the knowledge that he might still be a target.

In the reams of newsprint and the hours of broadcast coverage that have been dedicated to the self aggrandizing “heroic” efforts of the commercial hostage rescue team that finally secured the release of Amanda and Nigel, there has been little or no acknowledgement of the selfless efforts made by ordinary, decent Somali citizens like Ahmed.

People touched by decades of war and hardship, but not corrupted by it.

And that is a tragedy that simply must be corrected.

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