Sunday, 6 March 2011

Ahmed's Story - almost two years on.

This story was first published on my blog, reproduced on the Facebook page, "Voice for Amanda Lindhout", and was also picked up and carried by a number of mainstream media outlets in Canada and Australia.

For those that need reminding. Here it is in its original and unedited form.


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 undisputed 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 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.


DECEMBER 2009, Mogadishu

Ahmed's Father
Still believing that Ahmed had somehow conspired with the negotiating team to either reveal their location or perhaps help negotiate a reduction in the ransom for a reward, the lawless gunmen still pursued Ahmed. Occasionally it would simply be threats, at other times there might be some physical violence, but nothing serious enough to prevent Ahmed continuing to earn a living - and possibly become a source of income for the gangs.

Then one day in December they went to his house, The men in masks and guns terrorized Ahmed's elderly father. "If you don't admit he was an agent for the foreign police, and tell us where the money is, we will kill him and you," they threatened.
Ahmed Snr. ran for his life, searching for his son to warn him. He finally collapsed from exhaustion, was taken to a makeshift hospital, and died a few hours later.

February 2011, MOGADISHU

Ahmed's Battle for Survival Continues
A few days ago I began to get emails from Ahmed. I hadn't heard from him in several months and had assumed that his life had returned to a sort of normalcy - a normalcy that can only be measured against the situation on the ground in Mogadishu.
He wrote: Four weeks ago I was captured by Al Shabaab. They stormed my house. They destroyed parts of my house and seriously frightened my wife and children. They separated us and then started to question my wife and children.
Afterwards, they drove me to the outskirts of Mogadishu with my car and my three laptop computers.
They questioned me repeatedly why I helped Amanda and Nigel. How much money did I get from their enemies?
After two weeks I was released, but I was vomiting blood, and remain very sick.
They stole my laptops and my car, and destroyed many things in my house.
My family remain scared that they will come back.
Now I am not able to work. Still vomiting blood and I am afraid I need urgent medical assistance.
My kids are without food.
My personal sense of guilt and shame for what has happened to this man and his family, and my role in it, is profound.
As a colleague of Amanda Lindhout, it was I who first contacted Ahmed and asked if he'd heard anything on the ground in Mogadishu about her abduction.
For the next several weeks, my apartment in Beijing became something of a second base of operations in the effort to locate Amanda and Nigel.
Frequent, almost daily visits by the RCMP and the Australian Federal Police - always pushing, always encouraging me to remind Ahmed that he was the best opportunity to find an early resolution.
Almost 24-hour vigils by the phone, waiting for news over several time zones, and then passing it on as quickly as possible to the authorities who might be able to make use of it.
I will never forget the night of the first "proof of life" phone call.
And I will also never forget what I can only describe as the callous disregard for the security of Ahmed and his family as the Australian Federal Police and the Royal Canadian Police tried to manipulate me into encouraging Ahmed into situations of increasing danger.
Their praise of Ahmed's efforts were loud and profound. Their ultimate gratitude for his efforts was pitiful and shameful.
After Amanda and Nigel's release, they refused to acknowledge him.
At one point they even tried to suggest he was in cahoots with the kidnap gang.
It isn't too late to make things right. Chris GelkenMarch 7, Hong Kong

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Jim said...

Thank you Chris. I did not know of your involvement on behalf of the journalists. I, too, was in contact in Nairobi with the Canadian investigators, but dropped from the circle sometime early in the course of events. They were more worried about being identified themselves than solving the overall problem of kidnapping and torture in the South of Somalia. I will forward your blog account to my circles. I speak Somali and have a fierce interest in the events there.

Chris Gelken said...

Jim, thank you.