What Is It Like to Be Kidnapped in Somalia?

Colin Freeman of the Daily Telegraph describes his time in captivity in Somalia.

ByABC News
April 15, 2009, 1:12 PM

April 16, 2009— -- ABC News' Sonia Gallego sat down with the British Daily Telegraph's senior foreign correspondent, Colin Freeman, who was once a victim of a kidnapping in Somalia. Freeman describes his experience in this interview, in light of the recent rescue of a U.S. mariner off the Somali coast.

Sonia Gallego: We've heard a lot about the success story of this particular rescue but the fact of the matter is that this year alone there have been numerous attacks on vessels just off the coast of Somalia with several successful hijackings. Doesn't it seem that the international community is failing to get this under control?

Colin Freeman: It does in a way; the basic fact is that it is a very difficult area to police. You are talking about a vast stretch of ocean more than a million kilometers [about 620,000 miles] and at the moment they have a dozen naval ships patrolling that area, and even if you had one hundred or two hundred it would really be quite hard for effective policing to be done simply because the area is so large.

Gallego: To get to the root of piracy, don't you have to tackle security issues in Somalia itself?

Freeman: That is what most people seem to say, yes ... at the moment you have a large number of towns and ports along the Somali coastline which are being used for piracy and, while we talk about lawless seas, what you are really talking about is lawless land. Every pirate vessel needs somewhere to go to refuel from and to operate out of and take their ill gotten gains to and until something is done to bring those places under some law and order, this problem will probably continue.

Gallego: You yourself have been kidnapped and held hostage in Somalia while reporting on piracy. Did that experience change your understanding of the issue?

Freeman: You realize how organized they are; we were held in the caves and the mountains in northern Somalia for six weeks by a gang of between 25 to 50 guys and during the day there was always between 10 to 15, 20 guarding us. I never saw a single argument between them the whole time. When they are united in what they are doing, they are pretty well organized... fearsomely so.

Why Do You Think You Were Taken? Was It All About the Money?

Freeman: We are not sure in our case. We were on land and we were just taken because we were there. Certainly, when you are talking about people at sea, it does seem like it is primarily the crews that they are after, opposed to the cargo. It is kind of opposite to the old days where the cargo would be taken and the crew would be of lesser interest.

Gallego: Tell us a bit about the experience.

Freeman: It was manageable, we were well treated in general, most of the time. As you can imagine it is a frightening experience, mainly because you don't know what is going to happen. We had a couple of occasions when the pirates became aggressive to us for various reasons, often it wasn't explained to us why and you are always concerned that you are going to be the unlucky party or people where it all went wrong, where the pirates decide to kill you or they panicked and decided to do something unpleasant to you; and it is that fear of the unknown that dogs you every minute of the day ... most of the people of these ships will be going through that, as well.

Gallego: What could you make out about your kidnappers?

Freeman: Not a lot, really. They couldn't speak English and we couldn't speak Somali, we only spoke Arabic, which we both could mutually understand but that was not much more than a few words. Some of them were young kids, some of them were not much older than me, around 35 to 40. I think they were desperate people. For example, one told us how they had tried to get to Europe in a people-smuggling boat across the Mediterranean, Italy and Greece. You know they are, people who have not much else to lose in life. Life in Somalia is pretty brutal and pretty nasty. Therefore, risking your luck on the high seas is a pretty logical lifestyle choice to some of them.

Gallego: How did your release come about?

Freeman: I don't really know there were a lot of people working around the clock for 40 days and 40 nights while we were there, trying to assist us. We had a lot of Somali politicians in Northern Somalia calling for our release. There was a lot going on behind the scenes, some of which I was not party to. I should point out that there are a number of hostages out there and if I discuss that too much, it could prejudice or complicate their chances of getting released themselves. So I would rather not.

How Did You Feel When You Heard You Were Going to Be Released?

Freeman: We made a phone call to an intermediary in London. They allowed us to make phone calls from time to time, and one of them told us, 'Right now, you are free to go.' He didn't say that in English ... he said that in Arabic, which is 'allom,' which is 'today' in Arabic. We had a few false starts before where we were told we would get released, then we didn't and that gets hard after a time. But on this particular occasion they said yes, then the next day we were driven to a top of a mountain pass with around 50 guys, some of them armed with RPGs [rocket propelled grenades], some with guns mounted on jeeps and so on, a small army of people. Then we were handed to a group of clan elders, who in Somalia often act as intermediaries. There were around eight or nine of them, and then we were driven off to the nearest large town, which is where we had been kidnapped in the first place.

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