Amanda Lindhout pauses for a second as she prepares to describe the moment she “snapped.” The audience sitting in the auditorium as part of the Canadian Construction Association’s 99th annual conference in Mexico is silent, hanging on her every word.
They listen intently as she tells the harrowing story of what she endured for 460 days after being kidnapped by teenage criminals in 2008 outside the capital of Mogadishu, Somalia.
She takes a small step forward towards the podium and begins to recall the conditions she was living in.
"I thought I had lost everything. I didn’t see the sky. I never laughed once. I never felt the breeze. There was no light," she said. "My body was beaten and broken. I was being starved. A real blackness etched over me."
She vividly remembers the day one of her captors had come into the dark, windowless room where she was being kept in chains. He had come in to abuse her, which at this point had become a regular occurrence.
It was that moment she "snapped."
"It was a feeling of total calm. I felt quite peaceful in that moment," she said, retelling it as if it was an out of body experience. "In those moments I saw him."
She saw the hardships he had endured throughout his life, living in a country rife with war, drought and famine.
"For that split second I knew he was also suffering himself," she said. "I’m certainly not calling him innocent. His own layers of pain covered his conscious."
That experience was one of the moments that changed her outlook towards survival.
"I realized I could still hold on to my morals. Not drowning in my hate may actually save my life."
She said one of her weakest moments had actually given her the opportunity to experience her greatest power — the ability to find understanding, compassion and gratefulness in everything.
It was this message she wanted to convey to the CCA audience.
CCA Conference Keynote Speaker
Lindhout had ventured to Somalia as a freelance journalist. She wanted to research a story on the millions of people who had been impacted by two decades of war. Once there she met up with her Australian friend and photographer Nigel Brennan. She told the audience that it’s easy in your 20s to think nothing bad is going to happen to you. After all she had already ventured to some of the most dangerous countries in the world, like Afghanistan and Iraq.
But in Somalia "there was a sense of anarchy in this country that I had never seen before."
It was on Aug. 23, 2008 that she and Brennan were kidnapped by masked gunman after the car they were travelling in was forced off the road.
"I could tell that they were young," she said of her captors. "We never knew day to day what was going to happen."
Not long into her captivity she and Brennan were separated and "all of a sudden, just like that, I was alone. My biggest fear was losing my mind. Insanity.
"The sexual abuse started almost immediately after Nigel was taken out of the room."
At about the five month point in their captivity, Brennan thought up a plan to escape through a small window in the bathroom that had been blocked off with bricks and bars. Between bathroom stops, both he and Lindhout would use a nail clipper to dig a hole.
Eventually the day came where they both escaped. They ran towards a mosque, their captors at this point realizing they were gone and catching up quickly behind them.
When they entered the mosque it was filled with about 200 Somali men, Lindhout said, among them, however, was an older woman. It was the first woman Lindhout had seen in months.
Her captors at this point were already in the mosque.
"She was begging them to let us go," she recalled. "This woman did not give up."
She pleaded for their rescue, clinging to Lindhout as the men dragged her out of the mosque.
Not long after, when Lindhout was outside of the mosque, she heard a gunshot.
"I still don’t know what happened," she told the audience through her tears.
From there her captivity became much worse. That’s when she was forced into that dark, windowless room and chained. That’s when she almost gave up hope.
"Believe me I thought about my choices. I had been naïve in so many ways," she said.
But on Nov. 25, 2009 Lindhout and Brennen were rescued. Their families had been raising money to save them. It cost $1.2 million for their lives.
Lindhout spent weeks in the hospital before returning home to Alberta. She said she still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and sees therapists for help.
"For my own good I still strive to feel some sort of compassion for those guys," she said. "Many days I don’t get there. Every day I want it. Every day I choose it. It becomes easier over time."
Since her release, she has become an advocate for the people of Somalia. Just four months after coming home she founded the Global Enrichment Foundation to ignite leadership in Somalia through education and economic initiatives. She returned to Somalia to lead famine relief efforts in 2011.
Lindhout also co-authored a memoir with Sara Corbett entitled A House In The Sky, which is a New York Times bestseller and now dedicates her time to humanitarian and public speaking efforts.
"I’m so grateful for so many things today. I’ve been given a really rare gift, a second chance at life," she said.