“Kicking off the dust from my sandals, I plunk my travel bag down onto the cracked tile floor of the guest house and take a look around. My colleague, Poul, points in the direction of the second-floor veranda and warns me not to go out and sit for too long. Random bullets have been whizzing by lately. I can see he is not pulling my leg when, on closer inspection of the space, I count seven bullet holes pocking the cement railing.
‘Pirates,’ he whispers conspiratorially. It sounds so melodramatic. I mean, come on, it’s 2011 — I look around for the likes of Johnny Dep, gangplanks, and wooden legs.
These ‘pirates’ live in a house a stone’s throw from the office we will be conducting our training in. The hair on the back of my neck stands up as sweat droplets bead on the fine blonde hairs of my upper lip. The bullets are celebratory. When they get the cash from releasing their captives, they shoot their guns. Pirates. Ransoms. Bullets.
Life in the African field. Exotic in the most bizarre ways.
Dinner is delicious, lobster from the coast — a costly luxury, as we are celebrating Poul’s 60 trips around the blazing Somali sun. The 30 years between us have never diminished a shared love for music and aid work. It has never gotten in the way of our appreciation for each other. We are friends. And as we spend hours ‘in the field’ strumming guitars, in harmony with the desert, the more wine we drink, the better we sound.
Trailing in the wake of pirate stories, my mind swims from the boxed Pinot Grigio, and I figure it is my cheap buzz that ignites the paranoia into my head and the panic ablaze in my heart. As I lay down on cool sheets in that space between sober and not, I feel afraid. I had been very resistant to the idea of traveling here to this place, but I’d been given a task. Or was it an order? I had made it to the next level of my job aspirations, and after all, I was just a schoolteacher from Ohio. I grew up in the church. I prayed before bed and asked forgiveness for my sins every night. Nothing was going to happen to me. Bad things don’t happen to girls like me.
The hours of darkness fade into the muted sounds of the 5 a.m. call to prayer that is heard all over the Muslim country of Somalia. I wake, weary from nightmares of pirates scaling walls, banging down doors, bullets flying past my head. Sweat soaked, my nightgown sticks to me. My aching body limps to the shower. I am exhausted and hungover. My mind has not taken a moment for rest. Because it knows what’s coming. Do you really want to do this? I ask myself this question over and over again as I stare at myself in the bathroom mirror.
The truth is, this trip has been the source of much disgruntlement on my part. I have never had a good feeling about it and canceled the training and other work required, twice before. But here I am, searching for answers within the lines of my face in a small, cracked mirror in the middle of the pirate-infested territory. The perceived pressure to keep my job has gotten to me. Like so many other women experience, it wasn’t said outright, but rather implied. If you want to do this work, you get out there, despite the risks. And if there is a whiff of fear or lack of commitment, you can be replaced in a heartbeat. Plenty of other women, and certainly men, would kill for this job as they work their way up the humanitarian aid ladder.
‘WHY DID I COME HERE ANYWAY?’ I briefly whisper this rhetorical question to myself. Thoughts of pragmatism and logic crowd out the screaming voice inside my head that KNOWS.
‘You have worked so hard to get to this point in your career. You are already here, don’t imposition anybody. Everyone is expecting you. Your staff is waiting on you to walk in solidarity with them. You cannot quit.’
And so, I do the ‘right’ thing. I put on my sense of duty, along with a headscarf, and tell my intuition to f*ck off.
‘Nothing is going to happen. You are just paranoid. You are tired. You are being unreasonable. Just go and get it over with. It will all be fine.’ Ego versus intuition. Logic versus THAT feeling. THEIR doubts about me, versus my own belief about myself.
This battle, this WAR. I have been here so many times before — when I think about it, I have been here for practically my entire life. And one thing I know now, is if you don’t learn your lesson the first or fifteenth time, you will keep getting schooled. I know this now. And this pattern, the one of talking myself into something I don’t want to do, something I know I am not supposed to do, is quite clearly ready to be put to rest, as it gapes at me in exhaustion like a haggard mother who has been up all night with a screaming child.
I recognize NOW, at that moment, the whole world had gone still to make space for me to hear — like a vacuum, empty, devoid of anything but the pounding of my life inside my own head. But the warning, that quickening in my soul, telling me something was absolutely not right, was pushed into a bottomless sea of ambiguity, taking with it any of my bravery, stealing all of my air. THEIR words, the silent threats, and subsequent implications have always been worth more to me than my own personal safety and security. Everyone else knows what’s best for me — because they said so, and I don’t know how to question that outside of my own mental space.
And so I stand, resigned. I know I have lost the battle against myself, that part of me only I can ever know, once again. That smiling girl is no longer holding her head up high, proud of who she has become or the work she has come to do. She has been abandoned once again and knowing she is defeated, slowly limps away to lick her wounds and take the medicine of excuses, taping up the bruises caused by a familiar cycle of shame.
‘And really, what is the worst that can happen?’ I ask myself this as I walk through the door of what will be another life.
It’s October 25, 2011, around 3:00 in the afternoon. My colleague and I are ushered into a convoy of vehicles with armed guards, headed north because it is time to go home. We have finished our staff training — it has gone well. As we putz along in our Landcruiser through the jagged paths they call roads in this part of the world, I do not realize these are the last few moments before everything I know about life is changed. A car rushes past us on the right and cuts us off. Mud splashed all over our windows and our windshield, and all I can think is, ‘What a jerk! Who drives like that?’ The crack of the butt of an AK-47 on the car hood, and the shouts of angry Somali men surrounding us, make my blood run cold and my stomach lurch up into my throat.
My door is whipped open, a gun is put to my head — there are screams at the driver to drive. We tear off through town. I notice absently that the driver does not seem to be too surprised. We drive for hours out into the desert. The sun is sinking down into the horizon when Poul turns around to check on me. ‘What is happening?’ I whisper frantically. I am still desperately clinging to the slight hope maybe we are being carjacked and will be robbed and kicked out of the car, alive and able to walk back to town. Poul looks at me with such sincere pity and whispers quietly, ‘We are being kidnapped.’ As I let the reality of the truth of his words sink in, all I can think really, are two very basic and fundamental thoughts. 1. ‘This is so bad. This is so bad. I have nothing to compare it to.’ And 2. ‘No matter how this thing turns out, my life has changed forever.’
What follows can only be described as impossible. I am a hostage. I am no longer Jessica Buchanan, wife, teacher, daughter, human. I am simply an American dollar sign — a commodity that needs to be kept just alive enough so that I can be cashed in. Cashed into the tune of $45 million, to be exact. And as my new reality unfolds before me, I realize I have a job to do. And that job? Well, it’s simply to survive.
I have to somehow figure out how to survive the 50-60 moves around different camps — some of which would happen in the middle of the night. Survive living with anywhere from 9-30 armed men at all times. Survive abuse when the negotiations for my $45 million ransom demand were not going well. Survive the stomach problems that came from little to no food, and diesel-laced drinking water. Survive the endless days of nothing to do — not a pen or a scrap of paper, not a soul to talk to, surrounded by people who have taken me away from a life I loved, and the people that make it up. Survive. Survive. Survive.
And it was going okay. 10 days turned into 20, and 20 faded into 40, and then 60 became 80, with no end in sight. By day 90, I had contracted a horrible urinary tract infection, that I knew was headed into a kidney infection. And a kidney infection left unchecked, in the desert, will kill you.
It’s January 24, 2012. I’m at day 93, and in some of the most intense pain I have ever experienced in my life. I am hallucinating with fever. My ability to walk upright has left me because I am in so much pain. As I drag myself to a nearby bush to be sick, these men who terrorize me day and night, laugh at me and mock me. My existence is a source of entertainment for them.
The sun is beginning to set on one more long and miserable day, and I am worried I might not live to see the next one. I pull my mat out from under a tree and into a wide-open field of sand and desert scrub to try to sleep off the pain and infection. I didn’t know it until I had spent all this time out there in the desert, but there are two stars that come out at the same time every night. They are big and bright, and I had named one for my mother, whom I lost tragically and suddenly, just one year before this all happened.
Most nights, I told her about the nothingness of my day — but this night was different. I reached my finger up to the sky to try to connect with her and I said, ‘Mama, I need you to go and tell God He needs to do something. Because if he doesn’t get me out of here, I’m not going to make it. And while I would love to see you, I don’t think I am finished with this life yet.’
I drift off into a fitful sleep, on the ground, in the cold desert. A few hours later, I wake up with the need to be sick. I stand up as much as I can on my mat and say the word ‘toilet,’ which is how we ask for permission to leave our mat. It is pitch black — the clouds have taken over and my mom’s star has disappeared.
I can hardly even see my hand in front of my face. There are nine pirates on the ground that night, and every single one of them is passed out. No one stirs, and as my need to leave my mat becomes urgent, I decide to take a risk and grab a small penlight and flash it as I move to the nearby bush to be sick. I don’t want them to think I am trying to run away — that would not end well, I am certain. I do what I need to do and then limp slowly back to my mat. I wrap myself up in my one blanket and try to put a barrier between me and the cold desert ground. I can hear something crawling toward me. It sounds like an animal coming through the tall grass. I think it might be these beetles that come out at night, the size of a quarter. They consistently get in my hair and clothes, and I am frankly, just not in the mood.
I try to shake my blanket out, but nothing comes. I quickly give up because I am exhausted, and sleep really is my only refuge and escape from the pain in my body and this hell I am living in. Not 30 seconds go by when the night suddenly erupts into automatic gunfire. Explosions, bullets, men breathing their last breaths and hitting the ground. I pull the blanket over my face and try to disappear. I feel hands grabbing my arms and legs and I scream ‘NO!’ with everything I have left within me. I want to survive, I really do, but I believe this is the end, once again. All I can think as I scream ‘No!’ into the atmosphere is, ‘I don’t have the strength to survive another group.’
Because in my mind, all I can conceive is that we are moving from one extraordinarily horrific situation to another. The hands that are grabbing me pull the blanket away from my face. I can’t see anything. It’s just black sky and masks. I can’t understand what is happening, and I throw my hands out in front of me, as if they will offer me some sort of protection. Suddenly, I hear the voice of a young American man — he sounds just like my baby brother — and he knows my name. ‘Jessica,’ he says. ‘Jessica, we’re the American military. You are safe now. We have come to rescue you, and you are going home.’ The shock takes over immediately, and I begin to shake. All I can say over and over again is, ‘You’re American? You’re American? You’re American?’
I cannot even begin to understand how they found me and where they came from. One of them explains they are going to carry me out of the carnage and bloodbath that surrounds us. Just like a scene from a movie, he picks me up, throws me over his shoulder, and takes off running — lifting me away from certain death, delivering me back into life, I have had to continue fighting for. In those moments, I couldn’t have known the soldier who carried me out was a member of the U.S. Special Forces, SEAL Team VI — the elite team that rid the world of Osama Bin Laden — or that a few hours later, my father and sister would be notified of my successful rescue by President Barak Obama, himself.
I couldn’t have known I would be dropped into the second form of survival, which I call ‘Surviving Survival,’ where I would have to figure out who I was, what I wanted, and why I had lived to tell this tale in the first place. I figured I would write a book about the whole ordeal someday, but I could never have predicted it would make the New York Time’s Bestseller list, or that my 60 Minutes interview would be, to date, one of the highest watched interviews.
I could NEVER have guessed, that just TWO weeks later, I would become pregnant with my son, who would be with me to commemorate my one year anniversary of the kidnapping and rescue. Or that I would have a daughter two years later, and continue to speak publicly about my ordeal. I definitely never would have considered that something so hard, so awful and traumatic, would be one of the most important things I have ever experienced because it led me to my life’s purpose, which is empowering women to trust themselves, their inner knowing, and follow their intuition.
While I would never want to go through this nightmare again, I will say, while it was horrifying and scary, I woke up. I woke up to myself, and I honor the girl who was and the woman she has become. I woke up to life — and wanting to live it so BADLY, I could at times, and still do, literally think of nothing else. I woke up to love — the love of the Universe that showed me in the most intense and generous way that I matter, and I have worth, and that a school teacher from Ohio has what it takes to become a hero in her own story. And so, with those lessons I take with me every day, I wake up and I listen — thankfully, to the beating of my own heart, in rhythm to the Universe — and I am infinitely grateful.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jessica Buchanan from Alexandria, Virginia. You can follow her journey on Instagram and Facebook, listen to her podcast here, and join her coaching program here. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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