OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso – (AP) – Almost a year and a half after being kidnapped by Islamist extremists in Burkina Faso, Edith Blais risked her life to escape, fearing that she would never be free.
“(What you think is either) you stay there your whole life and die there, or you try something,” Blais told The Associated Press by phone ahead of the publication this week of his book recounting the ‘ordeal, “Sand’s weight: my 450 days held hostage in the Sahara.
The 37-year-old Canadian and her Italian companion Luca Tacchetto, were captured by jihadists in December 2018 in eastern Burkina Faso while they were visiting the region and trying to cross into neighboring Benin. The couple were held in the desert of northern Mali for 15 months before fleeing on foot overnight. To save time, Blais padded her body-shaped bed to make it look like she had fallen asleep, she said. They were also aided by a strong wind, which erased their footprints in the sand, making it difficult for the jihadists to follow them. After eight hours of walking, the two men reached a main road and reported a truck that took them to a United Nations base.
“(Being free was) hard to believe, it’s like you’re still in the nightmare and can’t wake up and you know it’s the end,” Blais said. “There are so many emotions, and then I was afraid of everyone who was left, we were afraid of the Italians, we were afraid that they would be punished because we escaped.”
For six years, jihadist groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Sahel, a vast expanse south of the Sahara Desert, have used hostage-taking for ransom to finance operations and expand their presence. Twenty-five foreigners have been kidnapped in the Sahel since 2015 and 10 remain captive, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Blais and Tacchetto are the only two Western hostages known to have escaped. Three were killed, three were released by French and US forces and seven were released, the organization said.
Among those still detained is French journalist Olivier Dubois, who was kidnapped in April in northern Mali. Among those released are Sophie Petronin, a 75-year-old French aid worker, two Italians and a prominent Malian politician who were released during a prisoner exchange in October against nearly 200 Islamist activists.
In Burkina Faso, where jihadist violence has increased in recent years, killing thousands and displacing more than 1.4 million people, 10 expatriates have been kidnapped and conflict experts say the more the fighting and the humanitarian crisis grow. longer, the more hostage-taking will increase.
“Any further unrest in troubled towns and villages will require more critical international attention, which will likely result in the presence of desirable kidnappings by UN agencies, peacekeepers and journalists,” said Laith Alkhouri, CEO of Intelonyx Intelligence Advisory, providing insight. “The jihadists see this variable as advantageous and they will adopt a more aggressive posture to maintain the unrest and demand a ransom to finance their expansion,”
While the kidnappings of internationals gain much more attention, people are not only kidnapped for ransom and there are dozens of Sahel locals also taken away by armed Islamists, whether for extortion, intimidation or punishment, said Corinne Dufka, director of human rights for West Africa. To concern.
“This terrible crime, which is in vogue, tragically turns the lives of victims upside down and terrorizes their communities,” she said.
Hostage negotiation experts say people and organizations working in hostile countries need to be better prepared to deal with a kidnapping crisis and know exactly how to respond, said John Steed, response coordinator for the Hostage. Support Partnership, a group trying to free hostages in Somalia. who were abandoned and who recently negotiated the release of three Iranians held by Somali pirates for more than five years.
“For the individual survival is paramount and with a few simple skills you can improve your chances,” he said.
Looking back, Blais said she would have changed course if she had researched the area better and realized it was dangerous. But even when apprehended and held under threat from the jihadists, she never expected to be kidnapped, she just thought they would be robbed and killed, she said.
Her captors did not beat or torture her, but the months in captivity were grueling, living in solitude in the scorching desert and trying not to think about her fate, Blais said. She found respite in yoga and poetry writing, the latter of which she hid from the jihadists.
She and Italian Tacchetto were separated for most of their captivity, during which time they converted to Islam at the behest of their captors, she said. It was when they were reunited that they escaped.
Blais said she doesn’t forgive the men who took her away but understands they were just following orders, convinced they were doing the right thing thinking they would be given a special place in heaven, she declared.
“They have nothing, they are very poor and they do not understand that they are hurting,” she said. “I don’t want to have hate and I don’t want to forgive … I just want to let it go.”
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