Two years after her release from a 15-month ordeal at the hands of Somali gunmen, Amanda Lindhout looks nothing like a person held for ransom under oppressive conditions that included torture and beatings.
"The challenge that I face whenever I share my story is that there are so few remaining visible reminders of the abuse and defamation that I suffered not long ago that people often have a hard time reconciling my image today with the reality of what I survived," Lindhout admits.
On the day of her release Nov. 25, 2009, Lindhout's head was covered in bald patches as her hair had been ripped out, she was missing seven teeth and was missing some of her toenails because they had fallen off due to malnourishment.
"But thanks to hair extensions and modern medicine and great dentists there is nothing that stands out to make me appear different than anyone else."
Lindhout shared her story with about 200 people at the Alberta Restorative Justice Conference at Grant MacEwan University Nov. 19.
The 30-year-old freelance reporter suffered "unbearable abuse" while in captivity but chose to forgive her teenage captors, one as young as 14.
Lindhout says she understands the group of about a dozen teenage boys were the product of a culture of war.
"All of these young people are growing up around violence and death and guns and disease, living in a world where things like school and job opportunities are really nothing more than a dream for them."
Still, she holds them responsible for their actions. "Forgiving for me is a process. It's not that you wake up one morning and decide to forgive."
Today Lindhout is studying development leadership at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia and dedicates a great part of her time to the Global Enrichment Foundation that she started to improve the lives of Somali women.
A freelance reporter, Lindhout wrote for The Red Deer Advocate from war zones in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Aug. 20, 2008, she arrived in Mogadishu to work for a French TV station. Lindhout and Australian photographer and friend Nigel Brennan had been reporting on refugees escaping factional fighting when roadside kidnappers ambushed them on Aug. 23.
In those first months of captivity, life was difficult but it wasn't anything like what it was going to become. Lindhout and Brennan were kept together. There was plenty of food.
"My captors were teenage boys aged 14 to 18 years old who were being controlled and manipulated by their leaders, the men they called their commanders."
The commanders had organized the kidnappings. "They were well-educated Somali men, most of whom had travelled to Western countries, had university education and used their knowledge of the outside world to manipulate the young men that they recruited to fight for them."
The teenagers who were holding Lindhout captive "had never been to school; most of them were orphans. Almost all of them had horrible scars on their bodies where they had been shot or injured in mortar blasts."
Conditions worsened after the pair tried to escape five months after their capture. Lindhout and Brennan were separated, kept in different rooms and she was repeatedly tortured. They were freed when their families paid a $1.4 million ransom.
"I was locked up in what I named the dark house, which was a room so pitch black I could not see my own hands stretched out in front of my face."
Her captors had placed a large metal chain around each of her ankles and secured it with two heavy padlocks that remained on her ankles for 10 months until she was released. She was allowed to use the washroom exactly five times a day for exactly three minutes each time.
But her darkest moments were not the times that the physical pain was the greatest. "It was when I began to question the inherent goodness in mankind that I had always believed so strongly in and that propelled me all those years to travel and explore the world."
Lindhout said she could not understand how people could treat each other so terribly, "how those young men, in each of whom I had glanced some inner light during those first weeks of captivity, could now behave seemingly without any conscience at all."
She wrestled with that question endlessly and even wondered if she wanted to live in a world where such evil exists.
"One of these young men came into my room and he was hurting me and my hands were pressed up against his chest. I was protecting myself and in my mind I was raging against him. I wanted him to die and I could sense that my internal sense was about to snap.
"Then suddenly and very unexpectedly a warm feeling came over me and that's very difficult to describe to people but it's probably best described as a feeling of peace and I suddenly felt detached from the physical pain I was feeling and I found myself as the observer."
Lindhout saw her abuser as the child he was. "In my mind, I heard his life stories again. I saw him finding a piece of his favourite aunt's leg that had been blown off during the explosion that killed her. I saw him hungry, orphaned, hiding behind a truck while his neighbours were massacred around him."
At that moment, "I realized that this boy's suffering was actually greater than my own. My pain was only physical but the foundation of his pain was a lifetime of suffering."
When the abuser left the room, Lindhout found herself in tears. "I was crying not only for Nigel (Brennan) and myself; I was truly crying for every single one of us under that roof," she said.
"There is a passage in the Bible where Jesus says my power is made perfect in weakness for when I am weak then I am strong. When I was in captivity I understood this. My weakest moment, the moment I thought that I was about to snap, had given me the opportunity to experience my greatest power, which is the power to forgive."