Impossible Odds

Kidnapped by Somali pirates and rescued by Navy SEALs, Jessica Buchanan prevailed.

She never wanted to go.

Against her better judgment, American Jessica Buchanan left her home in Hargeisa, in Somalia’s northwest corner near Djibouti and the Gulf of Aden, and traveled nearly 500 miles southeast for work. Even her husband, Erik Landemalm, was concerned about her trip. They were both humanitarian workers, but it was Landemalm who knew the area—and its dangers—exceptionally well. 

Buchanan’s job with a Danish NGO was to instruct locals on how to avoid war munitions and landmines that were rampant in the region, but the organization downplayed the risks. Her route to Galkayo, Somalia’s third largest city and close to the Arabian Sea, was known to be particularly unsafe. But, ignoring her intuition, she hopped a UN plane and was off. 

Upon reaching Galkayo with her 61-year-old colleague, Poul Thisted, Buchanan, 32, reluctantly spent the night at the NGO guesthouse. She texted her husband, who was back in Hargeisa: “If I get kidnapped on this trip, will you come and get me?” 

Unbeknownst to Buchanan and Thisted, the guesthouse was a mere 500 meters from a Somali pirate den. The following day, as the pair prepared to leave for their next destination, they were suddenly surrounded by men with AK-47s, shouting and pounding on the doors of their Land Cruiser. 

Jessica on site at a demolition in Somaliland with the Danish Demining Group in 2011.

93 Days

Buchanan and Thisted were kidnapped and held for ransom by Somali land pirates. They were terrorized and trapped in deplorable outdoor conditions in the desert, with frequent forced marches from camp to camp. Her captors were demanding a $45 million ransom. 

“We were always being guarded by anywhere from six to 30 men, armed at all times,” she says. 

Buchanan was regularly terrorized by her kidnappers and subsisted on a near-starvation diet.  On the occasions that they gave her a can of tuna, she used a makeshift spoon fashioned from a tampon applicator that she’d stuffed in her bag. Every so often she would get a small can of pineapple before going to sleep. By day, she mostly sat in the shade under an acacia tree. At night, the guards forced her out into a field, where she tried to sleep on a mat. “Then I’d go back and do the same thing all over again,” she says.

Despite gang rapes being rampant, miraculously, Buchanan was never sexually assaulted while being held captive. One of her kidnappers, an older, religious man who prayed five times daily, would sit with her and say, “I’m sorry” repeatedly. At night, he would sleep on the ground near her—Buchanan took it as a fatherly, protective gesture. He was the reason, she concluded, that she was never raped.

“When I say I was lucky, I mean I’m LUCKY,” she says. “There were a couple of times where I wasn’t assaulted, but it was getting close—that was always a threat.”

The Rescue

Over the months, several proof-of-life calls were made to Landemalm, while Buchanan’s father, brother, and sister spent weeks in Nairobi attending meetings with negotiators and the FBI. Ultimately, their efforts were fruitless, and Buchanan’s health started to deteriorate. She’d contracted a life-threatening kidney infection from the unsanitary conditions in her camp, a detail she shared during a proof-of-life call. 

That conversation was a catalyst, and as a result, President Obama authorized a rescue operation with members of Navy SEAL Team Six. Under the cover of night on Jan. 25, 2012, the U.S. commandos descended from their helicopters and raided the pirates’ den. The heavily armed captors were killed, and Buchanan and Thisted were airlifted to safety.

“I wouldn’t be here right now if it weren’t for a miracle,” Buchanan says. “And I have the U.S. Navy SEALs to thank for that.”

Meanwhile, the FBI, the U.S. government, hostage negotiators, and Buchanan’s husband and family worked tirelessly to negotiate her release. 

“It was just this mission to get Jess back,” says Buchanan’s younger sister, Amy Mathe, who lives in Staunton. “The FBI showed up at our house within an hour or two of us finding out and the ball was rolling.”

Pete Souza Official White House Photo

Former President Barack Obama calling Jessica’s dad to notify him that she was alive and coming home on Jan. 25, 2012 after the State of the Union Address.

Moving forward

Buchanan now lives in Alexandria with her family. She chronicled her journey in the New York Times bestseller, Impossible Odds, co-written with Landemalm, and was named one of the “150 Women Who Will Shake the World” by Newsweek. Her story was featured in a 60 Minutes broadcast, which became one of the show’s most viewed episodes of all time. 

But with all the accolades, the stark reality is that what Buchanan endured was unimaginable. While her story is one of healing, strength, and resilience, being held captive for 93 days in Somalia is not something from which one easily recovers. Her latest literary collaboration is an Amazon best-selling series, Deserts to Mountaintops: Our Collective Journey to (re)Claiming our Voice, an anthology of memoirs written by Buchanan and 18 other women, who explore the depths of adversity and the triumph of the human spirit. 

“After the kidnapping, there was a deeper empathy, knowing what trauma does to people,” Buchanan’s sister Amy Mathe says. “That has been a lot of Jess’s recovery—being able to try to work with other women, help them share their stories and process their own traumas in a really healthy way. I think it gives some meaning to the whole experience.” 

Jessica at her “Change is Your Proof of Life” presentation in 2020 at PearlStreet for TedX.

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue. 

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