"I Was Just Waiting to Die"
By Christopher Callahan
Christopher Callahan is associate dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and a senior editor of AJR.
When the gunfire starýed, Tina Susman ducked her head and closed her eyes. She knew she was going to die, and she had no desire to watch. "I figured it would be easier if the bullet hit me unexpectedly rather than seeing the barrel of the gun," says the 35-year-old Associated Press reporter. "Basically, I was just waiting to die."
Susman assumed the young Somali outlaws wanted her rented Toyota Land Cruiser.
She was wrong. They wanted her.
On that June morning, Susman, then the AP's Johannesburg news editor, became the first U.S. journalist to be kidnapped and held since the AP's Terry Anderson was freed in 1991 after nearly seven years in captivity. During her 20 days as a hostage, Susman endured endless hours in tiny rooms, a bout of malaria, late-night moves to battle zone hideouts, and fears that she might suffer the same fate as Anderson.
Susman, now based in the Ivory Coast, already had made two trips to Somalia. In July 1993, just days after her last trip, four colleagues – two Reuter photographers, an AP photographer and a Reuter TV sound technician – were killed by a mob. "I definitely had a lot of misgivings about going [back]," Susman says. "I had so many bad memories."
On June 18, after two days of reporting, the 10-year AP veteran prepared to return to Johannesburg. She climbed into the back seat of the brown Land Cruiser flanked by two guards armed with AK-47s. In the front sat AP photographer Sayyid Abdul Azim and the driver, a local who had worked for the wire service since Somalia became a hot spot in December 1992.
The entourage left the Hotel Sahafi (Arabic for journalist) at 8:15 a.m., drove to the airport to fill out forms necessary to return home, and then headed back on the same road toward the United Nations compound to file more forms. Suddenly, they heard a single shot. The driver stopped, gunmen surrounded the vehicle and the shooting began.
The guards returned fire, but they "realized I was probably going to be killed if they didn't back off," Susman says. Azim was hit with a rifle butt and was left on the ground. The driver, Susman discovered later, had conspired with the kidnappers, which explains why he didn't follow protocol and speed away after the first shot.
The back door flew open and one of the attackers pulled Susman out of the car and dragged her by her wrists 20 feet down the dirt road. She was shoved into the back seat of a sedan. Four men jumped into the car and they took off. One held a pistol to Susman's head.
The gunmen brought her to a compound just a few minutes away. Their leader said he held her personally responsible for the death of three family members in an October 1993 battle that left 18 U.S. soldiers dead. "I explained to the guy I wasn't even in Somalia in October of 1993, and his response was that I had no witnesses to prove that."
They set her ransom at $300,000. They took $2,500 she had in a waist pouch, but they did not find $600 she had stashed away in a compartment inside her belt. She also had the presence of mind to tell them she was 23, married and the mother of two. "In Somali society, a single, 35-year-old woman is definitely not someone who is valued very much," she explains.
By the third day, the kidnappers were frustrated. The AP said it wouldn't pay a ransom, fearing that would encourage future kidnappings. The leader threatened to kill her. He waved his 9 mm semiautomatic like a toy as he ranted. "If I saw him on the streets of New York, I'd say he was high on crack. He was a very unstable young man with a gun and I was scared to death."
The kidnappers asked Susman if her family could afford $60,000. She wrote a note to Azim authorizing the AP to withdraw the money from her bank accounts. She grew optimistic.
But the AP rejected the plan. "They couldn't be sure I would be released if the money was paid," Susman says. And she agrees with that decision: "When you're a hostage, all you can think of is you want out. But intellectually, at the same time, there is no way in hell I want anybody to pay ransom to these guys."
Susman was never physically abused; she was moved repeatedly – eight times in all.
In the beginning, Susman received notes, mineral water and military food rations from the AP. But after the first week, everything stopped. "I was really confused because I knew in my heart the AP was doing everything it could for me, but at the same time there were moments I thought they abandoned me." She later learned the messages were being withheld by her captors.
Throughout most of her captivity, Susman had nothing to do but think. She thought about her family, friends and favorite foods – strawberry jam and Italian sausage. She imagined stories about her plight and feared the AP would transmit an unflattering photograph of her. She planned her will. She thought of her colleagues killed last year. And she replayed happier times in her head "like playing a video."
But her most consuming thought was of escaping. On Day 20 – July 7 – the fighting intensified, and three people were killed half a block away. The man whom the kidnappers had assigned to act as guard, translator and companion – she knew him only as Mohamed – became frightened. He seemed to have been recruited by the kidnappers against his will.
"I said to the translator things were getting desperate and we had to do something," she recalls. "He nodded his head in agreement."
The two devised a plan. With Susman's hidden $600, Mohamed would go to his relative's house and pay him to take them to the U.S. Liaison Office. Mohamed left at 3 p.m. and said he would return. That was the last time Susman saw him.
ýt about 5 p.m., Susman heard shuffling in the courtyard outside her room. She looked out through the door hinges and saw several armed Somalis. She thought either Mohamed had betrayed her or had been caught and the kidnappers were coming to kill her. She struggled to keep the door closed as the men tried to push their way in. Realizing that they could shoot her through the door, she gave up.
But when she looked, the men were smiling. They said they had come to rescue her.
Susman later discovered that the AP had asked for help from clan elders, who enlisted the aid of two brothers. At one point, the brothers offered a new car and $10,000 in Somali shillings in exchange for Susman's release. "Trying to get any story clear in Somalia is simply not possible," Susman says, but the brothers may have paid the kidnappers while others got her out. Susman was brought to a safe house and was driven the next morning to the liaison office.
Susman says the experience will not keep her from dangerous assignments, but acknowledges the ordeal has changed her outlook. "Every single day since I've been free I've made a point of seeing friends...," says the California native. "Instead of saying, 'I'll call that person next week,' I pick up the phone – because you never know what might happen next week."