OUAGADOUGOU – Nearly a year and a half after being abducted by Islamic extremists in Burkina Faso, Edith Blais risked her life to escape, fearing she’d never be free.
”(What you’re thinking is either) you stay there your whole life and you die there, or you try something,” Blais told The Associated Press by phone ahead of this week’s publication of her book recounting the ordeal, “The Weight of Sand: My 450 Days Held Hostage in the Sahara.”
The 37-year-old Canadian and her Italian companion Luca Tacchetto, were captured by jihadis in December 2018 in eastern Burkina Faso while touring the region and attempting to cross into neighboring Benin. The pair were held in the desert in northern Mali for 15 months before fleeing one night on foot. To buy time, Blais stuffed her bed in the shape of a body to make it look like she’d gone to sleep, she said. They were also helped by intense wind, which erased their footprints in the sand making it hard for the jihadis to track them. After an eight-hour walk, the two reached a main road and flagged a truck that took them to a United Nations base.
”(Being free was) hard to believe, it’s like if you’re still in the nightmare and you can’t wake up and you know it’s finishing,” said Blais. “There’s so many emotions, and then I was afraid about everybody that was left behind we were afraid about the Italians, we were afraid that they would get punished because we escaped.”
For six years, jihadi groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State in the Sahel, the vast expanse south of the Sahara Desert, have used hostage taking for ransom as a way to fund operations and expand their presence. Twenty-five foreigners have been abducted 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 have been killed, three were liberated by French and U.S. forces and seven were released, the organization said.
Among those still detained is French journalist Olivier Dubois, who was kidnapped in April from northern Mali. Among those released is 75-year-old French aid worker Sophie Petronin, two Italians and a prominent Malian politician who were released in a prisoner exchange in October for nearly 200 Islamic militants.
In Burkina Faso, where jihadi violence has spiked in recent years, killing thousands and displacing more than 1.4 million people, 10 expatriates have been abducted and conflict experts say the longer the fighting and humanitarian crisis continues, hostage taking will increase.
“Any further unrest in troubled towns and villages will require a more critical international attention, likely resulting in the presence of desirable kidnap victims from U.N. agencies, peacekeeping forces, and journalists," said Laith Alkhouri, CEO of Intelonyx Intelligence Advisory, which provides intelligence analysis. " Jihadists see this variable as advantageous and they’ll take a more aggressive posture to keep the unrest and pursue ransom to fund their expansion,”
While the abductions of internationals garner significantly more attention, people aren’t only kidnapped for ransom and there are scores of locals from the Sahel also taken by armed Islamists, whether for extortion, intimidation or punishment, said Corinne Dufka West Africa director for Human Rights Watch.
“This terrible crime, which is trending up, tragically upends the lives of victims 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 kidnap crisis and know exactly how to respond, said John Steed, response coordinator for the Hostage Support Partnership, a group that tries to free hostages in Somalia who have been abandoned and who recently negotiated the release of three Iranians held by Somali pirates for more than five years.
“For the individual survival is everything and with some simple skills you can improve your chances,” he said.
Looking back, Blais said that she would have changed course, had she researched the area better and realized it was dangerous. But even once apprehended and held at gunpoint by the jihadis, she never expected to be kidnapped, she just thought they’d be robbed and killed, she said.
Her abductors didn’t 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, said Blais. She found respite in yoga and writing poetry, the latter which she hid from the jihadis.
She and the 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 once they reunited that they escaped.
Blais said she doesn’t forgive the men who took her, but understands they were just following orders, convinced they were doing the right thing thinking they’d be given a special place in heaven, she said.
“They don’t have anything, they’re very poor and they don’t understand they’re doing wrong,” she said. “I don’t want to have hate and I don’t want to forgive...I just want to let it go.”