Nigel Brennan was held hostage in Somalia and later freed after his family paid a randsom. Photo: TIMBAUERPHOTO.COM
In 2008 my brother Nigel was abducted while working in Somalia alongside Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout. I picked up the phone and spoke to the kidnappers when they rang to deliver the first ransom message and so I fell into the role of next of kin negotiator (the NOK). After establishing who I was, and my relationship with Nigel, they demanded $US 1.5 million for his safe release. The situation still seems surreal.
Over time, and with the assistance of some wonderful local Queensland police negotiators, I was actively trained to take the calls. The AFP moved into my parents’ house and I was taught to negotiate with the kidnappers by responding to a series of ‘what if‘ mock phone calls in anticipation of a real call from the kidnappers.
Initially I was fearful of the calls coming in, lest I say something wrong or hear something horrible happen to Nigel. Dealing with the situation affected my home life and all social engagements. From the kids’ soccer parties or going out to dinner, everything revolved around time zone differences with Somalia.
Footage of Canadian Amanda Lindhout and Australian freelance photographer Nigel Brennan, the two foreign journalists kidnapped near Somalia's capital. Screened on the Arabic Al Jazeera news service.
As the AFP and the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) increased their negotiations, they decreased my contact with the kidnappers and, in turn, Nigel. The AFP implemented a strategy of deliberately not talking to the kidnappers and we were not allowed to be involved in this decision.
After a while, the authorities took phone duties off me all together. I had no contact at all anymore with either Nigel or the kidnappers. We became desperate to hear Nigel’s voice to get any proof of life. No matter how awful the calls had been, at least we knew he was alive when we were receiving them. ‘Was he alive?’ was the constant unknown that hung over everything I did.
Friends cautioned me over the obsessive behavior that came with trying to get Nigel home. They were justified –Nigel was the last thing I thought about before I fell asleep and the first think I thought of when I woke up.
It had a huge impact on my relationship with my husband as I was effectively working full time on getting Nigel home. My husband had to be parent, home keeper and breadwinner all in one. I really was an absentee parent in my children’s lives at this stage and I’m very fortunate that they love Nigel dearly and could understand why it took my all.
The Australian government has a strict no ransom policy, though if a family has the means, they will negotiate on your behalf – though they refuse to allow you to offer any more than US$250,000.
We had raised half a million dollars to contribute ourselves when the government told us that they could no longer assist us if we were willing to provide that amount as a ransom. This news came 11 long months into Nigel’s ordeal.
Despite the government’s assurances they were doing all they could, other captives in Somalia that had been taken later than Nigel were being released, including Nigel’s Somalia colleagues.
After tracking down a phone number through friends of friends I spoke to one of the released kidnap victims and discovered there was an alternative to government channels – there were international risk management companies that specialised in kidnap and ransom.
My family members launched themselves into trying to find a company that would help us and even though the government actually uses these companies themselves, they were not forthcoming with names. After some long late night international calls we found some one who we thought could pull it off.
My sister-in-law and I flew to Canada to see him and try to get the Canadian family to come on board, as you cannot only get one kidnap victim out at a time – it’s an almost certain death penalty for the one left behind.
During our meeting John (our kidnap and ransom specialist) told us the average length of a kidnapping is three months. By this point, Nigel had been captive for almost four times this length of time. He suspected ours might take a little bit longer as we were in effect starting from scratch and had been affected by considerable government ‘noise’.
The change in direction was profound. Yes, we were paying a ransom, but for the first time there was a feeling of control. I was back to negotiating directly with the kidnappers and not feeling as worried about the calls as I had been initially.
Even when we received a torture phone call, John had helped us to prepare for the worst. He had mapped out a plan as to how the negotiations would work and for the first time since the whole ordeal began, things actually started working to plan.
After four months with John on board, including a trip to Nairobi for final negotiations and one failed recue attempt where we flew the extraction team and money in and back out again, Nigel was finally freed. Skinny, bearded and possibly changed forever – but free.
Nicky Bonney and her brother Nigel Brennan are guests on SBS's Insight program tonight, 8.30pm on SBS ONE which explores what happens when Australians are kidnapped overseas. Host Jenny Brockie hears from those who have been held hostage, as well as families and kidnap and ransom negotiators who discuss the delicate process of hostage negotiation and debate the Australian Government’s ‘no ransom’ policy.