RESCUE

01.25.12

Jessica Buchanan, Dedicated Teacher, Lover of Africa, Victim of Pirates

Jessica Buchanan is safe after a daring predawn raid on the Somali pirate compound where she was held for four months. The Daily Beast reports on her path to East Africa.

Minutes after delivering his State of the Union address, President Obama called John Buchanan and told him his daughter had been rescued from Somali pirates. Hours earlier, U.S. special forces—the same elite Navy SEAL unit that killed Osama bin Laden—parachuted into the pirate encampment where Jessica Buchanan and her fellow aid worker were being held, rescued them while killing nine captors, and escaped in waiting helicopters.

The raid punctuated four months of fruitless negotiations for the release of Buchanan, an American, and Poul Hagen Thisted, a Dane, who were abducted in October on their way to the airport in Galkayo, a small town in central Somalia. Both Buchanan and Thisted worked for the Danish Demining Group, a division of the Danish Refugee Council, and had just finished a workshop on defusing land mines shortly before the kidnapping. Buchanan, who felt called to Africa as a Christian missionary, had worked there as an educator for five years, first in Kenya and then in Somalia, where she moved with her husband, a Swedish aid worker, three years ago. "She could hardly talk about Africa without tears in her eyes,” said the president of the college she had attended. In perhaps the cruelest irony of the saga, Buchanan and Thisted were apparently betrayed to their captors by a local employee of the Danish aid group for which they worked—one of the last Western organizations still operating in Muslim Somalia.

Buchanan, 32, was a long way from her hometown of Cincinnati. According to a family member who wished to remain anonymous, her journey to Africa began when she enrolled at Valley Forge Christian College in Phoenixville, Pa., shortly after a split with her first husband. Through Valley Forge, Buchanan spent a semester in Nairobi as a student teacher. It was that experience that drew her back to the continent. “She did a semester of student teaching in Africa, and that experience just planted in her a love and passion for Africa," Don Meyer, president of Valley Forge, told CNN.

She apparently excelled as a student teacher, because the Nairobi school, Rosslyn Academy, hired her upon graduation in 2007. A local church, York Calvary Temple Assembly of God, posted a message when Buchanan went missing, saying that “she sold all she owned to become a missionary.” Rob Beyer, the dean of students at Rosslyn, described her as good-humored and adventurous. "There have been tears on and around the campus today," Beyer told the Associated Press. "She was well loved by all her students."

She taught at Rosslyn for two years, during which time she met Erik Landemalm, a Swedish aid worker, according to the family member. Landemalm is a program officer at Diakonia, a Christian aid organization that works in the area. He’s also listed as a program officer for the Association of European Parliamentarians for Africa in an annual report. Buchanan married Landemalm, and the two moved to Hargeisa, Somalia, where beginning in 2010 Buchanan served as a regional education adviser for the Danish Demining Group, which works with communities to clean up land mines and unexploded weapons.

"She did a semester of student teaching in Africa, and that experience just planted in her a love and passion for Africa."

At first the Danish Refugee Council tried to negotiate Buchanan and Thisted’s release, but the gunmen refused its offer of $1.5 million, and talks broke down. Adding urgency to the situation was Buchanan’s bad health, according to Vice President Joe Biden. “They said it was the time, the opportunity. Jessica’s health was, in a word, ‘failing.’” Considering that negotiations with Somali pirates have sometimes lasted for more than a year, and other ransoms have totaled more than $10 million, the president decided on Monday to greenlight the rescue operation.

Although Buchanan’s failing health spurred the president to act, she is reportedly in good condition. Meyer spoke with Buchanan’s family and said, "She is strong, she is healthy, she is in very good condition.” Both Buchanan and Thisted were flown to U.S. Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, and the Danish Refugee Council says they are “on their way to be reunited with their families.”