Women

09.05.13

‘A Long Walk Home’: Somali Pirate Hostage Publishes Her Memoir

In a new book, Judith Tebbutt recounts her six-month ordeal as a hostage of Somali pirates and revisits the night of the kidnapping, when her husband of 33 years lost his life trying to protect her.

Judith Tebbutt, a 56-year old British social worker, wouldn’t know at the time that her long walk home began almost as soon as she and her husband, David, touched down on a grassy airstrip on the northern Kenya coast on September 10, 2011.

The couple had been vacationing in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve and planned to wind up their vacation with a weeklong stay at Kiwayu Safari Village, a starkly beautiful beach resort 25 miles south of the Somali border that offered "barefoot luxury" to its mostly well-heeled clients.

After a late lunch, the Tebbutts' host walked them down the beach to their cottage. “Banda Zero”—the last of a string of 18 palm-thatched cottages—sat directly on the beach over a quarter of a mile away from the main lodge and dining area.

Call it woman’s intuition or just plain common sense, but Judith Tebbutt didn’t like the feel of the place and threw backward glances at the main lodge. She knew the resort advertised itself as a secluded getaway, but “the silence was very pronounced, a ‘peace and quiet’ that felt just a shade remote, even intimidating.”

“Where is everybody?” Tebbutt asked, noting the absence of children laughing and splashing in the sea. In fact, the beach was deserted.

“You’re in luck,” resort owner George Moorhead, a white Kenyan, answered. “You’re the only two here.” If Moorhead sensed her unease, he didn’t acknowledge it.

Often those on safari are on the adventurous side, so the last tent is usually considered a bonus for its privacy. The luxuriously appointed and "absolutely huge" banda had no windows or doors that could lock.

“Instead of a perk, it struck me as a slight cause of concern that we would be so much alone in this rather lonely place,” Tebbutt writes in A Long Walk Home (Faber & Faber, 2013), her recently published account of a terrifying ordeal that would end up taking her into the war-torn heart of Somalia.

Alone inside the banda, Tebbutt voiced her concern to David, who told her gently to “chill.” “This is going to be our Robinson Crusoe experience,” the 58-year-old publishing executive reassured her. (David was director of finances at Faber & Faber, the publishers of Tebbutt's book.)

That evening they dined with Moorhead, who gave them the background on his decades-old family-run resort. About 9 p.m., after a few gin and tonics, the couple headed back to Banda Zero. Tebbutt put away her bracelets and the watch that operated her hearing aids in the cottage’s wooden lockbox. The couple, married for 33 years, fell asleep holding hands.

The next thing she knew the lights were on again and she heard her husband shout, “What the fuck is going on?”

David was standing at the foot of the bed, inside the mosquito net, his arms raised above his head as he grappled with someone taller than him. Two other men sat on either side of the bed, one prodding Tebbutt in the back with the tip of a rifle. She thought it might have been hotel askaris (watchmen) moving them out of their banda as a result of some breach of security.

But then the men gripped her arms and hauled her off the bed, through the mosquito net and out the doorway. She looked back at David, who was so focused and locked in battle with the shadowy assailant he didn’t seem to notice his wife being dragged out of the banda. When she stumbled along the beach, they pulled her up by her hair.

She screamed and dug her heels into the sand, demanding her abductors return her to hotel. “But my resistance was useless," she writes."These men were just too strong for me.”

The resort appeared to be as deserted as when she and David arrived earlier that day. All the askaris were on their tea break at the time. Crashing waves and high winds drowned out her screams. Of the reported two dozen askaris on duty that night, only one heard a gunshot from the vicinity of Banda Zero; Tebbutt, it seems, did not. Under a moon "nightmarishly full and bright," she was tossed into a tiny "scrappy" fishing skiff. The last man on the boat, she noted, was tall and well built. She silently christened him Leader Man.

She asked her captors where they were taking her, and wondered whether they were headed toward Mombasa, farther down the Kenyan coast. But the man running the engine—the Navigator, who had offered her a pair of trousers for warmth—said, "Somalia."

"Money, money, money," says another, rubbing his fingers together. He couldn't have been more than 19 years old, younger than her son.

One of her captors eventually told her she was lucky to have been kidnapped by pirates and not Islamic militants, who might torture and kill her.

***

In those first hours, Tebbutt tried to accept the fact that she had been kidnapped, and to endure the grueling trip—it would take three days—up the coast through insect-infested mangrove swamps, in a boat roughly 6 by 12 feet, crammed with jerricans of petrol, without food. She watched the pirates pop balls of rice into their mouths, neglecting to feed her.

Every five hours, they would land, fall to their knees, press palms and foreheads to the ground and pray—a hypocritical gesture, Tebbutt thought, given the nature of their undertaking. On the third day the pirates landed once more and transferred her to an SUV that hurtled into desolate scrubland and over sand dunes. All she knew was that she was hundreds of miles from where she’d been kidnapped. Thus began the start of her six-month nightmare; her kidnappers stashed her in a series of windowless metal-roofed structures surrounded by sand bags and men with machine guns. She was immediately stripped of her Western identity and cloaked in a jilbab, a form of traditional Arabic attire for women.

One of her captors eventually told her she was lucky to have been kidnapped by pirates and not Islamic militants, who might torture and kill her. “When they get the money, you will go home,” he told her. He declined to divulge the amount they were asking.

A few days into her captivity, a pirate leader that Tebbutt had named the Negotiator asked for her husband’s phone number. She replied that she didn’t know it. And he had left his phone back home in England.

“Your son?”

She didn’t know his number either.

“How can you be a good wife if you don’t know your own husband’s phone number?”

“I was dragged out of my bed and onto a boat in the middle of the night by men with rifles. So I didn’t have time to pick up my phone.”

The inevitable regrets took hold: Why did this happen to us? Why didn't we go to Zanzibar?

130904-kiser-tebbutt-abduction-embed2
A bedroom at Kiwayu Safari Village, an exclusive and remote lodge on the Kenyan coast where British couple David and Judith Tebbutt were abducted. (Guillaume Bonn/Getty)

***

Initially, Tebbutt held out hope of rescue and a reunion with her husband. One of the pirates eventually gave her reason to hope this was true. They’d soon take her to the Blue Room Hotel in Mombasa, he said, where David was waiting.

“David wouldn’t allow this outrage to go on for long,” she believed. “He would come find me. He would strain every sinew, do whatever had to be done to get me freed.”

Meanwhile, Tebbutt tried to turn her solitary confinement into a meditative study in solitude and discipline. She found ways to reestablish “self-autonomy” by giving structure and routine to her day. As soon as she was given a notebook and pen, she began keeping a diary, but instead of tracking the boring, repetitive routine found in most hostage accounts, she decided to write the details of her abduction, what the pirates looked like, and the layout of the various cement breeze-block structures she lived in, and stay alert for any details of who might have been behind the attack.

While these projects were soothing, her journal entries range from compassion and resolve to rage, expressed through gritted teeth and a classically British stiff upper lip.

Perhaps because of a hearing difficulty, Tebbutt has a keen eye for detail, down to the colors and patterns of the curtains in her cell and every contour of each pirate’s face.

She writes about drawing on childhood experiences, when she spent considerable time alone. Jude, as she is known to her family, was born with a heart defect, which meant long stays in a hospital and long periods among unfamiliar doctors and surgeons.

She had met David in 1979 and knew right away he was the soulmate she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. The couple married in 1986, and a year later, had their only child, Ollie.

“There were times in our marriage when David would say—fondly, in jest— ‘I just want to look after you, you’re so tiny.’”

Tebbutt is indeed small framed, childlike, which was why she felt was doubly important to let people know she was not one to be pushed around.

One day a pirate came into her room and handed her a phone. The British Consulate was calling. Once proof of life was established, the negotiations got under way. After two weeks, the pirates managed to contact Ollie, then 25. “Mum, there’s something I have to tell you,” he said measuredly. “Dad didn't survive his injuries.”

Tebbutt felt her heart stop.

“He was trying to protect you, Mum. He was brave to the very end.”

The pirates were miffed that she’d found out her husband was dead, fearing the fact might diminish her morale.

The challenge for Tebbutt then became one not only getting through the day, but confronting grief and rage in a squalid room in the presence of “mercenary creatures” who simply told her to get another husband. One pirate told her his firstborn son had died as a baby, but that he had to believe he’d gone to a better place. He spoke a bit of English and confided to Tebbutt that he had been conscripted at gunpoint the day of the abduction, while fishing with his brother near Ras Kamboni, a village just inside Somalia. The man showed her a photo of a beach scene on his phone. It was Kiwayu. While he wouldn’t say whether he took the photo, he admitted the pirates knew she and David were the only guests at the resort the night of September 11. “We had to wait until midnight to get you.”

long-walk-home-tebbutt-cover

***

Tebbutt tried to keep fit by walking in circles, swiveling her hips to spin an imaginary hula hoop, and practicing yoga and Pilates.

Her background in social work helped her not fear the criminals, and her history of work with traumatized and intimidating patients gave her compassion. However abhorrent her abductors’ and captors’ crime, Tebbutt writes, Somalia is a shattered state offering almost no opportunity for an honest living.

Around Christmastime, the pirates disclosed that Ollie was only able to raise $300,000. They threatened to sell her to other pirates. “You know in Somalia anything can happen ... There is no government, no police. This man could make you disappear. And no one would know.”

The Big Man, it seems, had ordered several kidnappings at once: of two female Spanish aid workers in Dadaab, an American aid worker named Jessica Buchanan, and Marie Dedieu, a retiree from France who died in captivity. (The pirates threw her failing body on a donkey and even tried to negotiate a ransom for her remains.)

While listening to the BBC World Service one day, Tebbutt heard Foreign Secretary William Hague talk about an international conference on Somalia, to be held in London. Piracy was high on the agenda.

He analyzed the problem as a symptom a failed state. After the government collapsed in 1992, Somalia’s coastline became a dumping ground for toxic waste from abroad and a free seafood buffet for foreign trawlers. Angry fisherman took vengeance by exacting a toll that was hard to distinguish from extortion. Justifying their actions as retaliation against sea poachers, they began to hold ships hostage, demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars. By 2009 pirates were fetching an average of $5.4 million per ship. In turn, navies around the world, particularly those of NATO and the European Union, and private vessels kitted out with private security, began patrolling the Indian Ocean.

“This new vigilance had helped to turn the pirates focus towards ‘softer targets,’” Tebbutt notes, “foreign tourists, like David and me.”

In the middle of the night she awoke to the sight of Leader Man standing in the doorway. He came to her, held her hands in his “platelike” palms and bowed his head for a few moments and left. “My hunch—it was nothing more—was that he knew that I knew what he’d done in the early hours of 11 September, and, in that light, his gesture towards me had a look of contrition about it.”

On March 21, 2012, Tebbutt was released. She had lost 50 pounds and, from the tough trip up the Somali coast, had developed scoliosis in her spine. While it was not the longest a hostage had been held (the two Spanish women were held nearly two years), she had, in losing David, paid the highest price.

Judith and David Tebbutt
Judith and David Tebbutt. (Excerpt from A Long Walk Home )

***

One senses in Tebbutt’s memoir of captivity a certain dismay that Western governments and agencies seek to address the symptoms of Somalia’s anarchy and chaos, rather than dealing with its core problem, economic desperation. “It was ... clear that my captors were not Islamic militants but common or garden variety extortionists whose sole interest was money,” she notes.

After her release she learned details of David’s death. It is likely that he was murdered because he put up a fight, indeed maybe almost wrestled the gun from the assailant, when he was shot. Crime-scene analysts say, gauging from the blood stains, that at one point David had been lying face down diagonally across the bed, suggesting he may have been “butt stroked” with an AK-47, fell to the bed, and shot from behind.

One of the first things Tebbutt did after being put in solitary confinement in Amara, a coastal town and pirate’s nest, was to hide her wedding band by tying it inside her pajamas. She felt blessed the pirates never found it.

She learned also that on the morning following the attack a man named Ali Babitu Kololo had been arrested by Kenyan authorities. She recognized Kololo from one of the photos she had been shown. A 32-year old Boni tribesman, Kololo later testified in court that he'd been cutting firewood in a forest when a friend of his had brought him toward the Somali border to get him a job. He wasn’t aware they’d crossed into Somalia in the early hours on September 10, when, he said, armed five armed Somalis forced him on a boat to take the them to Kiwayu. About 7 p.m., near the time Tebbutt and David were strolling down the beach for dinner, the pirates set out from Ras Kamboni under the cover of darkness to Mkokoni, the village nearest Kiwayu Safari Village.

While Kololo testified that as soon as the anchored at Kongowale beach near the hotel, he managed to escape from the gang and headed north. Kololo was intercepted by the head of security at the hotel and described him as nervous and unable to look them in the eyes. He also was wearing sandals, a brand that is commonly worn in Somalia.

Kololo had worked at KSV as a groundskeeper and sand raker for three months in 2010. He would have known that the askaris’ tea break occurred between 11:30 p.m. and midnight. Contrary to his testimony of escaping the gang almost as soon as they came ashore, chief counterterror investigator for New Scotland Yard, Neil Hibberd, testified that there was one set of sandal prints leading to back of the bandas, made by a brand of footwear typically used by Somalis and prohibited among the staff at the resort. Apparently the other five kidnappers were barefoot. The sandal prints were those of a person visiting each banda, evidently looking for victims.

Via video link, Judith testified that she had seen a photo of Kololo and couldn’t confirm that he hadn’t been inside Banda Zero.

Soon after publication of her book, at the end of July, a Kenyan court sentenced Kololo to death. He is the only person so far tried and sentenced in the murder and kidnapping case. His lawyer says he plans to appeal.