Hey everyone, welcome back to the Going Scared podcast. This is your host Jessica Honegger, founder of the social impact fashion brand Noonday Collection. Well, we have another incredible conversation today in our resilience series. These conversations have grounded me, encouraged me, and have really given me some practical strategies on how we can rise strong right now. One of the themes that I have picked up on as I’ve talked to each one of the people we’ve interviewed so far in this series is this idea of accepting what is. We have to be able to accept what is before we can move through, before we can rise up, we have to be able to accept what is. And the more quickly we can accept what is, the more quickly we can become agents in the middle of our stories where we can be empowered in the stories that we have been given.
This conversation today with Jessica Buchanan is such a good example of this idea that we need to be able to accept our current realities before we can move and exhibit empowerment and agency in our stories. Jessica has an incredible, incredible story honestly, this conversation it’s … just get ready. It’s going to impact to you in your soul. In your soul. On October 25, 2011 while on a routine field mission working for an NGO in Somalia, Jessica along with another colleague, they were abducted at gunpoint held for ransom by a group of Somali land pirates for 93 days. As you’ll hear, Jessica was held outdoors in deplorable conditions, starved and terrorized by more than two dozen of these gangsters, what they call “Land Pirates.” You can read about her ordeal documented in her New York Times best-selling book, Impossible Odds: The Kidnapping of Jessica Buchanan and Her Dramatic Rescue by SEAL Team Six. I met Jessica just a few months ago at a Noonday Collection trunk show and immediately clicked with her, and you’ll hear our story in this conversation. Jessica now lives in D.C., which is where I met her, and she speaks about her ordeal in multiple venues. And she’s the co-host of the podcast We Should Talk About That and unpacks uncomfortable topics that nobody’s talking about. I’m actually going to be a guest on her podcast coming up soon. I’ll let you know when that airs. But for now, let’s just take a pause and give this conversation a listen.
Jessica Buchanan: Teacher, Author, Humanitarian, Speaker, Survivor
Jessica: Okay. So, this is so crazy. When I was designing the book cover for Imperfect Courage, and you’ve written a book too, so, you know, there’s the whole “what the cover is going to be” is a whole thing. So, I went out and I just bought a bunch of books that I liked their covers. And I just was like, "Oh, that’s interesting." I buy them. I had no idea what they were about. Well, we’re in quarantine and I’m thinking, "What better time than now to actually read some of these books that I bought." So, I pick up this one book and it’s a picture of the sky. Literally, I don’t know what it’s about. And I’m reading it, and it’s called A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout, and she had been abducted in Somalia. It’s this heart-wrenching story, and I’m like, "I didn’t know. I didn’t know this is what I was getting myself into."
And then I was like, "I know someone who’s been abducted in Somalia," which is a really random thing to, like, be like, "This story sounds familiar." I’m like, "Who have I met that has been abducted?" Then I remembered, I was at a Noonday Collection trunk show in Washington D.C. and I remembered meeting you. And what so struck me about you was, you know, I go to tons of Noonday Collection gatherings and you can just tell when someone is really resJessica:onating with not just the jewelry, but what we’re doing. And I just remember really feeling that from you, like a deep authenticity, a deep connection with the mission of Noonday. And then you kind of casually dropped, you’re like, "I really love what you’re doing."
Jessica B.: I do.
Jessica: You’re like, "Yeah, I used to live in Africa, and then I got abducted in Somalia."
Jessica B.: Yeah, as we’re shopping for earrings, you know.
Jessica: As we’re shopping for earrings.
Jessica B.: As one does.
Jessica: As one does. But before we get into your story, actually, you had your two little girls with you that night, and I want to know how’s it going? How are you quarantining right now?
Jessica B.: I’m quarantining like everybody else is. You know, I’m just trying to keep it together. So, I actually have a 7-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter.
Jessica: Oh, it’s a son. Maybe I just met your daughter that night.
Jessica B.: She feels like a couple of kids. So, you know, I mean, I definitely … I have 2, but sometimes I feel like I have 16. So, I am trying to just pace myself. I realized the first couple of weeks of quarantine, I was struggling with anxiety really badly, like the physical effects of anxiety that I hadn’t experienced in a really long time, like in a number of years. I’m like, "Hold on. What’s going on here? What’s this about?" And then I realized, "Oh, Jess, the reason you’re searching your kitchen cabinets for paper bag to breathe in is because your unevolved mind and your body remember what it feels like to be stuck in one place." And while you can perceive that this is not the same thing, you are safe, you are surrounded by all the creature comforts, no one’s holding a gun to your head, your body still remembers the fear of being stuck. And this is what this feels like to someone who’s been held hostage before.
“And while you can perceive that this is not the same thing, you are safe, you are surrounded by all the creature comforts, no one’s holding a gun to your head, your body still remembers the fear of being stuck. And this is what this feels like to someone who’s been held hostage before.” Jessica Buchanan
You know, I have a compromised immune system, so I can’t really go out. So, my husband has been doing all of the shopping. I think I’ve been to one store in the last six weeks. So, I have really, like, really had to figure out how to sort through, yeah, just my muscle memory of what it feels like to be stuck and really work through that. So, I’m definitely feeling better, but, you know, employing a lot of the same strategies, ironically enough, that I used during captivity, which surprised me. I don’t know why it did, but it did.
Jessica: Well, it’s interesting you say that because, first of all, as I was also reading that book, A House in the Sky, guess what I also cracked open? The Body Keeps the Score.
Jessica B.: Yes, it does. Absolutely.
Jessica: Body Keeps the Score and so that’s exactly what you’re saying and that’s what, you know, the researcher, scientist, psychiatrist who writes that book talks about how we store these things in our body.
Jessica B.: We sure do.
Jessica: And as I’m reading this book about captivity, well, you know, of course, I cannot fully understand or, you know, really put myself in that position, there is this place where our old trauma is being triggered right now.
Jessica B.: Well, and new trauma is being ignited. Like, one thing I feel people don’t… you know, it’s great with all of the positive messaging and… I mean, that’s great. That’s what gets us out of bed. Like, I got dressed today. I put on my makeup. Like, all of that is good and I think it’s very effective. But I think people need to understand this is a traumatic event that we are experiencing. Our children are experiencing it. We’re trying to keep things normal because that’s what we do as humans, but this is a traumatic event that’s going to have some after-effects that I think we really need to prepare ourselves for and be aware of. I’m really big on recognizing the surviving-survival piece. Like, once you’ve gotten through the actual crisis, which we’re still mid-crisis. We’ve figured out a new normal-ish, I guess, I don’t know, but we’re still in the middle of the crisis. It hasn’t ended.
And I think that’s the other thing that people don’t understand that makes this so overwhelming is that when you know you have an end date, you know, for instance, I had thyroid cancer a couple of years ago and I had to be quarantined again. Like, I was stuck in a hospital room for 24 hours. No one could come in because I was radioactive. And then I had to be quarantined at an alternate location for two weeks because my kids were really little, and I was radioactive for two weeks. So, I had to do the whole thing, like, the gloves and sit on sheets and stuff because I was contaminated. But it wasn’t as difficult as even this is because I could mark the days off on a calendar. I knew it was gonna end. When you don’t know something is going to end, that is very stressful. And I think that we are experiencing that right now.
Jessica: Well, that’s exactly what you experienced. And to hear from someone who has been through what anyone would classify as severe trauma, for you to even say that this is trauma makes me want to exhale because I know there’s so much comparative suffering right now, and like you said, almost this toxic positivity, like, "It’s not that bad," you know. But I think just even you saying, "No, this is trauma," from someone who has been kidnapped and, you know, rescued by the Navy SEAL, that you are still saying, "No, this is hard." I mean, that is meaningful. That’s meaningful.
Jessica B.: Yeah. It is.
On a Mission for Good
Jessica: So, for those that don’t know your story, I gave you a little bit of an intro, but nothing compared to what I want to hear. I know that most of your interviews start with the events that unfolded on October 25th, 2011, in Somalia, but tell me a little bit about what you were doing in Africa previous to that.
Jessica B.: Well, it’s so interesting because I’ve been reading your book. Since I have some time now, I’m catching up on books that I’ve been wanting to read. And you and I have so much in common. It’s super fun to read the story of how you started Noonday and your love for, like, social change and social impact, purchasing for good. And I’m a teacher by profession. And so, when I was in college, I just got this… I was exposed to a bunch of different kind of advocacy groups and I knew I was meant to go abroad. I knew that that’s what I was called to do. I was raised in, like, a very… I have a very Christian upbringing. My parents were kind of alternative artists, but they always felt, and they raised me very much with this mindset of to whom much is given, much is required. And it can get a little hairy because sometimes you fall into the whole guilt zone, but I felt I had resources and skills that had been given to me and I had a responsibility to go out into the world and to use those.
“I felt I had resources and skills that had been given to me and I had a responsibility to go out into the world and to use those.” Jessica Buchanan
So, I knew I was either going to go to India or I was going to go somewhere in Africa. I had this super cool moment where I met somebody who changed my life, a friend who has become a very dear soul, connected spirit for me. And she got me into this international school in Nairobi and that’s actually how I ended up teaching in Nairobi, Kenya. I met my husband, we fell in love, we got married, and then I did what one does and moved to Somalia with him. That was the start of our fairytale…
Jessica: So, just move to Somalia.
Jessica B.: I just moved to Somalia. And it was everything I wanted. It’s everything I worked really hard for, everything I actually dreamed of. I know it’s not like most little girl’s dreams to grow up and be a schoolteacher in Africa, but you could probably ask kids that I was in junior high with and they knew that that’s what I was going to end up doing. That’s just who I was, and I loved it. I loved everything about my life. I loved the work that I did at the time of the kidnapping. I was working for a non-governmental organization, a Danish NGO, and they did a lot of community safety and mine clearance.
So, it was this whole new level of content that I didn’t know much about, but I learned so much. And I did a lot of conflict management. So, we would go into post-conflict areas that were really still recovering from civil war, and I would work with the kids, and I would create instructional materials for them to help keep them safe. Because it was as rudimentary as if you see something shiny on the ground, don’t pick it up because it’s probably a leftover UXO and it could blow you up. So that’s what I did. And I would travel all over East Africa and work with these community groups to try to help them stay safe. So, yeah, it was the job that I had worked really hard and I dreamed about. So I was, as you would say, living my best life.
Jessica: And you were living in Somalia, living your best life, aware that one of the dangers could be kidnapping. Had you camped out on a worst-case scenario before you were kidnapped?
Jessica B.: I mean, you go through trainings, and you have security advisors, and there are protocols. You know, I wasn’t freelancing. I wasn’t there on my own volition. I was there with an organization that was doing work for the UN. And, you know, we had lots of systems in place in case something like this were to happen. And there had been a rash of kidnappings happening on the border of Kenya, like in the IDP camps, and you just never think that something like that’s gonna happen to you, you know.
Jessica: Of course not.
Jessica B.: I remember like a week before I was abducted, my husband ran through… he was running down the hallway of our apartment we rent in Nairobi and he showed me… he had like a news report on his phone and he said two Spanish girls were working up in a refugee camp in Kenya, on the border of Somalia, and they were just kidnapped and taken across the border into Somalia. And I was like, "Wow, I mean, that’s horrible." I didn’t know them personally. But yeah, that’s terrible news. But, you know, it doesn’t ever cross your mind that something like that would happen to you, you know. I’m a schoolteacher from Ohio, like, why would anything like that ever happen to me? And I think that that’s the interesting thing when, wow, you find yourself in the middle of hell, and your hell can look… everybody’s hell looks different. And you think, "I just never saw it happening this way. I never saw it coming."
October 25, 2011: The Kidnapping
Jessica: So, walk us through that day, October 25th, the day you were kidnapped.
Jessica B.: So, I had had some premonition. I had had angst about this particular security trip. I had been, you know, in communication with my security advisors, with my colleague. I was going down there. It was nonessential work. You know, I wasn’t delivering food. I wasn’t giving medical aid. I was doing staff trainings for our staff. And I didn’t feel good about it before I got on that plane to go… I lived in the northern part of Somalia where most expat’s, most offices were based. It was much safer and much calmer up there. And I was traveling to… definitely, it was a little hairy down there for sure. But, you know, NGOs and UN, they were still operating in that area, but you always had armed guards with you. You were in caravans of, you know, lots of different security measures, and guards, and things. So, I knew I needed to do it. I wanted to keep my job. I think there was a level of pressure. That’s like a whole other conversation in terms of a woman working and feeling pressured to do something you don’t want to do. But, again, what’s the worst that can happen? Like, things like that don’t happen to girls like me.
“But, again, what’s the worst that can happen? Like, things like that don’t happen to girls like me.” Jessica Buchanan
And I get into the caravan around 3:00, my colleague, an older Danish gentleman who is a good friend of mine, we’ve done our staff training, met with the local staff, had a really productive day, feeling good about it. We get into a caravan of three Land Cruisers and the National Security Advisor sitting in the back with me and Paul, my colleague, is sitting in the front. And we start through the gates of the compound down through the city and I’m thinking, you know, stupid, mundane thoughts like, "I wonder what I’m going to eat for dinner, and when am I going to get my workout in." And I’m texting my husband who’s actually in another part of Somalia, he was traveling too. At the time, I actually thought I was pregnant, so I was kind of monitoring my body and how I was feeling and things and texting him about that.
And about 10 minutes into the drive, somebody splashed, like, cuts us off. Another vehicle comes up on the right side and splashes mud all over our windows and our windshield. And I’m like, "Gosh, what a jerk," like, "Who drives like that?" you know. And we have to stop very abruptly and then it’s like the air just splits with the crack of AK-47s hitting the car and a lot of screaming, like angry men screaming. And then a Somali guy dressed in a police uniform pulls my door open and he yanks the security advisor sitting next to me out and climbs in and puts an AK to my head and starts screaming at the driver to drive.
So, we tear off, like, through town out like… I mean, when I say town, it’s just like a city in the middle… I mean, not even a city. It’s just a village basically in the middle of a desert that goes on for eons. And I’m not sure which direction we’re going. I can’t figure it out. You know, the sun is bright. I mean, it’s Africa. It’s hot. And we drive for hours before my colleague in the front, he turns around and he looks at me, and I just whispered to him, "What is happening?" Because I’m thinking maybe we’re being carjacked and maybe they’re just going to take all of our stuff and kick us out of the car, and we can, like, walk back to town or something. And I’ve never seen somebody look so sorry for me before because he just looked at me and he mouthed back, "We’re being kidnapped."
And all I can think… it’s like this ocean is roaring in my ears and I can’t think, I can’t process. But I have two very fundamental thoughts, and the first one is, “This is so bad. Whatever this is, I have no reference for how bad this is. I can’t compare it to anything else in my life.” And the second thing is that, “And then we drive for hours, and we stop, and we change personnel, and then we stop and we change cars. I mean, I bet we do this five or six times and it gets dark. And then at one point, they stop and they forced me out of the vehicle and tell me to walk. And I just remember thinking like, "I have no idea what is waiting out there in the desert for me, and I’m sure it’s not good." So, I refuse. I say no. And that, obviously, doesn’t go over very well. And Paul, my colleague, comes over and he takes my hand and he just says, "Jessica, you know, we need to walk or they’re going to kill us."
“No matter how this thing pans out, no matter what happens, whether they kick me out of the car and let me walk back to town or they take me and then kill me in the middle of the desert, my life has changed forever. Nothing in my life will ever be the same from this point on.” Jessica Buchanan
So, we walk out into the desert and in my, like, just terror — my mother had died a little over a year before, and I was still very much in the middle of grieving her. But I felt her very near to me in that moment. And if ever there was any comfort in knowing that she was not here on this earth with me, it was knowing that she was waiting on the other side of whatever this was for me. And I asked her for help. Ironically enough, I asked her to help me be dignified. No one knows what those last moments of their life is going to be like and I guess how they’re going to respond. I mean, I’m sure we think about it, but we don’t know. And I was terrified of what my reaction was going to be. And so, I just kept asking her for help, to help me be brave, help me be courageous, help me be dignified because I was so scared.
And then they told us to stop and get down on our knees. And I was waiting. My memory is that they had long weapons and I thought they had, like, bayonets or knives on the end of them. I couldn’t see. You know, it was just dark and there were so many men wearing chains. I mean, it’s just, like, groups of men. And then one of them says, in English, "Sleep," like, lay down and go to sleep.
Jessica: And you’re like…
Jessica B.: I’m like, "I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you right. What did you just say?" He was just like, "Lay down in the dirt and go to sleep. This is where we’re camping for the night."
Jessica: "Go to bed. Nanight."
Jessica B.: And it’s so interesting how our bodies really do… our bodies and our minds, like, they are in charge of themselves because when you are trying to… like you’re in self-preservation, you’re in fight or flight, I had no control over anything. And I passed out. I slept for hours in the middle of the desert surrounded by these people. I don’t know what is going on. And, yeah. And I woke up the next morning and that was the beginning of 93 days.
93 Days: Looking Back on a Beautiful Life
Jessica: Wow. And you mentioned earlier just that we are in a situation that doesn’t have an end and you didn’t know it was going to be 93 days. How was your mind reconciling the timeline, your life, your future? How did you survive that time?
Jessica B.: Well, I mean, it’s interesting because I realized once I got through the shock, and it took me a couple of weeks to get through the shock of the situation and the reality of what I was living in. You know, for a while I just couldn’t think about anything other than the fact that, "Oh my God, like, how is this happening? How can this be happening? What am I going to do? Are they going to, you know," all the thoughts that you would have. And then once you settle into… I think you go from, like, the shock to the denial, it is very much like those stages of grief, and then you move into acceptance, like, "Well. This is where I’m at," like, "This is what I’ve got, so I’m gonna have to try to make the best of it," I think that it’s very universal to any kind of situation you’re going through.
And so, I realized I needed to take my time in increments. So, like, I couldn’t look at it… and I think this is very important for people to do now, too, is that you can’t, like, look at the calendar and see that there’s no… like, just question mark, question mark, question mark because that will… I mean, I think at one point Amnesty International, one of their definitions for torture was being detained without knowing when it was going to end, and that is a torturous feeling to not know when this thing is going to end. And I remember having, like, a total flip-out moment when Paul and I were together. We were kept separate for most of the time, but it was a rare moment when we were together and I was like, "When is this thing going to be over?" And if you can picture him, he was so funny. He’s this Danish guy, and he was, like, little, little. He was like a Danish elf and at that point, his beard had grown out, so he totally looked like Willie Nelson. So, he’s like this Danish elf mixed with Willie Nelson and he looked at me, and he said, "Jessica, it will take the time it needs to take. No more, no less." And I was just like, "Okay. There’s my answer." It’s not the answer I want to hear. I want somebody to tell me, "It’s gonna be over in two weeks or in two days," but the bottom line is no one knows.
“Amnesty International, one of their definitions for torture was being detained without knowing when it was going to end, and that is a torturous feeling to not know when this thing is going to end.” Jessica Buchanan
And so, I decided I was going to have to make a plan for myself, a work plan. I’m not, like, an incredibly organized person. But if ever there were time to get organized with my thoughts, it was then. And it was funny because I talk a lot about, like, choices. I think that no matter our situation, we always have choices. We can feel maybe we don’t like the options, we don’t like the choices that we have, but we’ve always got a choice. And before the kidnapping had happened, I was making plans to go to India to do a couple of months in an ashram. I think that was kind of a way of me trying to deal with the grief of losing my mother suddenly. And I realized one morning that I was sitting under a tree, like, 12 hours a day in lotus. No one was really bothering me. I was in solitary confinement. I had a ton of time. So, you know, maybe this was my ashram, maybe this was my chance to do whatever it was I was going to do there.
And I didn’t think… you know, I’m like, "I’m never going to get this, hopefully, ever get this much time back, so I should probably take it as an opportunity to do what I was going to do then." So what I decided to do was take every single memory that I had ever had, whether it was good, it was bad, it was painful, and I was going to remember everything that had ever happened to me in my life from the very beginning. So, like, my first memory I think was probably when I was about 3 and a half or 4, and my mom took me to the movie theater for the first time to go see "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves." And I got as detailed as I could possibly get about that memory. I remembered the blue sundress with the white flowers in it that she was wearing. And I remember how her skin had freckles all over it because it was July and we lived in southern Indiana; it was so hot. And I remembered that I didn’t understand the difference between fantasy and reality, so I thought "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" were real and they were going to come out and greet me after the movie was over. And I remembered how she laughed and laughed as we sat there, and the theater emptied out and they didn’t come out. And what I realized, I was 32 when this happened, that even if I didn’t get one more day, even if they didn’t let me live one more day, I had had an extraordinarily beautiful life.
“Even if I didn’t get one more day, even if they didn’t let me live one more day, I had had an extraordinarily beautiful life.” Jessica Buchanan
Jessica B.: And then I went through the practice of burying grudges. I actually got a stick and I dug holes in the dirt next to my mat. And I had some forgiveness that I needed to do, including myself. And I’m really big on ceremonies. I love ceremonies. I think that they’re very… going through those motions of whatever it is you’re trying to let go of or practice is very important. And so, I buried some hurts and I left them there. It’s hard to think about it in that way, but it was something I’m really grateful for. It was a time that ended up being very, very beautiful that I don’t think I’ll ever have in my life again to do that work. Because I needed to do that work to make room for the next work, which was then trying to figure out how to live a life with PTSD and recover from trauma.
Dignity and Humanity in the Midst of Captivity
Jessica: So, you’re in the middle of creating this plan and really self-therapizing, you know, I mean, but you’re being treated like an animal in the midst of that. You know, you said that your prayer you wanted to your mom was, "I want to keep my dignity," and yet you were not being treated in a dignified way. Tell us a little bit more how you were treated and how were you able to access your dignity in the midst of that?
Jessica B.: I think that that was me accessing my dignity. I think that that was me treating myself very gently, and very beautifully, and very lovingly to remind myself to feel all of those things because I am a human being, even if I’m not being treated that way. See, I was there for 93 days. I think I lost 35 pounds in the midst of all of that. So, I was definitely kept on a starvation diet. I don’t know, I’d maybe consumed 300 calories a day or something like that. Washing was very difficult. I would be given a liter of diesel-laced water to try to wash myself and my hair with very couple of days.
“I think that that was me treating myself very gently, and very beautifully, and very lovingly to remind myself to feel all of those things because I am a human being, even if I’m not being treated that way.” Jessica Buchanan
Anytime negotiations weren’t going well, you know, I had no idea what was happening. They started the ransom demand at $45 million and I believe our people, like, my people, my organization and the people that they had working with insurance and all of that countered at $20,000. So, $45 million and $20,00,0 that’s going to take a really long time to find some meeting ground, like meeting in the middle there, you know. They would hit me. They would put a gun to my head, threatened to shoot me, scream at me, "Do you want to die," put me on the phone while they were screaming at me so that I could scare whoever was on the other end of the line, things are not going in the right direction. They filmed us, made us do proof of life videos that they wanted splashed all over the news networks.
They would threaten to sell us to Al-Shabaab on a daily basis, which was absolutely terrifying. My stomach would drop out of my body every time I heard that because Al-Shabaab is an Islamic extremist group that has basically just run rampant all over the southern part of Somalia. And so I knew, as an American woman, if I got sold off to Al-Shabaab I was dead, dead because, you know, this was like… we call them pirates because they call themselves that, land pirates, because we weren’t on the water. But this was not an ideological thing. I was just a commodity. I was just dollar sign, really wasn’t personal but if I got moved down to Mogadishu, or I was given to Al-Shabaab, sold, you know.
And they would constantly come and say like, "Your people are not offering enough money. We could sell you to Al-Shabaab for $5 million." And I think that that was very true actually. And if they did sell us to Al-Shabaab, they were gonna film it and cut our heads off because it wasn’t about money to them. It was about the ideology of it. I mean, and of course, there was the constant threat of being raped. Fortunately, I was never sexually assaulted. It’s the grace of God and my mom protecting me. It was coming. I knew it was coming. But I made it 93 days without being assaulted in that way. I think that my recovery would have looked different had I had to endure something like that.
Jessica: I know at one point you described one of your captors is, like, a 10-year-old kid with an AK to your head. And here, you came to serve children and then there’s this child that’s now holding you captive?
Jessica B.: I mean, that was the hardest experience I think of irony I’ve ever managed to live through. You know, when I first caught the Africa bug, you would say, I was really involved in different advocacy groups that were working to educate and promote the message that, you know, there are children all over in various countries of Africa that are being stolen from their homes, taken away from their families, being forced to fight in these militia groups, or they’re being, you know, used as sex slaves, I mean, horrible, horrible things. And I was naive enough to think that I could go and make a difference, I guess, in some regard. And I hope that my service was to some extent helpful in some way.
And, you know, I had worked with recovered child soldiers for my organization, training them to work as education liaisons and things like that. So, I’d been in the presence in relation with recovered child soldiers, but I had never been in the presence of one who is actively working as a child soldier. And I met Abdullah the night I was kidnapped. While we were being driven out into the desert, I heard this very, like, high-pitched voice behind me. And I thought it was a woman, which would be so odd because in Somali culture women and men, their work are kept very separate. Finally, I turned around and it was, like, a small… it was, like, a 9-year-old kid behind me and he was wearing two chains of ammunition like Rambo-style ammunition, and he had a brand-new AK-47 that was bigger than him.
And he looked right into my eyes and then I remember he just, like, lifted his chin. He acknowledged me but he told me to turn around. And I thought… I mean, first I was just shocked, like, how can somebody… I don’t care who you are, how can somebody let their child be involved in something like this? I mean, you know, we could have been shot, the car could have blown up. I mean, he could have been just as dead as me. And then I came to know him as much as one can, I guess. And he’d already killed three people. He was learning the family trade of kidnapping for ransom. I mean, talk about trauma he had… I mean, his eyes were just two black holes. Like, there was nothing… there was no child left in him. And it broke my heart, you know.
And there were moments where I would… I remember setting up, cutting… somehow, I was able to cut a water bottle in half and I set it up and we were picking up rocks, and we were trying to throw them into the bottle. Like, everybody else was asleep. For, like, 20 minutes, he laughed, and he was, like, a little kid. And then as soon as one of the other guards would get up, then he would turn back into just a monster. And he was really scary because he would threaten me because he didn’t understand cause and effect, like, "If I put a knife to her throat," which he did on a regular basis, "then we’re not going to get our millions of dollars." He was just trying to exert authority over me. Oh my God, it’s really difficult to take orders from a 9-year-old with a gun.
Jessica: Oh my gosh.
Jessica B.: And then he disappeared at some point, which I was really glad. I think whoever realized that he was a liability because his behavior wasn’t safe, because he was. He still was a child.
Day 93: The Final Night
Jessica: It’s incredible though just that you access so much compassion for yourself and still compassion for this captor, which, to your point, is how you kept your dignity is just to acknowledge your humanness as a filler and to remain connected to your heart in the midst of this. That is an act of bravery. You pray to be brave. I mean, what an act of bravery to remain inside of your heart during the biggest hell that you couldn’t have even dreamed for yourself. Tell me about day 93.
Jessica B.: Oh, day 93. Well, I couldn’t have known what was gonna happen. I was super, super sick. I kind of laugh about the Corona toilet paper shortage because, you know, 93 days with no toilet paper, I mean, you can survive. It’s not pleasant, but you can make it. However, I had gotten a really bad urinary tract infection that had gone into a kidney infection. And I knew what it was because I’d had one before. And I kept asking for specific medicines. I kept asking for a doctor. Like, 10 days prior to day 93, I had been put on the phone for my last of what would have been six proof of life calls where they would drive me out somewhere and they’d put me on the phone and I would talk to our family communicator, and she asked me how I was doing. And normally I would say, "You know, I’m not okay, but I’m okay." Like, "I’m okay." But this time I said, "I am definitely not okay. I am sick. I have a fever. I’m hallucinating at some points. I can’t walk by myself." I mean, I was in serious, serious pain. And, you know, they needed me just alive. They didn’t need me comfortable. They don’t care if you’re sick and you’re throwing up. They don’t care, you know, what’s… the pirates, I mean, like, the guys who were holding me. They just need you alive.
And so, day 93, I was able to, like, pull my mat. We would always pull our mats out from beneath a tree out into the middle because we weren’t allowed to sleep under trees. We were allowed to sit there during the day, but we had to sleep out in the open at night, which never made any sense to me because I thought, "If on the off chance anybody is looking for us, being out in the open, they’re going to see us. They’re going to get a location on us." But, you know, I wasn’t gonna say anything to them about that. So, we just did it. And I realized sleeping outside every night during the captivity that there are two stars that come out at the same time every night. And I would watch them, like, sink down the horizon as the night would move on. And then once the stars dipped down below the horizon, I would then try to go to sleep. And I named one for my mom, and I would talk to it and talk to her. And this night, I just knew that I was not okay. I had done pretty well with keeping my hope and not falling into despair, but I was starting to really lose hope that I was going to make out of here alive, not because they were going to kill me but because my body was starting to deteriorate.
And I said to her, "You know, Mama, I need you to go tell God that He needs to do something right now or else I am going to be joining you. Because, I mean, I can’t do this anymore." And I fell asleep and a couple hours later I woke up because I was sick. I needed to be sick. And so, I got up off my mat. And the word that we used to be excused from our mat, we weren’t allowed to leave without permission, was toilet, that they knew the word in English toilet. So, I kept shouting toilet. And there were nine guys on the ground that night and they were all, like, completely passed out. No one was awake, which was odd because there was always at least one person awake to guard the camp at night. So I went to the nearest bush and I had a small penlight, like a little flashlight, and I was flashing it so that they would know I was right there because I was always afraid that they would think I was trying to escape because then the ramifications were terrible if they thought you were trying to escape.
And so, I came back to my mat and I wrapped myself up in my blanket like a burrito kind of, and I kept hearing this scratching noise. And then I thought it was these beetles, they would come out at night, and they would, like, get in my hair and my blanket and they were disgusting, and I just couldn’t deal with it. I was like, "I just can’t do this tonight." Like, "I’m sick, I feel terrible, I do not need bugs in my hair and in my clothes." I was like shaking my blanket and then laying back down. I was making all of this commotion and these guys, they’re still passed out. And then once I finally got settled about 30 seconds later, I hear the guard who’s laying the closest to me get up, and he starts screaming in Somali at the other guys, and then the night just like erupts into automatic gunfire. And I am trying to make myself as low as possible. Like, I don’t know… it’s not like I could dig a hole into the ground. But if there were a hole, I was trying to disappear into it, and I had my face covered. And I just kept saying, "Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God," like, "I’m really not going to make it out of this thing alive. I’m really not."
And I’m thinking that we’re going to be kidnapped by another group because that was always a threat. And Paul and I had decided, like, you know, it’s better the devil you know. Like, by three months in, you’ve kind of figured out people’s personalities, you’ve figured out who’s gonna be mean and who’s maybe gonna let you have some extra food that day. Like, it’s better the way it is. I don’t have the strength to be kidnapped by another group and to relearn how to survive that. And then somebody grabs my legs and my arms and starts shaking me. And my memory is that I’m fighting back and I’m screaming, but I’ve since learned that I wasn’t screaming. I wasn’t making a sound because I wasn’t ever allowed to show emotion, or get angry, or cry, or anything in front of them. So, I learned how to just, I guess, kind of, like scream and cry and sigh. And at this point, somebody is touching me, and grabbing me, and shaking me, and I’m screaming inwardly to try to protect myself. And somebody pulls the blanket down from my face. And I can’t see anything because it’s really dark that night. There was no moon and the stars, they weren’t shining brightly. And then I hear my name.
There’s just a young man. He sounds exactly like my brother, like this young American voice and he says, "Jessica, we’re the American military and we’re here. You’re safe now and we’re going to take you home." And then all I can really say… I mean, I’m hearing the most awful sounds. I’m hearing people dying around me. And, you know, these men, they made their choice to do something violent and something illegal, but they’re still human beings. And to hear people take their last breaths, you know, that’s something that stays with you forever. And all I can say over and over again, I’m just in so much shock, I just start shaking, like, just, like, freezing, shaking, shivering. And I just keep saying, "You’re American? You’re American?" I can’t understand or comprehend. I don’t know how anybody knew I was there. I didn’t know anybody was looking for me. I didn’t know. I didn’t know they did that.
“I’m hearing the most awful sounds. I’m hearing people dying around me. And, you know, these men, they made their choice to do something violent and something illegal, but they’re still human beings. And to hear people take their last breaths, you know, that’s something that stays with you forever.” Jessica Buchanan
Jessica: Didn’t know that Navy SEALs weren’t just for movies.
Jessica B.: No. I had no idea. I mean, maybe I should have but I didn’t.
Jessica: How did they… I mean, you were awake. Were they on foot? Like, how did they actually get to you?
Jessica B.: So, it’s so interesting because… and this is how you… it is so divine and so miraculous the fact that I lived through a raid because most rescue attempts do not end in a great way. Either the hostage is shot by their captors, or they get caught in the crossfire or, you know, one of the SEALs or the Special Forces, somebody gets hurt. They had flown in… you know, for about a week, it was very windy at that point. It was the windy season. And every once in a while, the wind would die down. And Paul and I would hear something like a motor. We thought maybe it was a generator or something. We knew we weren’t close to the sea. We knew we weren’t close to town. But we could hear something. It turns out they were drones. And no one really thought much about it.
So, they got a location on us and then there are a few stipulations that have to be met in order for a military intervention to take place. One of them is if the negotiations have stalled to the point of no return. One of them is if the victim, their health has deteriorated to a state where they’re afraid they’re going to lose the victim. And so when I had had that proof of life call and given them my symptoms, my husband had gone to the FBI who is working tirelessly on this case from Nairobi, and then that had gone all the way up the chain of command to President Obama and he’s the one who made the decision to order the rescue operation. And so, they had been practicing, like… you know, the SEALS, I mean, they knew, like, the second hour I was kidnapped that I was out there and so they had been practicing their rescue operation, just waiting. You know, they were kind of like bulls at the gate just waiting to be let out. They were ready because this is what they do, this is why they do it. And so they were flown out into the desert, and they parachuted in the middle of the night. I mean, it’s just unbelievable, you know.
Jessica: Oh my gosh.
Jessica B.: In the middle of the night, they all land. I don’t know how many of them there were, and then they walk two miles to the camp. So, the scratching that I was hearing was not bugs, but them walking through the brush. And because I had gotten up, I mean, again, this is just so… it’s just divine that I woke up and I had to be sick but because I was flashing my light the entire time, they got a location on me. So, they knew exactly where I was, and they knew exactly where to go to get me. I mean it’s mind-blowing. And this is why I love telling this story because if I could only get people to understand I am just this regular girl, the school teacher that grew up in Ohio and just wanted to go and, I don’t know, make a difference and I got caught up in something that is so mind-boggling. But I am telling you what, we are taken care of. We are being protected. We are being provided for. There is nothing special about me. I am just like the luckiest girl on the face of the earth, but I’m, like, “If God can do that for little Jessica Buchanan, like, what else is he gonna do for you, you know?” And I always say I’m kind of a girl of confused faith and whatnot, but when I sit and I think about it like, "Wow, man," it is mind-blowing to think that I’m here, and I’m alive. And I’ve got two babies that are driving me nuts, but I am just so incredibly safe. We forget, but we are, we’re safe. We’re safe.
“It is mind-blowing to think that I’m here, and I’m alive. And I’ve got two babies that are driving me nuts, but I am just so incredibly safe. We forget, but we are, we’re safe. We’re safe.” Jessica Buchanan
Jessica: Wow. It is. I mean, it moves me. It just moves me. And what a message that you get to now be, you know, just when you say you thought, "Maybe I could actually change the world," and yet here you are still, so many years later, changing the world with this message and being brave enough to share it and to share it over, and over, and over again. I mean, you’ve shared on every news outlet imaginable, you’ve written a book, and you didn’t have to do any of that, and yet, you aren’t hoarding your story but you’re using your story for good. On that note, you know, we started off with you sharing that we are in a crisis and we are being traumatized. What are some ways that we can walk through this so maybe we have a little bit less trauma to recover from once there is an endpoint, once we are actually looking back?
A Beautiful Opportunity to Find Purpose
Jessica B.: You know, I mean, I’m just going back to the things that I did while I was in captivity, like, on a real practical day-to-day level. I am finding rituals. You know, we talk a lot about routine, and routine is great, and we know that we need that in order to get through the day, but I am also setting up rituals for myself. I did that every night when I was, like, looking at the stars, those two stars that would go, you know, across the sky, and I would mentally go through my apartment in Nairobi that I loved and I would do all of the things that I would do if I were there. I would go straighten up the couch, and I would wipe my fingers, like, in my mind’s eye. Like, I would wipe my fingers across the shelves, and then I would go into the kitchen and I would open up a bottle of wine, and I would start preparing dinner, and I would go through all those practices. And I think now, we do have this really beautiful opportunity. And I don’t want it to come across as a toxic positivity thing because I’m very aware of all of that.
Jessica: I think someone who’s been kidnapped and tortured, your positivity is coming from, you know, a very deep place so. I don’t think you’re… yeah, it doesn’t apply to you.
Jessica B.: Oh. Okay. Well, thank you. But I do. I think that setting up those rituals for ourselves, however that looks, you know, maybe not cracking open a bottle of wine every night, but hey, you know, you got to do what you’ve got to do. I think not putting that pressure on ourselves to learn something new but maybe pick up something that we used to love and try to get better at it. I mean, pick something that you know that you can be successful at, that you were successful at before. And you need a goal. I mean, everybody needs goals to work toward. And whether or not that’s, like making the perfect chicken pot pie right now or figuring out how to get yourself into a headstand during yoga, maybe it’s taking a certification course. Like, I think you still have to feel, like, you’re productive, you know.
Jessica: You know what’s crazy — and you’ll understand this because I know that you’ve hosted a Noonday Collection trunk show — but we have had more people join and launch their own Noonday Collection businesses in April of this year than we did of April last year.
Jessica B.: That’s amazing. I love that.
Jessica: Isn’t that crazy? From all of the new women that I’m talking to, they just said, "I needed to do something. I needed to know that I could still make a difference, that I could, you know, use my agency, that I can be part of a community and a purpose." And so that has been… well, obviously, it’s huge for Noonday because, as you can only imagine, the vulnerable people we work with are just more vulnerable now than ever and are in countries where they’re shut down is police are outside on the street with guns saying, "No, you cannot even leave your house." So, starvation is an actual real issue…
Jessica B.: It’s a thing.
Jessica: …that we’re working with with our partners. But to have all of these women that are saying, "I’m going to do something. I’m going to launch my own business this month," you know. It’s …
Jessica B.: Yes. I love it.
Jessica B.: Well, that parlays exactly into what I was going to say is that you can stave off depression by finding purpose. And if I could find purpose in the middle of a desert surrounded by men who wanted to hurt me, we can certainly find purpose now. And we may be, you know, limited in the ways that we’re acting out our purpose, but now is the time to plan. Now is the time to build strategy. Now is the time to get ready, because once we are able to get out of our houses, we joke about going to the gym and going to the coffee shops and whatnot, but there is going to be this huge influx of people who need help, you know, whether it’s mental health, whether it’s new jobs. Whatever it is, we can use this time. And I do believe that finding purpose is the only way to survive anything, whatever you’re going through. And you can always find purpose. I know that. I believe that in the deepest part of my heart.
“Whatever it is, we can use this time. And I do believe that finding purpose is the only way to survive anything, whatever you’re going through. And you can always find purpose. I know that. I believe that in the deepest part of my heart.” Jessica Buchanan
Having a purpose prevents depression! This is actually something that has been so true in my life. I can tell you that 10 years ago during the last recession, my husband I had been working in the housing market when it crashed, and we soon began of living of our credit cards. So financially, we were in a very desperate situation. But in addition to that, I was a mom of two littles under 4 years old, and I was feeling really isolated. And previously, my husband and I had while working for an NGO in Guatemala – Food for the Hungry International. And I did, I had so much purpose during that time. And since coming back to the U.S., having babes, I just had lost a sense of that purpose and was in a place of depression. And it’s at that time when I started this business that I now run, and that you guys have heard about because you listen to the podcast, that’s called Noonday Collection. We’re a social impact fashion organization, and we create opportunity for people living in vulnerable situations around the world as well as women across America right now. And I have to say, more women than ever have launched their Noonday businesses this month and I think it truly is because it creates a purpose. Purpose, income, connection, community — all of those things that we know during a time like this are going to help us be more resilient.
So, if you are interested in that, shoot me a DM on Instagram. I’d love to talk to you about it. Go visit our website NoondayCollection.com. You can launch a business right now, it’s $79, you could be up and running within just a few days. And I promise, our community is contagious when it comes to courage, when it comes to empowerment, and when it comes to being the solution to the problems that we see. We would love to have you. Go check that out. Thanks so much for tuning in to today’s episode.
Today’s episode was produced by Eddie Kaufholz. Our music is by Ellie Holcomb. And I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next week, let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.