Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Kidnapped Canadian 'just wanted to get the story'

Amanda Lindhout on the road.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 24, 2009


Taron Hall travels to the far corners of the planet seeking to party with the peasants.

He has been stripped naked in Japan, danced through fire in Africa, dusted in purple powder in India.

“No celebration is too remote,” he asserts,

The Vancouver-born globetrotter packs such necessities as Frisbees and quart bottles of Carling Black Label beer. He wears shorts, T-shirts, and a fanny pack, but also hauls along a lightweight camera with which he films his exploits.

Hair bleached white by the sun, he brings a West Coast party dude vibe to his travels, an amiable Westerner only too glad to take a sloppy pratfall in mud if it amuses his hosts.

Mr. Hall, a 37-year-old professional singer, has packaged his filmed exploits for a proposed television series offering “an intimate portrait of humanity with its guard let down.” He is shopping the program, pitched earlier this month at the Banff World Television Festival, under the title Festival Hunter.

For about a decade now, he has been on a quest to immerse himself in the most “far-out of cultures” in the Third World.

“People there are so free with their lives,” he said. “They don’t focus on greed, or their jobs. They focus on family and friends. I wanted to see how they go out and have fun.”

His goal: “To explore and be enriched and stimulated every day.”

So, he has waved a wooden phallus in Laos and shared the elusive charms of Metallica with nomadic Himba tribesmen of the Kaokoland in Namibia.

Along the way, he has met some memorable and fascinating people.

One of the most notable was another young Canadian.

Mr. Hall was riding a bus in Calcutta when he struck up a conversation with Amanda Lindhout of Sylvan Lake, Alta., who, as it turns out, was also on her way to volunteer at Mother Teresa’s Nirmal Hriday, a home for the destitute and dying.

“One of those feel-good things,” Mr. Hall said.

(The hospice is popular among sojourners seeking to volunteer, though not without its critics, the writer Christopher Hitchens among them. The dying are not provided with painkillers, their acceptance of suffering regarded as bringing them closer to God.)

The Canadian pair hooked up to explore Calcutta, charting parts of the city not found in guidebooks. “Slums,” proclaims Mr. Hall, “are where the friendly people are.” They sipped chai and more potent concoctions at tea stands, greeted hordes of curious children with bemusement.

They became on-again, off-again traveling companions in the early months of 2005. At one point, she trekked by rickety bus through Pakistan to the Hunza Valley to rejoin Mr. Hall in Karimabad.

All along, Mr. Hall kept his camera running.

The spirit of their travels is captured in a brief exchange with four labourers waiting in a trailer attached to a tractor. The Canadians were riding high atop a truck.

“Salam-alaikum,” Mr. Hall shouts by way of greeting. “Hey, dudes!”

“What’s up?” Ms. Lindhout asks.

“What’s shaking?” he adds.

The labourers merely stare.

“Peace out, dudes,” she says, as their truck trundles past.

They later went their separate way, staying in touch, though in isolated corners of the world, through the magic of electronics.

Ms. Lindhout’s travels took her to Afghanistan and war-torn Iraq, where she freelanced as a journalist in Baghdad, including standup reports for Press TV, an outlet funded by the Iranian government whose stories are often propagandistic. The Red Deer Advocate in her home province published a weekly column, including a first-hand account of coming under gunfire in Baghdad’s treacherous Sadr City district, as well as a report of life in the terrible slums of Nairobi.

Last August, Mr. Hall received an email from her informing him she was in Somalia, where she was working as a freelancer for a French television station. She described the country as “brutal” and a “lawless place.”

The very next day he got word she had been kidnapped along with Australian photographer Nigel Brennan, Somali photographer Abdifatah Mohamed Elmi, and their driver. Ms. Lindhout had been in the country for less than 72 hours when nabbed for ransom after reporting from a refugee camp outside outside Mogadishu.

Today [Wednesday] marks the 305th day of her captivity.

A fortnight ago, she called CTV News in Toronto by telephone to read a statement. She begged her family and Canadian journalists to bring attention to her plight, and to raise money to cover the million-dollar ransom demand.

Mr. Hall’s response was to post on YouTube a video from their journeys titled, “Amanda Lindhout Enjoying Life.”

“She never wanted to be in danger,” he said. “She wanted to get the story and put it out to the world.”

He is frustrated by the distance, by his lack of knowledge about Somalia (“I’m not really big with the news”), by his inability to rescue her.

“You feel hopeless. Somalia. If it was somewhere attainable, I could go in there with a shitload of friends ...” He let the thought trail off.

The agony of being impotent is made worse by ignorant statements and unsubstantiated rumours posted anonymously on the Internet.

“She’s the friendliest girl,” he said. “The sweetest thing. Really nice. Not snobby. Beautiful. She’s good at reading people. She senses their energy.”

A blogger who crossed paths with her in Egypt last year described an incident where she sweet-talked thieves into returning some of her money.

Rob Crilly, an independent reporter who reports from Africa for British and Irish newspapers, posted a blog item yesterday bemoaning the risk faced by freelancers.

“The kidnappings in Somalia are all about the cash,” he wrote. “By and large, despite scare stories to the contrary, Somali gangsters are businesslike pragmatists rather than mad muzzahs. They want cash in hand rather than rolling heads on youtube.

“The problem for Amanda and Nigel is that there is no-one to pay for their release. Family and friends have struggled to raise the ransom. The Australian and Canadian commissions in Nairobi refuse to pay. And without an employer to foot the bill, the two are likely to remain captive for some time to come.”

A father in Alberta and a mother, Lorinda Stewart, in British Columbia, not to mention friends on several continents, and a filmmaker in Vancouver, hope for the release of a reporter whose desire to report on the world’s most unfortunate has led to her becoming one of them herself.

No comments: