Somalian kidnap victim Nigel Brennan finds new home, hope in Tasmania

Former Somalian kidnap victim Nigel Brennan sits in a Christian-linked café discussing the Quran. 

He has never read the Bible but has read its religious counterpart – the book of Islam - more than 50 times.

It was just about the only thing Mr Brennan had to keep sane during the 15 months he was held hostage in Somalia. 

This year marks 10 years since he and Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout were kidnapped by eight men with AK-47 machine guns, in Africa’s most dangerous country, and held to ransom for $US3 million.

The pair were held in separate rooms, in filthy conditions, and eventually, after a failed escape attempt, chained so they could barely move.

“At the start [after being taken] I spiralled out of control with depression and anxiety but I guess as time goes on you get to a point of acceptance,’’ Mr Brennan said.

“I was like ‘this is my life and I have no control’.’’

Mr Brennan’s family worked tirelessly for the entire time he was held captive, negotiating with the kidnappers by phone, selling family assets and fundraising the money that would eventually free Mr Brennan and Ms Lindhout.  

Next month, this decade-long story comes full circle when one of the kidnappers and key negotiator Ali Omar Ader is sentenced in Canada for the kidnapping of Ms Lindhout. 

Mr Brennan gave evidence at the trial, and will travel to Canada to read his victim impact statement to the court. 

On reflection, Mr Brennan said he is grateful to have survived a stressful but character building moment in his life. While there were lighter yet surreal moments during his ordeal, such as teaching his kidnappers yoga, he experienced some of the worst of humanity.

Starved, degraded, taunted, held in solitary confinement and forced to listen to the sounds of his captors beating and raping his friend, Ms Lindhout. 

"I had months of internalising and too much can be bad because you start to pick yourself to bits thinking ‘I’m a terrible person, I’ve said things I’m so ashamed of’.  Human beings should never be isolated,’’ he said.

Yet the 49-year-old has forgiven his captors. He has come out on the other side a better and stronger person. 

A new life

We meet in a café that sits along the South Hobart rivulet, a few suburbs away from where Mr Brennan, his partner Allana and toddler son Rumi, “named after a 30th century Persian poet”, recently moved to call Tasmania their home.

He has eyes that listen intently and a smile that draws people in. He seems as if he would make friends quickly, where conversations would easily turn deep and contemplative. 

All this heightens the intrigue about how he endured 462 days knowing he might not see his family again. 

Becoming a Muslim, he said, helped save his life. It provided structure to his days, having to pray five times a day, and enabled him to bond with his captors.  

“Having a Quran was an incredibly powerful tool. It gave me knowledge of the Islamic religion and a bit of an understanding about the people I was dealing with,’’ he said.

“I needed for them to see me as a human being. I needed to make it harder for them to kill me.” 

An English copy of the Quran was ferried between his and Ms Lindhout’s rooms. It not only gave them something to do but enabled the pair to secretly communicate.

By underlining words on different pages they would form messages, and then write those page numbers in the front cover for the other’s reference. Mr Brennan hesitates when asked whether he is still a Muslim. 

He does not attend a Mosque and does not pray but it is clear that Islam’s guiding principles, indeed the principles of every religion which he says are “all very similar’’, resonate in his current life. 

Last Christmas day, for instance, Mr Brennan and his family volunteered at Colony 47 serving meals to others. 

His ability to forgive his captors, when many others could not, is also testament to higher comprehension at play. 

“If we were more compassionate and understanding and connected to each other we would have a much nicer society to live in. People are so driven by money and success that we will walk over other people,’’ he said.

“Actually stopping and doing things for others and being in service of them is important.’’ 

After much internal processing, thinking about what his captors put him through, Mr Brennan said he came to a point of forgiveness.

“Forgiveness is the highest expression of love, it allows society to move forward. If I was in their situation with a family to feed and a country in anarchy, with no ability to make money, I could potentially do something similar.’’

He did not always think this way.

 “I wanted them all dead and I wanted them to die slowly.  Then I thought, hang on, this is not doing anyone any good. You can be bitter and angry but it will only affect you.” 

An ability to communicate helped him to heal. On his return to Australia, rather than hiding away, he did the opposite.

“I was so excited to be home and free and to have my life back so I didn’t know how to say ‘no’ to people … You try and make up for the 15 months that you have lost.”

One of the activities he failed to say ‘no’ to was a public speaking event that saw him sharing his hostage experiences with hundreds of people, after just 12 weeks back in Australia. He continues to be a motivational guest speaker today. 

In 2011 he published his book The Price of Life, co-written with his sister Nicole and family member Kellie, which he described as ‘cathartic’. Two years later he placed himself at the frontline of international kidnappings becoming an extortion response consultant.

This sees Mr Brennan talking to kidnapping victims and their families, and managing stakeholders such as governments, police, media and other third parties to help get people out alive. 

“It is quite a lonely career path.  You travel lots, and work anonymously and independently … You have to be able to put emotions to the side,’’ he said.

“My own experiences allow me to give family members first-hand information of what to expect.”

Once Ader is sentenced, Mr Brennan and Alanna will be able to focus on their new life in Tasmania.

They recently celebrated their relationship in a love party on their nine-hectare property in the Huon Valley, where they hope to build a multi-functional community space for yoga retreats, music gigs, book launches and art escapes. 

Whatever comes next, Mr Brennan will overcome any challenges thrown his way.

 “I don’t think you realise what strength you can call upon as an individual or a family until you actually go through a major trauma,’’ he said.

“People say ‘your trauma was extreme’ … at the end of the day trauma is trauma, it is all a shit sandwich.  When you are faced with a difficult time in your life, embrace it and it will help you move forward as a person.”