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War correspondent recalls kidnapping in Somalia

By Alice Bishop


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ARLINGTON, Va. — Reporter Tina Susman knows firsthand that journalists are just as vulnerable as anyone else in a war zone.

Susman, who covered Africa for more than a decade for the Associated Press and later for Newsday, was kidnapped in Somalia and held captive for 20 days in June 1994.

"There had always been a concern about safety in Somalia where there was no functional government, but no journalist had been kidnapped and Somalis were very friendly toward foreign media because they felt we were bringing their story out to the world," Susman told an Inside Media audience July 1 at the Newseum.

Even when gunmen surrounded her vehicle at a busy intersection in Mogadishu, Susman still didn't know she was the target. She assumed they were hijacking the car, which was quite common at the time.

For security reasons, Susman rode in the back of the vehicle with her two armed bodyguards on either side. They exchanged gunfire with the kidnappers but to no avail. The men dragged Susman — with a gun pointed at her head — into a waiting vehicle. "It's so unexpected. It's just not the kind of thing you ever think will happen to you," she said. Much later she learned her driver, who had worked for the AP for years, was an accomplice in the kidnapping.

Knowing that AP's policy is to discourage kidnappings by not negotiating, Susman knew she had to be her own advocate. "I explained from the start they weren't going to get $300,000 and quickly began negotiating," she said. She eventually bargained them down to $60,000, an amount she thought she could access through her bank account and from her parents.

"I started fantasizing and became obsessed with escape," she recalled. A year before, four of her colleagues had been killed in Somalia, so she knew she would attract attention walking down the street. "I did despair a lot because my kidnappers used psychological manipulation against me. It was very difficult to maintain one's sanity in that situation and to keep hope," she said.

After 20 days, a well-connected Somali businessman sent armed guards to rescue her.

When asked about news media coverage of her ordeal, Susman said she knew there was virtually none outside Africa because her 24-hour guard would occasionally let her listen to Voice of America. "I remember being distressed because I didn't hear anything about me," she said. Some local newspapers wrote articles about the kidnapping.

Susman had no training in covering conflicts before being sent to Africa. But after her kidnapping, she found out that "everything I'd done was considered exactly the textbook way of doing things."

Today most major news organizations, including the AP, require correspondents to take part in a combat-training course, which includes how to handle a kidnapping. "[The training] reveals whether you're the kind of person who can handle yourself in that kind of situation. If not, it's a good idea not to go into a place where it can happen," she said.

In spite of her ordeal, Susman continued to cover war and armed conflict in Africa for seven more years. "I've always been attracted to covering conflict — what makes people resort to such extremes against each other," said Susman.


War Stories events coverage
Coverage of discussions relating to Newseum's War Stories exhibit.  07.31.01