Edith Blais: ‘I was held hostage in the Sahara for 450 days’

Edith Blais was held hostage in the Sahara for 450 days. Now, for the first time, she tells her incredible story of capture – and escape.

Six men jumped in front of the car, armed with Kalashnikovs. They pointed their guns at our heads – ‘We’ve been waiting for you,’ said one, before forcing us out of the car and into the forest. As they motioned for us to be quiet, I had no idea if they wanted to rape me, rob both of us… or worse. I saw in his eyes the same horror I felt: was this it – the end?

Edith Blais. Image: Krystel V. Morin

My friend Luca and I were a month into our adventure driving from his hometown in Italy to Togo where we planned to help on a friend’s farm. So far we’d encountered no problems, but at the last checkpoint before the border with Benin, the two guards asked us peculiar questions. Did we have guns in the trunk of the car? Luca was jittery about why they wanted to know if we were armed – a few hours later, the ambush would make it all clear.

I felt dizzy from the awful possibilities racing through my mind: were they going to steal everything we had, and then abandon us here to die? Or worse, kill us outright? I was shaking and my heart was pounding. I couldn’t bear to think of my family. Nothing was in my mind but the question: ‘Would we survive?’ Luca took my hands in his to calm me. We could hear the strained voices of our captors, a tumble of words that made no sense to us.

Once out of the car, the men explained that they were mujahideen, soldiers fighting for Allah. The horrifying realisation began to dawn on us that this was an organised terrorist group and not just a gang of opportunist thieves. There was nothing that we could offer them in exchange for our freedom.

They told us they we were going to meet their leader, that it wouldn’t take more than three days to get there, then ordered Luca to get on a motorbike. Luca was afraid our kidnappers would separate us if they knew we weren’t married – the rules around relationships between men and women are strict in the Muslim faith – but there was no way he was going to leave me alone with the men.

‘She has to come with me on the bike,’ he insisted. ‘She’s my wife.’

They made us change into clothes that were typical of the region – loose tops that went down to our knees, plain cotton trousers and long turbans that we were supposed to wrap around our heads and faces to hide our white skin. Over that we had sunglasses, gloves, and big overcoats, despite the 48C heat.

On the second day, I had to take out my contact lenses because my eyes were full of sand. It wasn’t an easy decision to make; my eyesight is bad, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to see much. Without my contacts I felt more vulnerable, but keeping my eyes healthy was more important. I would just have to survive this ordeal with blurred vision.

For three days we had no idea where they were taking us but eventually Luca managed to extract some information from our captors. To our horror, we discovered that our journey would end in the Sahara, northern Mali, which has been a red zone [so dangerous that all travel is strongly discouraged] since 2012. Finally, we started to fully understand what we had stumbled into. We were in the clutches of organised terrorists who would ask our governments to pay ransoms for our release or use us in a prisoner exchange.

The supposed three-day trek lasted 20. We crossed the Niger River on canoes used by local fishermen and drove through isolated villages. At night, the kidnappers would set up camp and we would try to sleep with the sound of explosions in the distance. Sometimes a gunfight broke out nearby. Our kidnappers said it was the Malian army.

After 16 days we were handed on to another group who were older and more professional, but no friendlier. For two days, we crossed the sand in trucks, deep into the desert to another camp where, at nightfall, the commander and his interpreter came to our tent. Once inside, they shone their flashlights at Luca, blinding him.

‘Welcome to Al-Qaeda,’ they said.

For a month and a half we were confined to a tiny hideout in the camp. It was the size of two bodies; so small we couldn’t sit upright.

The Weight of Sand, Edith Blais’ memoir of her experiences as a hostage in the Sahara

While we were trapped, overheating in the blazing sun, Luca and I talked about everything – from the tiniest, inconsequential things to our biggest dreams. We were powerless but the one protest we could make against our kidnap was to go on hunger strike. We refused every meal, even when they threatened us at gunpoint. After 18 days, they countered by taking away our water. Looking at Luca, I could see that the loss of muscle mass had turned him into a skeleton. My skin was desiccated; I was a shadow of my former self.

After 25 days without food – and a week without water – I could feel my body shutting down. It was then that our captors offered to send a video to our families – proof we were alive – if we started eating.

It was only later that I discovered my family had never received it. On March 4, 2019, the 77th day of our captivity, Luca and I were separated. They told me I was going home to Canada and that, in two or three months, Luca would return to Italy.

I was taken to another camp. There were three women there already and they looked at me with sad eyes as they saw the truth hitting me: I was not going home. These women had been held for three years and were still no closer to freedom.

I lived with these women from March 4 to August 15, 2019, in four separate camps. They were extraordinary: they had dedicated their lives to saving people, including hundreds of orphans, and now they were hostages. They were all ill: one had a tumour the size of a cantaloupe in her breast; the other two were psychologically damaged and kept hearing voices. Only one of them, Linda*, is still there. My heart breaks when I think of her, so ill and trapped in the desert. Sophie [Petronin, the aid worker] was released in October 2020, and from her we learned that, horrifyingly, the third woman Mirage* was executed.

Then I was taken from them and, for six months, I was alone – just me and the terrorists. They wanted me hidden at all times – I was only allowed to get up to relieve myself: if I wandered too far, they followed me and fixed me with a glare. With the women, I had at least been allowed to cook. Here, nothing. I started collecting rocks and would pile them high – but my captors hated it: they thought it was witchcraft. I was forbidden to so much as walk around and had to lie on the ground all day. I could feel my muscles atrophying. My only occupation was opening and closing my eyes. I was listless, lost in time, so hot under the long robe and scarves they made me wear, I felt I was suffocating.

The loneliness nearly sent me mad. The only way I could get through it was to face one day at a time: if I looked ahead to the next 10 days, next month, next year in captivity – I would have gone crazy. I thought about Luca and my family constantly: I had to believe I would see them again because if I’d let go of that, I would have crashed.

At the end of October, I received a gift which allowed me to hold on to the fragile hope that one day I might go home. Between the terrorists and the government, there are neutral negotiators, who pass on things like proof of life videos from the terrorists, negotiations from the government – and letters from home.

Inside a red envelope were two letters from friends in Canada – and three photos, including one of me and my father, arm wrestling and laughing. I took it as a message to stay strong, but my tears flowed: I love my father so deeply and that photo meant the world to me.

The leader of the group asked to see the letters. I trusted him, at least a little: until then, he had never betrayed me; he had never taken what was mine. He looked at the letters curiously and handed them back to me with a smile. I couldn’t help crying; the tears were getting harder to choke back. He saw me weeping and touched his heart.

But I couldn’t trust him after all: he demanded the return of the letters and I was forced to obey. He never asked for the photos. If he had, I would have fought for them. I would never have let him burn them. Curiously, the picture of my father and me was very popular with the mujahideen. They would point to my father and say, Baba! [Papa] and after seeing the photo, I sometimes caught them looking at me tenderly.

But as the days stretched out with no hope of release, I could feel myself losing my grip on reality. Again, I refused to eat. But the guards’ mission was to preserve the market value of their property and the leader agreed that if I ate, he would show me a video of Luca.

In the video, Luca told me he had converted to Islam and I felt he had told me in the hope that I would do the same. Would we be reunited if I became Muslim? It was enough of an incentive for me to try. I had nothing left.

Unbelievably, faint hope was realised. On 5 February, after eleven months apart, Luca and I were reunited in the desert.

I couldn’t stop looking at him as I listened to his story. He had tried to escape – and when the mujahideen caught him, they beat him with a pipe and tied him to a tree for several days, without shade or water. (They were kinder to women – and I was never raped or beaten.)

Once I arrived at the camp, the guards relaxed. We had converted to Islam and, according to the Quran, we were now their brother and sister so they had to treat us with respect.

The guards made Luca hand over our shoes at sunset and we were given our water ration at the beginning of the day, so that by evening we were almost out. They clearly thought that without water or shoes we wouldn’t run away across a desert covered with razor-sharp stones. Whenever we travelled with them, our kidnappers deliberately drove erratically, abruptly changing direction so that we couldn’t mentally map our location.

But when Luca had come with the men to collect me from the desert, he’d noticed a truck passing in the distance. He guessed it must have been driving on the main road to the northern Malian town of Kidal. So if we were to go west, he figured, we should cross that road.

A plan that might just save our lives began to form.

One day, a huge sandstorm blew up – it felt as though, for once, the desert was on our side. This could be the distraction we needed to make our bid for freedom.

The hours dragged on as we waited for the sun to set. To make the men think I was sleeping, I stuffed sand into a pair of trousers, placed them under the blanket and shaped a female body with bags. I arranged Luca’s blankets to make the men think he had got up.

My plan was simple: when they noticed Luca’s absence at prayer, our captors would look in the shelter. Seeing that his wife was still in bed, they wouldn’t worry, giving us precious extra time to flee.

It was almost pitch black, the sandy wind blurring the sky. All the conditions were right for our escape: we would be invisible.

Without my contact lenses, I couldn’t see anything in the dark. Luca led me to the rocks. We couldn’t risk making the slightest noise or nudging even the tiniest stone. Once we were out of earshot of the armed men, we started walking faster. I twisted my knee, and Luca’s shoes were shredding on the rocks. But we had to keep moving.

We walked west for eight hours, until we reached a road. As the sun started to rise, we found a hiding place and waited for the sound of an engine.

At seven o’clock two trucks appeared. Luca took off, running as fast as he could towards them and the second truck stopped for him. Luca spoke to the driver in Arabic – and he agreed to let us get in.

Still terrified that the men in the truck would return us to our kidnappers, I kept silent and hid my face hoping the driver and the old man next to him wouldn’t notice that I was a woman. Luca asked where the men were heading. ‘Kidal,’ came the answer.

Half an hour later, a pickup truck—the kind our captors drove—started chasing us. A mujahid we didn’t know came to quiz our driver (we assume about our whereabouts) but he argued back energetically and his companion shifted forward in his seat to hide us. We’ll never know why those men decided to protect us that day but we do know that we owe them our lives.

During the rest of the journey, our driver veered off the road whenever he saw a vehicle coming in the opposite direction, in order to keep us out of sight. We drove on like that for hours until we reached Kidal, where our guardian angel stopped his truck in front of the UN building [where MINUSMA, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Mali, a UN peacekeeping operation, was based].

It was the end of the line. As the sandstorm cleared and freedom took shape before us, it was more beautiful than it had ever been before.

We were escorted from the embassy to Bamako, the capital of Mali, where we were handed over to the Malian authorities, and then into the care of Canada – all under close guard. We didn’t understand this diplomatic ballet – we just did as we were told.

I was in shock, jostled and completely bewildered by the sight of people wearing masks. We had emerged into a global pandemic. When we were trapped in the desert, I had often wondered what was happening in the rest of the world but could never have imagined something like this.

Finally, I rang my family.

‘Hello…’ It was my mother’s voice.
Maman!’
‘Oh, my God! My darling! How are you? Where are you? Wait, your sister’s here!’

Their voices washed over me like a wave of love.

*Names have been changed for legal reasons

Buy The Weight of Sand by Edith Blais (Greystone Books, 28 October) at The Mail Bookshop.