One of the first, most offensive sentiments a pirate said to me after I was kidnapped in Somalia was a casual remark that would ring in my head like a proverb. “You have made a mistake,” the pirate said. “Mistakes are human.”
It sounded offensive, not because it wasn’t true – obviously I had made a mistake – but because it implied more guilt on my part than his, as if I had somehow earned my captivity. The Somali was a lean, well-dressed translator who paid frequent visits to the filthy prison house where his gang kept me during my first four days in captivity. Translators like him pretended not to belong to any gang; they acted sophisticated and aloof, but they were often high-ranking criminals. Later I learned this man’s name was “Boodiin,” although he called himself something else. The way he spoke English felt smooth as well as poisonously dishonest, as if he intended every sentence as a baffling introduction to a world where good and evil were reversed.
Pirates kidnapped me in January 2012 during a reporting trip to Somalia. I had spent the previous year following a historic trial of ten Somali pirates in Hamburg, and I had flown to Somalia to research a book. A dozen or so armed pirates waited near the side of a dusty road for our car, and when they tore me out of the rear seat and beat me with their Kalashnikovs, I knew very well I had made a mistake and that my relatives and friends would suffer for it, too.
But Boodiin stood to profit from my error. He belonged to a group that had gone out of its way to capture me for ransom, so for him to pose as a man on the outside – an impartial judge of my behavior – struck me as a sulfurous lie.
For two years and eight months I lived with people like that, listening to their version of reality, and it was so maddening that I sometimes considered grabbing one of the pirates’ Kalashnikovs and opening fire, or shooting myself, bringing the ordeal to an end. I knew my family and colleagues were working to get me out, and imagining so much money and trouble devoted to the cause of my freedom brought me close to violence. I had years to stew over my reasons for coming to Somalia: Could a book about pirates be worth this punishment? What was I hoping to achieve? The answers were discouraging. For a long time I struggled with the question of whether I should continue to live.
Pope Francis gave a homily about forgiveness in the spring of 2014 that I happened to hear on the radio. It occurred to me that if the pirates were bad – if the pirates were in debt to me, morally – then I was in moral debt, too. Up to my neck in it. To my mother, above all; to my entire family, to all the institutions working to set me free. It would have been idiotic, hypocritical, to maintain some persecuted notion of myself. So in spite of my nasty circumstances it struck me as basically good that I hadn’t killed myself. Therefore, I shouldn’t kill myself now – and perhaps I should consider taking a different approach to my own ordeal. Forgiveness was, in light of everything, possible.
When I forgave my pirate guards, those daily feelings of guilt and anger dissolved. Only for that reason did I make it out alive.