Let me be perfectly clear about this. I'm not criticizing Saifa Benaouda, or her boyfriend. I'm not in the slightest suggesting they did anything wrong or made any terrible mistakes or errors in judgment.
None that I haven't made myself when I've been wandering -- bumbling is usually more accurate -- around the world.
Travelling around the world, particularly when young, is best savored in Total Ignorance, so that every street, every door, every taxi and subway and bus and train and ferry ride is a Surprise. And if you have your wits about you, most of the Surprises are incredibly wonderful.
Of course there are no guarantees. If you want guarantees, stay home.
The basic decision Ms. Benaouda made was to roam the world independently, without a Tour Guide or an Itinerary or a Travel Agent pushing her on and off a chartered bus and guiding her every step and stop.
She wanted to wander solo, or with her b/f. (I hope he gets out of Ethiopia soon and safe.)
Apparently that's also the way her mother had wandered the world en backpack a few decades earlier, so that Plan ran in the family.
Ms. Benaouda is home again, and safe. And her mom won't sign to get her a hot new passport.
All's well that ends well.
But this is a damn great story about a damn gutsy backpacker who said, "This is my planet, and I want to see it."
She picked a terrible time to try it, and she picked terrible spots to try to see.
I envy the tags and the patches on her backpack. I envy the customs stamps in her passport -- and I hope she gets her passport returned, that's quite the collection.
I even envy the nickname she got herself in prison: Crazy Inge.
I'll bet her travels aren't over.
And I'll bet in a couple of decades her kid's travels will be quite ambitious, too. Maybe the kid will put on a backpack and head out into space. Because it's the kid's solar system, and the kid wants to see it.
The New York Times
Saturday 21 April 2007
Young Tourists Pick Somalia
and a 3-Nation Ordeal Begins
by RAYMOND BONNER
STOCKHOLM -- WITH a blend of naïveté and a love of travel, Saifa Benaouda flew into Somalia last December from Dubai, where she and her boyfriend had gone for an extended vacation. Barely 17, Ms. Benaouda, a feisty and independent high-school student, did not mention the Somalia trip to her mother, the leader of a moderate Muslim organization here and herself a bit of a rebel when she was younger.
“We were only going to be there two weeks, and I thought I’d tell her after about my adventure,” Ms. Benaouda said in an interview. Their timing, in a world obsessed with terrorism, could not have been worse or, in the eyes of the authorities, more suspicious.
They arrived in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, just as Muslims from various countries, some trained by Al Qaeda, were streaming into Somalia in response to a call from Islamist forces that controlled much of the country last year. The Islamists were briefly battling with Ethiopian troops who had intervened to take back Somalia for a weak Western-backed interim government.
Ms. Benaouda (pronounced ben-OW-da), a Muslim, disavows any political or religious motive for her venture into Somalia, and says her boyfriend is also not political. She contends that they learned of the fighting only after they got to Mogadishu and found a country she did not like and more adventure than she wanted.
With fighting raging nearby, they rapidly found themselves fleeing south toward Kenya, along with hundreds of other people. On the way, she said, an American woman — the wife of Daniel Maldonado, who is currently on trial in Houston on terrorism-related charges — died in her lap. Ms. Benaouda took over care of the woman’s three small children, ages 7 months to 9 years old, surviving by eating rice and drinking muddy floodwater and hiding in the bush when military helicopters buzzed overhead.
At the Kenyan border, she said in the interview, she was detained by soldiers, including three who had American flag patches on their uniforms. She ended up in Ethiopia, where she was held for several weeks and interrogated, she said, by Westerners.
AFTER criticism from human rights organizations, led by Cageprisoners and Reprieve, which were instrumental in Ms. Benaouda’s eventual release, the Ethiopian government acknowledged recently that it was holding 41 men and women it suspected of fighting with the Islamists. American officials have been allowed to interrogate the suspects, American officials have said, including Amir Mohamed Meshal, from New Jersey, who is expected to be released soon from prison there.
Ms. Benaouda said she got the travel bug from her Moroccan father, who died eight years ago. When the family traveled — she is the youngest of four children — they avoided tourist spots. Her Finnish-Swedish mother especially sought more exotic places. “When we went to Morocco, we didn’t go to Casablanca, we went to the mountains,” she said.
Last year, Ms. Benaouda and her boyfriend, Munir Awad, a 25-year-old Swedish citizen of Lebanese origin, decided they wanted to visit a Muslim country during Ms. Benaouda’s winter school break.
They chose Dubai but were quickly disappointed: too many Asians, too many modern, tall buildings, too much shopping. “We wanted something more authentic,” she said. They met a man from Stockholm who was going to Somalia, and they decided to go, too.
When they arrived, their baggage was missing. They were told they had to stay inside to be safe. She said they were treated badly because of their lighter skin. Then the fighting broke out, and they fled toward Kenya.
Along the way, she and her boyfriend became separated, and she joined up with a group of women and children, including the American woman, who apparently had malaria. “She was hallucinating,” Ms. Benaouda recalled. “She was saying goodbye to her kids, telling them she loved them.”
After the woman died, the people in the convoy wrapped her body in a mat, and put it on the roof of the car. The children had fallen asleep, and when they awoke Ms. Benaouda told them that their mother had gone in another car.
Ms. Benaouda said she learned only recently, from Cageprisoners, that Mr. Maldonado had been interrogated by the F.B.I. in Kenya this year, and then sent to Houston to face trial. (The children were ultimately sent to their grandparents in the United States.)
After nearly three weeks on the run, Ms. Benaouda said, her group reached the Kenyan border, where they were surrounded by soldiers — including the three with the American flag patches — pointing rifles at them. “We thought they were going to shoot us,” she recalled. “We began screaming.”
Ms. Benaouda, who had begun to suspect, correctly as it turned out, that she was pregnant, was glad to meet someone who spoke English.
She did not tell them she was pregnant, though, only that she was Swedish. She and her companions were handcuffed and blindfolded and flown to Nairobi, Kenya, where they were put in jail, she said. Then she and the others, including Mr. Meshal, were deported to Mogadishu, by then under the control of Ethiopian troops. After a few days there, they were sent to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.
But her ordeal did not end there. She was interrogated again, she said, for as long as six hours on one day, mostly by two women, one of whom spoke English with what she said was an American accent. They demanded her e-mail address and password. She told them they were rude, but gave it to them. They showed her the names and photographs of some men and asked if she knew any of them. She did not. They demanded that she name any extremists she knew in Sweden.
THEY said her boyfriend had recruited jihadists in Denmark in 2004.
“I told them they were stupid,” she said. “I told them they were full of bull.” Her boyfriend was not yet a Muslim in 2004 and had never been to Denmark, she said she told them.
Her challenging manner earned her the nickname Crazy Inge from the other prisoners, she said. Ms. Benaouda said she spoke out because she had been brought up in Sweden, where women speak their minds.
“She’s crazy, but I love her,” said her mother, Helena, who sat in on the interview but allowed her daughter to speak freely. Mrs. Benaouda, who started a Web site dedicated to her daughter’s release , said her only conditions were that her daughter not be photographed or described physically.
Ms. Benaouda gave her only other interviews to the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet and Cageprisoners , which is based in Britain.
After several weeks, during which Ms. Benaouda kept a diary on pieces of toilet paper, the Ethiopians told her she was free to go. But she had learned that her boyfriend — whom she called her husband — was there, too, and refused to leave without him. Finally, the Ethiopians said if she did not go to Sweden, they would send her to Mogadishu. She agreed to go home and arrived there in late March. Her boyfriend is still being held in Ethiopia.
While there is no telling whether there are similar adventures in store for Ms. Benaouda as she exercises her wanderlust, her immediate future promises to be uneventful. Her passport was taken by the American soldiers, and her mother said she had no intention of signing the parental consent form that a minor needed to get another one.
- 30 -
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company