Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso — Nearly a year and a half after she was kidnapped by Islamic extremists in Burkina Faso, Edith Blass risked her life to escape, fearing she would never be free.

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“(What you’re thinking is either) you live your whole life and you die there, or you try something,” Blass told the Associated Press by phone ahead of its book this week. reported before publication, “The Weight of the Sands: My 450-Day Hostage in the Sahara.”

The 37-year-old Canadian and his Italian partner Luca Tacheto were captured by jihadists in December 2018 while visiting the region in eastern Burkina Faso and attempting to cross into neighboring Benin. The pair were kept in the desert of northern Mali for 15 months before they fled on foot one night. To pass the time, Blass stuffed her bed into the shape of a body to make it look like she had gone to sleep, she said. They were also helped by a strong wind, which erased their footprints in the sand, making it difficult for jihadists to track them. After an eight-hour walk, the two reached a main road and flagged off a truck that took them to a United Nations base.

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“(Being free) was hard to believe, it’s like you’re still having nightmares and you can’t wake up and you know it’s going to end,” Blass said. “There are a lot of emotions, and then I was afraid of everyone who was left behind. We feared about the Italians, we were afraid that they would be punished because we escaped.”

For six years, jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and Islamic State in the Sahel, the vast expanse of the Sahara desert, have used hostages for ransom to fund operations and expand their presence. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Incident Data Project (ACLED), twenty-five foreigners have been kidnapped and 10 held captive in the Sahel since 2015. Blais and Tacchetto are the only two Western hostages known to have escaped. The organization said three were killed, three were liberated by French and American forces, and seven were released.

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Those still taken into custody include French journalist Olivier Dubois, who was kidnapped from northern Mali in April. Those released include 75-year-old French aid worker Sophie Petronin, two Italians and a prominent Malian politician who was released in October in a prisoner exchange for about 200 Islamist militants.

In Burkina Faso, where jihadist violence has escalated in recent years, thousands have died and more than 1.4 million people displaced, 10 migrants have been kidnapped and conflict experts say fighting and humanitarian The longer the crisis lasts, the more hostage-taking will increase.

Laith Alkhauri, CEO of Intelonyx Intelligence Advisory, said, “Any disturbance in disturbed towns and villages will require more significant international attention, which may result in the appearance of wanted kidnapping victims from UN agencies, peacekeeping forces and journalists.” Is.” Analysis. “Jihadists see this variable as advantageous and will take a more aggressive stance to maintain the unrest and pursue a ransom for their expansion,”

While international kidnappings attract considerable attention, people are not only kidnapped for ransom and many Sahel locals are also taken by armed Islamists, whether for extortion, intimidation or punishment, Corinne Dufka West Africa’s director of human rights told Watch.

“This horrific crime, which is prevalent, tragically affects the lives of victims and terrorizes their communities,” she said.

Hostage negotiation experts say people and organizations operating in hostile countries need to be better prepared to deal with the abduction crisis and know how to respond, said John Stead, response coordinator for the Hostage Support Partnership. Said, a group that attempts to free hostages in Somalia. Those who have been released and who have recently negotiated the release of three Iranians held by Somali pirates for more than five years.

“Personal survival is everything and with a few simple skills you can improve your chances,” he said.

Looking back, Blass said that if she had researched the area better and realized it was dangerous, she would have changed her direction. But even after being captured by jihadists and held at gunpoint, she never expected to be kidnapped, thinking they would be robbed and killed, she said.

Blass said, her kidnappers did not beat or torture her, but spent months in captivity living in solitude in the grim desert trying not to think about her fate. He found relief in writing yoga and poetry, which he hid from the jihadists.

He and the Italian, Tacheto, were separated for most of their captivity, during which time they converted to Islam at the behest of their captors, she said. Once they met again they fled.

Blass states that she does not forgive the men who took her, but understands that they were just following orders, convinced they were doing the right thing, thinking they would be given a special place in heaven. , He said.

“They have nothing, they are very poor and they don’t understand that they are doing wrong,” she said. “I don’t want to be hated and I don’t want to forgive… I just want to let it go.”