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What I learned from being held hostage for 450 days

Edith Blais and her partner were captured by terrorists in Burkina Faso. Here, she explains why she’s decided to share her story for the first time in new book The Weight of Sand.

In her book The Weight of Sand, Canadian author Edith Blais details – for the first time – her experience of being held hostage by terrorists after she and her partner were captured in Burkina Faso. Here, she recounts their escape.

When I met Luca in a small northern Canadian town, we connected instantly. Under the northern lights, we developed a deep friendship over our shared passions: travel, living off the land, a different way of life.

Some time after we met, we embarked on a road trip from Italy to Togo, where we planned to join our friend’s sustainable farming project. Upon arriving on the African continent, however, we changed our itinerary and decided to drive to Benin before going to Togo. We were caught at the border of Burkina Faso and Benin, and taken to the Sahel region by terrorists. Little was known about my and Luca’s fate until we reappeared in Mali more than
one year later.

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Now, in my new book, The Weight of Sand, I am sharing my story with the world for the first time, including the details of how Luca and I escaped in the night and made it to Kidal, a town in northern Mali.

Against the stunning but cruel backdrop of the desert, I recount my 450 days as a hostage: the oppressive heat, violent sandstorms, constant relocations and hunger strikes. Separated from Luca early on, I found solidarity and comfort with a group of other female hostages, who lent me a pen to write poetry, a creative outlet that helped save my life. These poems are included in my book.

I wrote them in secret, and they were one of the few things I took with me during my escape, hidden under my clothes.

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I think back at the stillness of time, when loneliness nearly sent me mad. As the days stretched out with no hope of release, I could feel myself losing my grip on reality. I refused to eat and the cell’s leader eventually negotiated for me to eat, in exchange for which he would show me a video of Luca. A promise he kept.

In the video, Luca told me he had converted to Islam and even though he was not explicit about it, it felt as though he wanted me to do the same so that we could be reunited. It was enough of an incentive for me to try. I had nothing left. 

On February 5 2020, after 11 months apart, Luca and I were reunited in the desert. Once I arrived at the camp, the guards relaxed their surveillance. 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.

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.

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If we were to go west trying to escape, he figured, we could probably cross that road. From then on, 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.

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. We walked west for eight hours, until we reached a road. Eventually 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 – something he’d learned in camp, and he agreed to let us get in. He drove us to the UN building in Kidal and from there to the embassy in 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.

Ironically, we emerged into a pandemic. But if it weren’t for my enforced two-week quarantine I might never have written the book.

It gave me time and I wanted to write everything down for my family. The Weight of Sand’s initial spark was those few weeks of a new kind of isolation.

This story is my descent into a strange, brutal universe, and I hope that The Weight of Sand is ultimately a life-affirming book and a celebration of resilience.

Now that it is out in the world, I hope that it serves as a cautionary tale for travellers and adventurers like myself. I hope it shows the courage that we can find in others and ourselves, and in the natural world around us, even during the most difficult times. And above all, I wish for my book to show that, even in the darkest hour, there is always hope. 

The Weight of Sand by Edith Blais is out now (Greystone Books, £18.99)

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