x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

American woman kidnapped in Yemen tells of her ordeal

Ludmila Yamalova and her friend Glen Davis' were on the final day of a short break before they were kidnapped at gunpoint.

Ludmila Yamalova with Glen Davis in the room they were kept in during the kidnap.
Ludmila Yamalova with Glen Davis in the room they were kept in during the kidnap.

DUBAI // Ludmila Yamalova remembers the first moments of her kidnapping in Yemen: a gunman staring at her through her car window as she tried to roll it up and lock the car doors. But it was too late. Ten armed men - one of whom she dubbed "the Madman" - had blocked in her car with a lorry, taken her driver and began harassing the guide.

Within moments, what had begun as a weekend holiday for her and her friend, Glen Davis, had turned into an abduction. "It was just madness," she said, recounting her story in an interview with The National in Dubai yesterday after she and Mr Davis had been rescued by negotiators and US officials. "They [the kidnappers] were very angry. There was a lot of screaming and shouting and a lot of confusion. They were also talking on several phones at the same time."

Ms Yamalova, who is from the US state of Oregon and works as a lawyer in Dubai, and Mr Davis, also from Oregon, a stockbroker, were on the third and final day of their trip last Monday when they were kidnapped. Their two guides, Ali and Abdulwadood, dressed in traditional clothes said they planned to take their guests to meet their families in the mountains. Promised a barbecue of kebabs and an evening of dancing, the friends had risen early for the journey.

Within minutes of leaving the first checkpoint outside the city, they stopped to take photos. Climbing down from a viewpoint, Ms Yamalova was barely back in the car when the kidnapping happened. The man in charge, "the Madman" took over the driving of her car, she said. Within five minutes, he had directed the party off the main road and down into a valley through rugged terrain. For the first half-hour, the friends did not speak to each other. When Mr Davis reached out to hold Ms Yamalova's hand, she recalled that her palm was sweaty and his was ice cold.

"There was no fear, there was no crying, there was no panic," said Ms Yamalova. "I kept thinking, 'This will stop soon.' You are assessing your chances of reversing it." But as the drive with their captors lengthened, panic set in, she said. She picked up her BlackBerry to make a call. "The gunman in the front pointed his gun at me and went to grab my phone," she said. "So I dismantled the phone, took out the battery, and dropped all the parts in my purse."

At that point, the guides started negotiating with their captors while translating parts of it for their two charges. Ms Yamalova said the kidnappers kept insisting that the guides translate one particular phrase over and over: "We are not going to kill you. We will use you as ransom to get one of our tribesmen released." So, she said, she tried to engage them in a conversation about the jailed man: he had been in prison 15 years, was from the Red Hill village in the Al Haima region, and belonged to the Sharda tribe.

Eventually, as her captors relaxed, she said she reached into her purse, reassembled her phone and set it to mute. Then she sent a text message to a friend in Dubai who works at the US consulate. It read: "We have been kidnapped in Yemen. This is not a joke." She received a reply almost immediately: "It's been reported. We need more details." Soon the car came to a stop amid chaos. Men with guns were in an argument with the Madman. The guides explained that the "Madman" wanted to keep driving, but the villagers would not let him.

"They told the Madman to take us to his house," she said. It was the biggest house in the village, perched on a hilltop. Almost a castle compared to the houses in the valley below, surrounded by khat plantations. They were held in a tiny room with a small window overlooking the village. They could see their car parked below. "Don't worry," the Madman told them. "You are our guests." They were provided with water and juice. Ms Yamalova hid her mobile phone in the elastic waistband of her skirt. Occasionally, when the gunmen left the room, she took pictures of the valley below, of framed photos of men in uniform that hung on the wall - including one that she recognised as a younger version of the Madman. She sent everything to her friend in the US consulate.

The reply came: "Be patient. These usually end safely. The process needs to be played out first." At some point overnight, Ms Yamalova recalled, there was a commotion downstairs and a group of men with guns gathered at the base of the house, talking loudly. The next morning at breakfast, they noticed a new face with a military escort. Mohammed Mohammed Sharda, their chief negotiator, had arrived. He immediately sought to reassure her.

"It was the first word of English," she said. "He said, 'We will get you out'." Ms Yamalova replied: "Please don't leave without us." Just before sundown, she and Mr Davis were called downstairs, where they were escorted into a car with Mr Sharda and two other men. It took them an hour to drive out of the valley, where they were met by the minister of tourism, an ambulance and soldiers. They were told by government officials that the case of the jailed tribesman would be reopened. Then they climbed into armoured vehicles escorted by US officials.

After spending the night under aliases in an unnamed hotel, they were debriefed at the American embassy on Wednesday. The following morning, Mr Davis - who left for the US on Saturday - and Ms Yamalova boarded a plane for Dubai. Ms Yamalova said she had been to Yemen two years ago. She was so impressed by the country's pristine, historic beauty and the warmth of its people that when Mr Davis came to visit, they planned a weekend trip. "It is perfectly preserved in history," she said. "Those who have been there will tell you how much they absolutely love it."

"It was all last minute," she said. "But we looked at the US travel advisory. I live in the Middle East. I've been to Yemen and I think it is different for someone just trekking in from the States." When they arrived at the capital in Sana'a, their three-day weekend was planned out. A day walking around the souqs and the old city, a second day spent in nearby towns south-west of the capital, visiting quarters such as Thila, Kwakoban and Shibam. The, the third, and fateful, day.

Later, Ms Yamalova, who was held captive for 24 hours, would find out that the average time of such captivity in Yemen is two weeks. And on Friday, one of their negotiators called. "He was calling to make sure we were OK," she said. sbhattacharya@thenational.ae