Edith Blais and her Italian companion, captured in Burkina Faso in 2018, made a daring dash for freedom 450 days later. She tells Sheila Flynn her story.
The escape was like something straight out of a film.
Edith Blais and her Italian companion, Luca Tacchetto, were fleeing through the African desert after 450 days as captives of mujahideen who’d kidnapped them in Burkina Faso. The pair had waited until a few nights after the full moon, when the light would be on their side and a windstorm would help cover their footsteps.
Then they crept out of the camp and took their chances in the unforgiving desert, walking overnight until they found a road and flagged down a truck. The jihadis came after them, armed and shouting and pulling over the vehicle. But the truck driver – a stranger – hid the escaped travellers, saved their lives and dropped them off at a UN building in March 2020,
That’s when the pair stumbled from one surreal nightmare into another unimaginable scenario: A global pandemic.
Ms Blais and Mr Taccheto initially had no idea what was going on when greeted strangely by UN officials.
When approached by one man, “I wanted to shake his hand, but he offered me his elbow instead,” Ms Blais writes in her new book about her incredible escape, The Weight of Sand: My 450 Days Held Hostage in the Sahara.
“Some African handshake, perhaps? In any case, it confused me so much that I burst out laughing,” she writes.
“Another man came along, giving us the same elbow shake. I was still laughing. I was amused by what I assumed was an African custom, especially since the man wasn’t African; he was the Canadian ambassador to Mali. Luca also seemed to find the gesture comical.
“The ambassador realized that we didn’t know what was going on in the world, so he explained that we were in the middle of a pandemic. For the first time, I heard about the coronavirus. While we were sequestered in the desert, I had so often wondered what was happening elsewhere on the planet.”
She returned to her native Quebec to quarantine with her family – and began putting all her thoughts and details of the saga into words, along with poems she had written while a captive.
“My family and friends had so many questions for me, and I couldn’t see myself telling the whole story over and over again,” she tells The Independent. “So I told everybody, ‘You know what? I have these poems, and I’m going to write what happened … so you guys can read, and it’ll be easier for me.’”
“So I started like that, then it just grew and grew and grew,” she says, adding: “It was just flowing. Everything was coming out, and that’s pretty much what happened until the end.
“I was already used to being isolated … I was just taking it slow, coming back to life slowly. It gave me time to write the book and to set all my thoughts straight about everything that just happened. It was so big.”
She continues: “All the time I was writing, I was having nightmares, I was reliving captivity, my brain couldn’t process it,” she tells The Independent. “I was doing the big cleaning in my head of all my thoughts, mostly a lot about what I lived, my feelings about it, the captors, my feelings about so many things. It was, I think, a very good thing that I did.”
As the rest of the world reeled amidst the pandemic and restrictions, Ms Blais felt more liberated than she had in years.
“It was like a trillion times better than what I just lived, so I was like, woohoo! Coffee in the morning and [the ability to] be safe and I could walk wherever I wanted in the house.
“I didn’t mind wearing a mask,” she says, adding: “It was a lot better for me; I was smiling and just being super happy. I was feeling free.”
Her ordeal began three years ago, when the avowed wanderer and Mr Tacchetto were driving through Africa after years of a travelling existence. The French Canadian looked and lived like the quintessential backpacker with her flowing dreadlocks and kind, open face.
“I didn’t see myself in a steady job with a house and everything; I saw myself more like a nomad,” she tells The Independent.
She was, for years, until she and Mr Tacchetto took a car trip across Burkina Faso right before Christmas 2018, hoping to reach a beach in neighbouring Benin. For once, however, the pair didn’t properly research the areas through which they were passing.
That landed them in captivity for 15 months in the desert, sometimes together, sometimes not; sometimes with other captives, sometimes not; always with the threat of uncertainty or death, whether at the hands of the armed men guarding them or the punishing Saharan elements.
On the day she and Mr Tacchetto were captured, she reckons about 30 miles from the Benin border, “the road got suddenly darker, and my blood ran cold.
“Six men in turbans were waiting for us, armed with Kalashnikovs,” she writes in her chapter titled Ambush. “The scene filled the whole space. I will never forget how Luca and I looked at each other right then, sharp, a warning; a glance loaded with meaning, eviscerating. Had we reached the end of our trip? Were we going to die here? Our fate hung in the air, brushing past each Kalashnikov, each of the men who held us in their sights.”
The men tried to separate the Canadian and Italian, by Mr Tacchetto told them they were married, knowing Muslims would be more inclined to keep husbands and wives together. He was right, and for the first three months, as they were shuttled hundreds of miles into the desert by different guards, they were kept together.
It wasn’t long before the pair realised that “we weren’t caught up with a bunch of petty thieves, we were in the clutches of a major organisation that would ask our governments to pay ransoms for our release, or use us in a prisoner exchange,” Ms Blais writes.
They had been taken by a faction of al-Qaeda.
For six years, jihadi groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Sahel, the vast expanse south of the Sahara Desert, have used hostage taking for ransom as a way to fund operations and expand their presence, AP reported in September. Twenty-five foreigners have been abducted in the Sahel since 2015 and 10 remain captive, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).
Ms Blais and Mr Tacchetto were kept together for three months and separated for eleven more, both faced with not only terrifying captivity but also some of nature’s greatest threats: Scorpions. Vipers. Sandstorms. Disease.
One of the only things that helped Ms Blais through the experience was writing 57 poems in secret with a pen gifted to her by another captive – who’d been with the jihadis in the desert for two and a half years. She scratched the poems them into cardboard even after that only pen ran out of ink.
It was only she and Mr Tacchetto agreed to (ostensibly) convert to Islam that they were reunited. Then considered husband and wife, they were housed together in the same camp – giving them a chance to hatch their escape plan, just days after the full moon, when a windstorm would cover their tracks, they hoped.
After creeping out of the camp, they headed west and walked for hours, unsure of their location but banking that they would hit a main road. They eventually did and flagged down a truck – driven by a man Ms Blais calls her Guardian Angel in the book. He was accompanied by an older male passenger.
“They looked alike, a father and son, surely,” Ms Blais writes in a chapter titled Freedom at Daybreak. “We were sitting comfortably in the truck, so close to freedom, dressed as two white men fleeing their desert jailers. I wondered if the two men had grasped the drama that was playing out before their eyes.
“I caught Luca’s eye—a look full of hope, certainly, but also concern. What would happen to us now?”
The driver told them they were headed to Kidal, a town in Mali. And he certainly did seem to understand the gravity of the situation when a truck full of mujahideen pulled them over. As the escaped hostages cowered in the back, hiding, the driver spoke to the angry jihadis – and they left.
“Our driver must have lied. He had saved our lives. I couldn’t believe it,” Ms Blais writes.
“Shortly afterwards, another truck caught up with ours, and both came to a halt at the side of the road. The Guardian Angel and his father got out to talk to the other driver. Watching them gesture in the rearview, I saw that they knew each other. When the men got back into the truck, the older one took my place against the door, pushing me to the middle so he could watch what was going on behind us in the mirror.
“He kept the driver informed of what he saw. The other truck followed us like a shadow. During the whole journey, our Guardian Angel veered off the road whenever he saw a vehicle coming in the opposite direction, and the truck would lumber off into the sandy desert, presumably to keep us out of sight of other travelers.
“The second truck, on the other hand, stayed on the road, driving slowly, waiting for us to return. We drove on like that for hours until we reached a small town. Kidal, at last! The Guardian Angel stopped his truck in front of a government building, and the old man waved us out. End of the line. We were free.
“We thanked our brave rescuers warmly over and over..”
The pair were taken in by UN officials and even brought to meet the president of Mali before they were flown out of Africa and eventually to their respective countries. It wasn’t long before Ms Blais began writing her book in quarantine in Quebec.
While she primarily wrote the book for friends, family and herself, she says she also hopes fellow nomads or travellers view her story as a cautionary tale.
“I was travelling for five years, like hitchhiking everywhere and living in my tent and on the beaches,” she tells The Independent. “I was doing all these crazy things. Everything was always going well, so you get super confident, and you go further and further and further – and you tempt more and more and more.
“And at one point, life stops you, because maybe you’re taking too many risks. Keep in mind: Even if nothing has happened yet, something could happen. So always stay safe.”
While she may be more cautious now, her love of travel has not dwindled, however. Ms Blais is no longer romantically involved with Mr Tacchetto but has a new boyfriend with whom she enjoys travelling by van for months at a time.
He actually saw me on the television, and he contacted me and he was so sweet,” she tells The Independent. “And I decided, we can met if you want. We just got along so well.”
Since the book was published earlier this year, Ms Blais says she’s been contacted by other former hostages and even people “who come to me and they say, ‘You know, it touched me in this way. It changed my vision of life.’
“I’m happy I can help people,” she says.