A Quebec woman held hostage by Islamist extremists in West Africa for more than a year is recounting her harrowing experience in a new book.
Sherbrooke-born Edith Blais, now 37, said she spent endless hours alone with her thoughts while she was held captive in the scorching heat of the Sahara Desert in Mali.
“Time was so slow,” she told Global News. “I was feeling like I was just like floating into nothing.”
While being held against her will, she felt feelings of fear, of concern for her worrying family back in Canada, she said.
She worried for her then-partner Luca Tacchetto – with whom she’d been captured – and repeatedly wondered if she’d soon be killed, or if she’d be imprisoned forever.
She said the desperate thoughts on a loop in her mind were often interrupted by the desert itself.
“Nothing is comfortable in the desert, that’s for sure,” she said. “The flies, the scorpions, the vipers… You’re attacked all day long by all of these things.”
Blais recounted how her ordeal began. She had jumped on the opportunity to explore Africa by car with Tacchetto. They drove to the western part of the continent all the way from his home country of Italy.
Along the journey, the pair made a mistake that would change their lives forever. With internet connectivity scarce and the pair in a rush, they did not adequately research a part of Burkina Faso they were driving through.
“We saw six men, all with AK-47s blocking the street, and they started running to the car,” she recounted.
Blais was convinced they’d be shot dead that very moment. Instead, it turned out to be the beginning of 450 days in captivity.
She spent the first three months with Tacchetto, but the captors separated them after they engaged in a 25-day hunger strike. When they ended it, she says the extremists deprived them of water for five days in the hot desert as punishment.
“I remember I was laying down and I was just feeling the wind on my mouth, and I was just concentrating on that just to keep my mind off of my thirst,” she said.
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Tacchetto told Global News that period filled him with fear more than any other.
“I felt I was dying,” Tacchetto said via Zoom last Wednesday from Italy. “And I felt she was dying too, with me.“
Things got harder for both of them after they were separated.
Tacchetto says he attempted to escape multiple times, leading to violent punishment from the extremists.
Blais says she was never physically abused by her captors but was alone for several months. The isolation was extremely difficult.
She did spend time with some other female captives, one of whom told her she’d been there for years.
That’s when Blais got a pen.
“That was like the most wonderful treasure that I had in my life,” she said.
Blais was finally able to write poems, many of which made it into her book about the ordeal now being published in English, entitled ‘The Weight of Sand.’
“I was writing a lot about nature, about the wind, about the sand, and I was feeling like it was with me,” Blais recounted.
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Eventually, she heard from her captors that Tacchetto was alive and had converted to Islam. She agreed to convert too.
Thinking they were now a married Muslim couple, the extremists reunited the pair. Tacchetto compared that moment to a “rebirth,” because he’d had no idea if Blais was even still alive up until that point.
“We were allowed to have a little place, a little bit further from them and to make a little shelter so they wouldn’t see us, so we would have some privacy. So actually, because of that, we were able to escape without them knowing,” Blais said.
Blais said she and Tacchetto waited for a windy night so their tracks in the sand would be hidden. They fled, even though they thought their odds of actually making it out were pretty slim.
Tacchetto said he had initially disagreed with attempting another escape, because of the painful consequences of his previous failed attempts.
“I was really scared about doing it again and failing again. But, I have to say that she had the courage and the good energy to convince me,” he told Global News.
After they walked all night, they managed to find a road.
“We ran after three trucks and the third truck stopped and he picked us up,” Blais said.
She explained that a group of extremists even stopped the truck, and the driver lied to save them.
“We called him our guardian angel,” she said.
Blais finally got back to Canada in March 2020, only to run into COVID-19 restrictions. Her mother joined her in a 15-day quarantine.
“I was like, are you kidding me?” Blais said through laughter. “I was quarantined for 15 months!”
Tacchetto hopes their ordeal serves as a cautionary tale for other backpackers.
Blais hopes her experience shows others that even in the darkest hour, there’s always hope.