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‘Today I am a free man. Yesterday I wasn’t, but today I am,” were the words repeated over and over by Durban man Bruno Pelizzari yesterday, soon after he was reunited with his sister, Vera Hecht, in Mogadishu.
Hecht, also from Durban, had flown to Somalia on Wednesday after a ransom agreement was finally reached with the Somali pirates who had held Pelizzari and his partner Deborah Calitz hostage for almost 20 months.
Photographs of the haggard-looking couple taken in Mogadishu after their release were met with tears from their relatives – tears of joy and relief, but also of pain and heartache at what the couple had gone through since their capture in October 2010.
The couple, who had previously lived on a yacht at the Bluff Yacht Club, were taken hostage after another yacht, SY Choizil, which they were sailing with skipper Peter Eldridge, was hijacked off the Kenyan coast en route to Richards Bay from Dar es Salaam.
The sea bandits rerouted the boat north to Somalia, where a French warship began tracking it because it was sailing suspiciously close to the coastline.
After attempts to contact the yacht failed, the warship launched a boarding team which came under fire from the yacht. The Choizil ran aground, and pirates took Pelizzari and Calitz ashore, but Eldridge refused to leave and was later rescued.
Yesterday they smiled, but appeared thin and exhausted at a news conference at the presidential palace in Mogadishu.
“We are very happy to get our freedom again,” Calitz said, speaking haltingly. “We are so happy today to join our families again.”
The SA Department of International Relations and Cooperation expressed its “sincere gratitude” to the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia and the Italian government for their roles in securing the release.
There was speculation whether the couple had been rescued by the Somali army, or whether a ransom was paid.
According to SomaliaReport, an online piracy watch publication, the transitional government stated the couple were rescued by the army. It also quoted Calitz as saying: “We are happy that we have been rescued by the government of Somalia. We owe them our lives.”
The families of Pelizzari and Calitz confirmed to The Mercury that money had been exchanged for their freedom. But just how much, or by whom, was not clear.
Hecht, who had been instrumental in negotiating with the pirates, and had spearheaded the fund-raising drive to raise ransom money, was said to have more detail.
At 2pm yesterday, Hecht’s daughter, Terry, heard her uncle’s voice for the first time since he was released, when her mother phoned her from Mogadishu.
“He just kept saying: ‘Today I am a free man; yesterday I wasn’t, but today I am.’ He sounded dazed. Even when we spoke to him before, when he was with the pirates, he sounded out of it,” Terry said, speaking from her Westville home.
But even though she was concerned for her uncle, the 24-year-old was unable to hide her delight that he would finally be coming home.
“And Deborah would not have known it until her release, but she now has another two grandchildren.”
Since finding out two weeks ago that Pelizzari and Calitz could be released, Terry and her mother put all their efforts into getting a room ready for the couple and going shopping for them. “We got them the softest pyjamas we could find, and toiletries,” Terry said excitedly.
But her tone changed when she spoke of the latest photographs of the couple. “I didn’t recognise him. He must have been beaten to a pulp. And he has aged.”
Terry said fund-raising efforts had raised about R1 million, which was paid to the pirates. But she does not believe this would have been enough to secure their release.
“They had first wanted $10m (R82.87m), and we could only give them about $100 000, so I doubt they would have been happy with that.”
She strongly assumed the rest of the ransom was paid by the government in Somalia.
“I think the Italian government also helped a lot in terms of actually freeing them and getting them out of there.”
An official of the Italian government said he could not divulge the details of its role in the release, although it did not pay any ransom. The government was now flying the couple to Rome, he said.
Terry said Pelizzari would go to Rome to visit his 81-year-old mother with Hecht. From Rome, they would come home to SA. At some point, Pelizzari would need to fetch his yacht, which was in Dar es Salaam. But to do so, he would have to travel back along the same route on which they had been hijacked.
“He may need to travel with security – I don’t know. But that yacht is all he has.”
Dora Hunt, one of Pelizzari’s five sisters, could not contain her emotions when arriving at Hecht’s home.
“We have been talking about this moment for so long,” she said excitedly. The women screamed and jumped up and down as they hugged each other in joy.
Calitz’s brother, Dale van der Merwe, who lives in Pretoria, said he was “elated” when he received the news yesterday morning, and that a “heavy weight” had been lifted off the family. “I don’t think the reality has actually set in. I have been in tears most of the morning.” – Additional reporting by Sapa-AFP-Reuters