A family torn apart, a breakdown in relations, and strength tested to the limit await the return of SA couple Debbie Calitz and her partner Bruno Pelizzari after being held hostage for 18 months by Somali pirates.
This was said by their daughters after receiving news of the couple’s release on Thursday morning. Their mother’s absence had exposed the vulnerabilities between the family and close relatives, and driven a wedge in what had been normal family life.
Her daughter Sam de Jesus said: “The news that they are coming back is like a weight off our shoulders, we can smile again.”
De Jesus, who is 30, is Calitz’s second child. She had had two children since her mother and Pelizzari were captured in October 2010.
She said it had not been easy. “Honestly it has been long, and at some point you lose faith and hope. We each lived our own lives, but this will bring us back together,” she said.
Argument ensued over nothing while their mother was away, and went unresolved.
The couple were released into the hands of the Italian government and SA diplomats early on Thursday morning after months of negotiations.
The Somali hostage takers finally dropped their demand to just under R1 million.
The couple were captured on October 25, 2010 while sailing in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Kenya, when their yacht was hijacked by armed pirates who set a course for Somalia and took the couple ashore to Baraawe.
Negotiations ensued and the pirates made a ransom demand of $10 million(about R80 million).
“A sum of money was paid to them although I am not sure of the figure,” Calitz’s brother, Dale van der Merwe, said on Thursday. He said some of the money had been from funds raised by the family and more could have come from other role players like the Italian government, which was known for paying ransoms for the release of hostages.
He said one of Pelizzari’s five sisters, Dora Hunt, had been handling that side of things, and was on her way to meet the couple in Italy on Thursday.
The Department of International Relations and Co-operation said it had not been part of any ransom payments. “We handled the negotiations together with other governments like that of Italy and Turkey. We did not pay the ransom because it is not the government’s policy to do so,” SA’s ambassador to Sweden, Gladys Kudjoe, said.
If it had, that would have set a precedent for other hostage situations, she said.
The couple were safe and healthy, said Kudjoe, and were on their way to Italy late on Thursday afternoon. “They were flown to Mogadishu and will be in Italy later today,” the ambassador said.
Only then would their return date to SA be determined.
The youngest Calitz daughter, Carrie Cross, said that when her mother called shortly after their release on Thursday, she got to tell her that she loved her for the first time in almost two years.
“It has been so difficult. This thing is on your mind every minute of every day… you even dream about it,” the 21-year-old said.
The family launched various fundraising campaigns in an effort to come up with the ransom money.
Said van der Merwe: “It was because of the joint efforts of the South African community, who gave generously to the campaign, that we managed to have anything at all.”
The money they had raised was only a drop in the ocean of the sum demanded: “It’s thanks to the public’s generosity that we had any money at all.”
“We will work closely with the Italian government to ensure that they come back home safely,” Kudjoe said.