Bloemfontein teacher Yolande Korkie was released by her al-Qaeda kidnappers in Yemen on Friday after eight months in captivity but with a huge burden on her mind - her husband Pierre remains in their clutches.
Yolande was freed at 6am, after four days of intensive negotiations by South Africa’s Gift of the Givers Foundation charity.
But her Yemeni kidnappers - who Gift of the Givers founder Imtiaz Sooliman says are definitely aligned to al-Qaeda - have demanded US$3 million. in ransom, within eight days from Friday.
“Yolande is crying uncontrollably. They told her: ‘Your husband’s life is in your hands’,” Sooliman said on Friday, after four kidnappers had handed over Yolande to Anas al Hamati, the Yemeni representative of Gift of the Givers.
He had negotiated Yolande’s release in four days of hard bargaining this week.
Sooliman said he and al Hamati would try to negotiate a smaller ransom than the kidnappers were demanding for Pierre and a longer period to pay it.
He also said after a bath and a rest in a hotel, Yolande was feeling a bit better on Friday afternoon.
A family spokesman in Bloemfontein, who did not want to be named, told the Saturday Star, it was a “sweet and sour” moment.
“We’re elated about Yolande. It came unexpectedly and, therefore, there was no anticipation really of an imminent release.
“Initially, we were sceptical when we first heard about her release. We thought, where does this come from? Who established her release?’
“But once the government confirmed it, it sank home and from that point onwards, it was chaos trying to find out where she was and how long it would be before anyone saw her,” the spokesman said.
The couple’s children, he said, both teenagers, had briefly spoken to their mother. “She was able to tell them she was well and was looking forward to being reunited with them. Obviously, they are over the moon.
“It’s a sweet and sour situation. We’re extremely grateful to Gift of the Givers and the leading role that Dr Sooliman and Mr al Hamati have played. They have shown absolute courage and initiative. They never gave up and had success where the government agencies could not find anything.”
The family felt “elation on the one hand and anguish on the other”.
“It’s been a long seven-and-a-half months without any news. It’s one thing to know this or that grouping has taken someone hostage and it’s in this or that process… but not having heard anything is hard.
“That’s still where we are with Pierre. At least we know now Dr Sooliman has made contact and knows where Pierre can be found at least, who has him and who to speak to.”
He hoped Yolande would return home within the next week.
“We’re looking forward to a continued negotiation and we would like to be part of any solution in any way that we can.
“We’re all on tenterhooks and we’re hoping for a swift resolution of all of this in the course of the next week.”
Meanwhile, Depart-ment of International Relations and Co-operation spokesman Nelson Kgwete said on Friday SA’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sadiq Jaffer, was flying from Riyadh to Yemen to arrange the documentation for Yolande to return home.
“South Africa welcomes the release of its citizen in Yemen,” Kgwete said, adding “it would also welcome the release of Mr Korkie”.
The government acknowledged the role played by the Gift of the Givers, the government of Yemen and others, in Yolande’s release.
“Just after 6am on Friday, Sooliman texted us to say: “Yolande is in our hands in our car… She is distraught, crying, asking us to release Pierre.”
“Anas spoke to her initially at 1.45am SA time; then one of the kidnappers called me at 2.15am to speak to Yolande,” Sooliman said.
“She was really scared and spoke to me initially in Afrikaans. I replied in Afrikaans, explained to her who I am, what we’ve done. That she will be received by Anas, that she spoke to him at 1.45, that she is completely safe with him… She wanted to speak to her children and was very worried about Pierre.”
Pierre Korkie’s uncle Gerrie Nel told the Saturday Star he had read about Yolande’s release in a local newspaper on Friday.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t got much more information. We’re very relieved, but we are worried that Pierre is still there in Yemen.”
The Korkies, teachers from Bloemfontein, were kidnapped by armed men in the southern Yemen city of Taiz on May 27. They had been working for a local charity development group.
Sooliman described how Al Hamati, a respected tribes-man in Yemen, had doggedly pursued the release of the Korkies for eight months.
His hard work paid off on Monday when one of the kidnappers called him and set up a meeting in a remote area on Tuesday.
“It was a massive security risk for Anas but with faith he went. He met the kidnappers face to face. The discussion was cordial….” Sooliman said on the first day of negotiations on Tuesday.
“No masks were worn. Lots of diplomacy took place.”
At first the kidnappers had demanded $15 000 (R160 000) in ransom for Yolande and $2 million for Pierre, thinking they were Westerners, Americans.
“We made it clear although they are ‘white’ they are from SA,” Sooliman said.
“We are trying to convince them to cut their losses because they got the wrong people,” he said.
He told them the Korkie family could not afford such a high ransom and the South African government would not pay either, as it has a policy of not paying ransoms.
- Saturday Star