Johannesburg - Yolande Korkie, distraught, frail and very tired, appealed directly to al-Qaeda on Thursday to show the mercy of Nelson Mandela by releasing her husband Pierre as the deadline for his execution loomed over the next 24 hours.
“We are so proud to be South African. The example of President Mandela, his example of forgiveness and tolerance, have inspired us,” she said in a faint and quivering voice at a media conference in Joburg.
“And we are asking you, al-Qaeda, to show mercy, show tolerance and forgiveness as we forgive you. Please release Pierre, please release the children’s father, as you released me. They miss him desperately,” she added, her voice breaking and fading.
She was speaking at the premises of the Gift of the Givers charity, which negotiated her release a week ago and is trying desperately to negotiate Pierre’s release before al-Qaeda carries out its threat to “send his head home in a box”, as Gift of the Givers founder Imtiaz Sooliman revealed on Thursday.
Pierre’s kidnappers released Yolande at 6am last Friday with no ransom, but threatened to kill him if they did not get a $3 million (R32m) ransom for him in eight days.
Sooliman said the negotiations, which his Yemeni representative Anas al-Hamati has been conducting with the al-Qaeda kidnappers, had not been going well in the past few days.
“We are in a crisis situation. We have 24 hours in which to get Pierre out or get an extension of time. To be blunt, this media conference is about an international appeal for a stay of execution.”
Yolande returned from Yemen on Monday, and Sooliman said her friends had driven to Joburg on Wednesday to take her back to her home in Bloemfontein.
But he said he had called her back to Joburg on Thursday to issue this direct appeal to al-Qaeda through the international media not to kill her husband.
“As you know, there is no way anyone in South Africa is going to raise $3 million,” he added.
Sooliman said he had called the media conference under the South African flag to get the message to Pierre’s captors that he and Yolande are South Africans, so that they knew they were making a mistake.
Sooliman said that his Yemeni representative al-Hamati, was trying to negotiate a month-long extension of the deadline the kidnappers had given.
He was waiting to hear on Thursday night whether they had agreed.
But he said the tone of the negotiations had changed dramatically this week. Last week, when Hamati had been negotiating Yolande’s release, the kidnappers had been calm, friendly and professional.
But when Hamati returned to the negotiations (in a remote part of Yemen) this week, it was as if they had never seen him before. “From the moment he walked in, they asked ‘where is the money?’.”
The negotiators kept changing from day to day, he said, although the main one had remained throughout the negotiations.
When Hamati told them he didn’t have the $3 million, they had threatened to seize him, too. Sooliman said he had considered pulling him out of the negotiations for his own safety.
Sooliman told 702 Talk Radio: “My gut feeling is they won’t do it (kill Pierre Korkie) tomorrow.”
By that he meant the kidnappers appeared to think Pierre and Yolande were Americans who could afford the ransom. Yolande explained that they seemed to think that simply because they were white, “and they don’t understand our Rainbow Nation”.
“Al-Qaeda, South Africa and Yemen are not wealthy countries,” she said.
“I want to address you, al-Qaeda. Thank you for releasing me and giving me back to my children. They give a thank you that cannot be said in words.
“Thank you for treating us with kindness and respect. Thank you for bringing medicine when my husband needed it,” she said, explaining later that Pierre was suffering from a severe hernia problem which was causing renal failure and that he needed an operation urgently.
“I want to tell you about Yemen, I want to tell you the story about Yemen. People say Why did you go to a country like that? We went there to teach, my husband Pierre is a teacher.
“He’s a teacher inside the class and out of the class. Those that know him love him for who he is. He’s a humble, gentle person. There’s not a husband like him.
“We’ve been married for 20 years. In captivity we promised to renew our marriage vows this year. So maybe you’ll get an invitation,” she said to a journalist, allowing herself a wan smile.
“He taught English to Yemenis. He taught at an NGO that was encouraging Yemenis to take responsibility for their lives, to stand up and become strong, to learn new languages.
“From my heart I want to say that nobody told us when we went there that we would fall in love with the people.”
She said she did relief work at a hospital for widows and orphans.
The Korkies had been in Yemen for four years when they were kidnapped in Taiz on May 27 last year.
Independent Foreign Editor