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Details of the 20 months spent in captivity by SA hostages Bruno Pelizzari and Debbie Calitz are expected to begin emerging tomorrow, when Pelizzari appears before an Italian prosecutor to give evidence against the Somalis who captured the couple.
But Pelizzari’s sister Vera Hecht, speaking yesterday from Lake Como where their mother lives, offered the first information about the horror ordeal the couple had endured: “If people think they are thin now, this is nothing compared to how emaciated they were. For the past three months they have been ‘fed up’ before being released. We bought lovely clothes for them in Durban, but everything just hangs off their frames.”
On their extreme pallor, she added that they were “locked up in a very dark place where they could not see the sun”.
But they were “healing” and were “going to be fine”, she said.
“Our mother is absolutely ecstatic. She is still taking it all in. There have been so many meetings and briefings, this is the first time we have been able to sit down and let it all sink in.”
Asked whether the couple were receiving counselling, she replied: “They are strong and are getting help from many quarters.”
Pelizzari, who holds dual SA-Italian citizenship, and Calitz, who is a South African, were freed on Wednesday in the Somali capital Mogadishu, then flown to Rome via Djibouti.
The Italians played a key role in freeing them, along with the SA, Turkish, Qatari and possibly other governments, as well as other organisations such as SA’s Gift of the Givers charity and the Somali community in SA. That is part of the reason they flew to Italy. But Pelizzari also wanted to see his 83-year-old mother in Lake Como, near Milan.
She lived in SA for about 50 years before returning to Italy recently.
The Italian judicial authorities also wanted him to relate the key facts of his ordeal in case they decide to open a case against those responsible for the abduction and other crimes, official sources said.
Crucial details of their months in captivity and the circumstances of their release remain obscure, partly because the Italian authorities have decided to keep them under wraps for legal reasons – until Pelizzari has testified, the sources said.
The couple were met in Rome on Thursday by SA embassy officials and Italian officials. There was some footage on Italian TV of their arrival, but no statements on TV or in the Italian press because of the Italian government’s blackout for judicial reasons, according to the sources.
Leaders in the Somali community in SA, which was partly involved in the attempts to secure the couple’s release, have, meanwhile, denied statements by Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) this week that they freed Pelizzari and Calitz in a military operation.
Relatives of the two have said their captors originally demanded $10 million, and SA officials and other sources have indicated that the family were able to raise only R600 000 to R800 000.
The Somali community believes the final ransom was about $700 000 (about R4.3m), and the most likely source of the difference is the Italian government.
SA officials insist that they were asked to pay a ransom during the negotiations, but refused as a matter of policy.
Colin Aboud, Hecht’s fiancé, said yesterday his partner had “been to hell and back again” as she spearheaded attempts to save the couple.
He mentioned Somali refugees in SA as the heroes of the hour, however, saying the “lion’s share” of the funds raised towards the ransom came from this community.
Aboud said Abdul Hakim Mohamed, chairman of the Somali Community Board, which represents Somalis in SA, was credited with making the breakthrough in negotiations. He is a leading figure in the Somali refugee community in SA and was in Mogadishu when they were released.
This was confirmed yesterday by Amir Sheikh, an executive member of the board, who said Mohamed was closely involved in the negotiations.
They had also helped the SA government to discover where the two were being held, and by whom.
Sheikh said the two were handed over by the pirates who captured them to rebels fighting the TFG about four to six months after their capture, and were then moved around from one rebel group to another, and one area to another.
Mohamed and the board had also been involved in the negotiations, putting pressure on the TFG and the tribal elders to release the hostages.
Sheikh said the recent signing of formal diplomatic relations between SA and Somalia had helped to accelerate the release, suggesting that this was because the board had impressed upon the Somali elders that continuing to hold the hostages was bad for relations, and bad for Somalia.
Hecht’s meeting with Mohamed and the Somali community at the mosques in Cape Town had also helped. He declined to say how much the community had contributed towards the ransom.
When Hecht was pressed yesterday for further details of the couple’s ordeal, she said the story was Pelizzari and Calitz’s to tell.
“And they will tell it when they are ready.”
They leave Rome on Tuesday, and are set to arrive at OR Tambo International Airport in Joburg on Wednesday morning.
“I have been told that a lot of celebrities are going to be there to welcome Bruno and Debbie. After that there will be a media conference at Government House in Pretoria,” Hecht said.