‘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, shortly 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 Somali pirates.
The pirates had held Pelizzari and his partner, Deborah Calitz, hostage for almost 20 months.
Photographs taken of the haggard-looking couple in Mogadishu after their release were greeted with tears from their relatives – tears of joy and relief, but also of pain and heartbreak at what the couple had gone through since their capture in October 2010.
The couple had lived on a yacht at Bluff Yacht Club before setting sail. They were taken hostage when the 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.
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, “and to join our families again.”
There was speculation whether the couple had been rescued by members of the Somali army or whether a ransom was paid.
SomaliaReport, an online piracy-watch publication, said the the couple were rescued by the army. It also quoted Calitz as saying: “We’re happy that we’ve been rescued by the government of Somalia. We owe them our lives.”
The families of Pelizzari and Calitz confirmed to Independent Newspapers 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 fundraising 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 sounded dazed. Even when we had spoken to him when he was with the pirates, he sounded out of it,” Terry said, speaking from her Durban home.
But even through her concern for her uncle, the 24-year-old was unable to hide her delight that he would finally be coming home.
“Deborah wouldn’t have known it until her release, but she now has another two grandchildren. She only knew of her first grandchild, but still had to meet him. Bruno also hasn’t met his grandson.”
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 “for the softest pyjamas” and toiletries.
Commenting on the latest photographs of the couple, she said: “I didn’t recognise (Bruno).
“He must’ve been beaten to a pulp. He’s aged.”
Terry said fundraising efforts had raised 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 $10 million. We could only give them about $100 000.”
She strongly assumed that the rest of the ransom was paid by the government in Somalia.
“I think the Italian government also helped a lot in freeing them.”
An official from the Italian government said he could not divulge the details of its role in the release – although it did not pay any ransom. It 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 head home to SA. At some point Pelizzari would need to fetch his yacht, which was in Dar es Salaam.
But he would have to sail the same route on which they were hijacked. “He may need to travel with security, I don’t know. But that yacht is all he has.”
Calitz’s brother Dale van der Merwe, who lives in Pretoria, said he was “elated” when he received the news yesterday morning.
The “heavy weight” the family had carried had been lifted.
“I don’t think the reality has set in yet. I have been in tears most of the morning.”
Van der Merwe said the couple’s release would not have been possible without donations from the public, including the Somali community in SA. – Additional reporting by Sapa-AFP-Reuters