Durban - One of the last people to see kidnapped British botanists Rod and Rachel Saunders alive blames himself for their Isis-linked abduction which he fears has led to their deaths.
“I feel incredibly guilty because I told them to go down to Ngoye Forest,” said Big Banana Films producer Robin Matthews, who spent three days filming and getting to know the Saunders couple who collect and catalogue indigenous plants for their Kenilworth-based business, Silverhill Seeds.
“It’s a birders’ and botanists’ paradise,” said Matthews, a University of Zululand BSc Zoology Honours graduate who lived in nearby Mtunzini and knows KZN’s Ngoye Forest region well.
“I’ve been there many times and after working with Rod and Rachel, I knew they would love it.
“But their love of plants and nature is what got them into trouble. And that’s hard to swallow.
“Because even though I know I could not have predicted Isis suspects were living there, I still feel responsible for sending them there.”
The Hawks claim that the Saunders couple were kidnapped on February 12 in the vicinity of Bivane Dam near Vryheid in KwaZulu-Natal.
Four days later, following an alert that two suspects on a terror watch list had gone on a spending spree with the Saunders’s credit cards, cops swooped on a Ngoye homestead about 20km outside Mtunzini and arrested Sayfydeen Aslam Del Vecchio, 38, and Fatima Patel, 27.
On February 26 they arrested a close associate, Themba Xulu, 19, also from Ngoye.
The trio appeared in the Verulam magistrate’s court this week on kidnapping and aggravated robbery charges and various counts under the Protection Of Constitutional Democracy Against Terrorist And Related Activities Act.
Sources close to the investigation revealed that soon after Del Vecchio and Patel’s arrests, cops began tracking Xulu, who was allegedly in possession of cellphones belonging to the Saunders couple.
For more than a week he was kept under surveillance, in the hope he would lead them to the kidnapped pair.
When that didn’t materialise, Xulu was arrested and the Hawks made a public appeal for help, suggesting that they have no more leads on the couple’s whereabouts.
Matthews, who last saw the seed-collecting pair on February 8, fears the worst.
“All we who worked with them and friends want to know is: are Rod and Rachel safe?
“My gut feeling is that they are not. They’ve been missing for nearly three weeks. I think that they are dead and that their bodies are buried somewhere in Ngoye Forest.”
Matthews was facilitating a shoot for the BBC’s Gardeners’ World hosted by horticulturalist and award-winning TV presenter Nick Bailey.
He wrapped up shooting with the couple late in the morning on February 8 at the top of Oliviershoek Pass.
“Around 11.30am they left us heading towards Vryheid and Bivane Dam via Harrismith,” he said.
Although Bailey has remained silent about the couple and their kidnapping, a February 8 post on his Twitter account showed one of the last photographs of the kidnap victims.
Of his time spent plant hunting with them in the Drakensberg, Bailey tweeted: “The amazing Rod and Rachel Saunders of Silverhill Seeds.
“These guys know their South African native plants and vitally where to find them.
“They sell an incredible range of seeds online.”
Matthews, however, reveals that during the morning of February 9, Rachel Saunders sent him a WhatsApp photo of a rare gladiolus the couple had found at Bivane Dam.
That was the last he heard from them, but noted that according to his phone, Rachel was last on WhatsApp on February 13 at 10:47pm.
“Either she was on WhatsApp or whoever kidnapped Rod and Rachel was on her phone,” he said.