Two freed peacekeepers described how they survived 107 days held by kidnappers without shelter in remote mountains in Sudan’s Darfur region.
Pamela Ncube from Zimbabwe and Patrick Winful from Nigeria, looking frail but cheerful, received an emotional welcome at Khartoum airport a day after they were freed in Darfur.
The civilian workers for Darfur’s joint UN/African Union UNAMID peacekeeping force were abducted at gunpoint from their base in the west Darfur town of Zalingei in August in one of a new wave of kidnappings.
“There was no shelter at all. We were under the sun, under the moon,” Winful told Reuters at the airport.
Winful said they were treated “quite well” by their captors but exposed to harsh conditions in Darfur’s central Jabel Marra Mountains.
“We were in the mountains throughout. There was the harmattan (a dust storm). There were the rains.”
The UNAMID security officer said they worked hard to keep each other cheerful. “Without that we wouldn’t have made it out. We just took a day at a time.”
Both said they were too exhausted to talk longer and thanked Sudan’s government for keeping up pressure on their captors. They were given medical checks at the airport.
“I feel great. I give glory to God,” said Ncube, a member of UNAMID’s child protection team.
West Darfur’s national security chief Ahmed Altayeb Abugroon told Reuters the kidnapping was carried out by bandits linked to rebel groups in the area.
“We negotiated through the families of the kidnappers and other channels. Yesterday, thanks to God, we persuaded them to release the captives.”
Abugroon said the peacekeepers were set free about 13km (8 miles) outside Zalingei and walked until they were picked up by local authorities.
Government authorities earlier said the captors had demanded a ransom but none was paid.
UNAMID officials at the airport said Ncube and Winful told them they had survived on assida, a porridge made from ground millet and birds caught in the area.
“They were moved all the time, always in the valley of the mountains. They lived outside under trees … They were sick with stomach problems,” said UNAMID spokesperson Noureddine Mezni.
“The local administration played an important role. They were negotiating until the last minute.” The peacekeepers, he said, “were both very brave”.
Gunmen have abducted at least 14 foreigners in Darfur and just over its border in neighbouring Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR) since March.
Two officers for the International Committee of the Red Cross, abducted in Darfur and Chad, and two workers for the French aid group Triangle, seized in CAR, remain in captivity.
The Darfur conflict surged in 2003 when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against Khartoum, accusing it of neglect.