Debbie Calitz and her partner Bruno Pelizzari have arrived home in South Africa after being held hostage by Somali pirates for 20 months. They were released last week after being captured in October 2010.
The pair arrived at Oliver R Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg yesterday. During an emotional press conference Calitz told journalists that, “Some of the conditions weren’t very humane. We were treated like untouchables, we were treated worse than animals at times.
“We weren’t fed very well and we were handcuffed permanently, all the time, 24 hours. We weren’t allowed to bathe much. Luxuries, we weren’t allowed luxuries which meant no soap. We had one and a half litres of water a day between us, that was for the toilet as well. It was just terrible,” Calitz said. “It’s not right to do this to people.”
“We are home, we are safe, we are happy and there is lots of reuniting to be done,” said Calitz.
Last Thursday Somali authorities said the couple was freed during an overnight joint raid by security forces and the army. “It was between the Somali government and the Italian government, they were the ones that worked together to help us, to be rescued. We were rescued, as far as we know, we were kept in the dark so we don’t know very much,” Calitz said.
“It’s going to take four lifetimes to repay everybody,” said Pelizzari, who holds dual South African and Italian citizenship. The couple were first flown to Rome via Djibouti in order to give evidence against the pirates.
A dozen armed pirates hijacked the pair’s yacht, the Choizil, on October 26, 2010, as it was about to enter the Mozambique Channel south of the Tanzanian port city of Dar es Salaam. It was on route from Dar es Salaam to Richards Bay, captained by Peter Eldridge, with Pelizzari and Calitz as crew.
In November the yacht arrived in Somalia and Pelizzari and Calitz were taken ashore, but Eldridge refused to leave the vessel and was subsequently rescued by the European Union anti-piracy taskforce.
South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said the three governments (Italy, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government and South Africa) had worked together in what was a “very very difficult mission”.
“The three governments that have been working together with our agencies for the past 20 odd months would have loved to bring you back home safe earlier,” she told the pair. “But what is far much more important for us is that you are both home safe and sound and that no-one is going to take this freedom away from you.”
Department of International Relations and Co-operation spokesman Nelson Kgwete said the South African government had not paid a ransom.
Somali pirates preying on merchant vessels and private yachts in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden raked in more than US$150 million in ransoms last year.
According to the International Maritime Bureau, as of June 18, there have been 163 attacks against ships around the world this year, and 18 successful hijackings. Somali pirates have been responsible for 63 attacks and 12 hijackings. They are currently holding a dozen vessels and 178 hostages.
The number of prisoners taken by pirates fell to 555 in 2011 from 645 in 2010, according to a report by the US-based One Earth Future foundation and International Maritime Bureau, but Somali pirates are becoming increasingly violent and were responsible for at least 35 hostage deaths in 2011.
Eight were known to have been killed by their captors either during their initial capture or were executed later, with another eight dying of malnutrition or disease. The remainder were killed either during rescue attempts by military forces or while trying to escape.
While solid data on previous years is limited, the total of 35 is seen as by far the highest number of piracy-related fatalities in a single year.
“We know these figures are almost certainly an underestimate,” project manager Kaija Hurlburt told Reuters. “A lot of the ships now being taken are regional dhows that are often never reported. They might have 12 to 20 people aboard each time.”
Despite a major naval effort by several nations, hundreds of young Somalis engage in piracy every year in the hope of ransoms that can run to millions of dollars.
With some ship owners apparently simply abandoning their vessels and crews, particularly the smaller more vulnerable craft, crews have found themselves held for ever longer periods.
As more and more merchant ships carry armed guards, foreign navies take tougher action and some ship owners prove unable or unwilling to pay up, some believe piracy itself is getting harder – and that is being taken out on those in captivity.
At least 149 hostages had now been held for more than a year, the report said, with 26 held for more than two years. Many of those released reported abuse including beatings, removal of fingernails and dumping in the sea.
More than 40 percent said that at some stage they had been used as human shields, often when pirates sailed captured vessels back out to sea to act as mother ships for new attacks. Most hostages were from developing countries, particularly the Philippines, India and China as well as Gulf and African states.
The level of violence being used was also increasing, the report said. In 2011, more than 3 800 personnel were aboard ships that were attacked by pirates with firearms in what were often prolonged and brutal assaults.
Casualties among the pirates were also almost certainly on the rise, with reports of at least 111 killed in 2011, some 70 percent in clashes with increasingly aggressive naval forces.