Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 10 July 2014

Kidnap victim Sharon Commins: I will never go back to Darfur

Home: Sharon Commins, the Irish foreign aid worker who was seized with a Ugandan aid worker at gunpoint more than three months ago

Freed aid worker Sharon Commins says she will never return to Darfur after her three-month kidnap ordeal.

Ms Commins -- who arrived back in the Republic on an Irish government jet to emotional scenes late last night -- spoke of her relief at finally being reunited with her family.



Despite her harrowing ordeal, the brave 32-year-old was in high spirits yesterday as she looked back on her 106 days in captivity. The GOAL worker spoke openly about the treatment she endured at the hands of her kidnappers.



She told how her captors -- former members of a nomadic 'Janjaweed' militia:



  • consisted of a group of 15 to 18 heavily armed mercenaries who watched over them on a roster system.
  • carried out fake executions, firing bullets into the ground around the hostages.
  • took away her glasses, which meant she had to be led around by fellow kidnap victim Hilda Kawuki.
  • subjected the women to a "lot of suffering".
  • forced her to sleep outdoors as she was moved between mountainous areas in one of the most dangerous regions in the world.

"There were several lows. There was a lot of suffering and extreme negativity. Both of us spent our birthdays there," Ms Commins told the Irish Independent. "There was a lot of intimidation in the first few days. I kept my distance from them. They had no English and my Arabic is very poor."



But it was Ms Commins' deepening bond with fellow GOAL worker Ms Kawuki that helped her to overcome the gruelling conditions and constant state of fear.



She said that as they shielded themselves from the 40C mountain-top heat during their ordeal, it was a series of "girly chats" that kept the pair's spirits from flagging.





The two women were sitting down to watch TV on their day off on July 3 when three armed gunmen dashed into the sitting room of the charity's compound in Kutum, north Darfur.



The women were bundled into the boot of a car and driven for three hours to the first of four areas where they would be held captive for over three months.



The pair then suffered the most ferocious abuse during the first days and weeks of their abduction.



Frequent fake executions kept them in a constant state of terror. Ms Commins said they were forced to kneel as their captors shot around them into the dirt.



During the three-and-a-half-months in captivity, they were moved between mountainous areas and slept outdoors on canvas mats with just a blanket to keep them warm.



Through the day, the blanket doubled as a shield from the searing heat of the sun.



It was during these long and empty periods that the bond between the two women, who were already close colleagues, truly solidified. "We are tough cookies, both of us. Hilda's Arabic is stronger and I relied on her language. They took my glasses. I am quite short-sighted and I relied on her, particularly on nights when we were being led through mountainous terrain," Ms Commins said.



The women went from a busy aid office in which they worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, to a stifling hive of activity where they were constantly watched over by the gunmen.



But as both had travelled extensively, they chatted, gossiped and told stories from around the world to fill the time, thankful that each of them was a "big talker".



Despite their determination, the two women suffered extremely low periods.



They "celebrated" their birthdays in captivity and had to live with the constant fear of assault and even death.



Ms Commins hinted that the pair were subjected to physical violence, but she did not want to speak about any individual incidents.



"Their policy was not to hit us because we are women. That was the aim but, as with all policies, there were different people who adhere more closely to policies than others," she said.



"There were mock assassinations on a few occasions, so it was extremely scary and we were always anxious and stressed and upset until the minute we got out."



The mock executions eventually stopped, but the kidnappers replaced these with new terror tactics and by threatening to cut off the women's supply of already rationed food and water.



Amid the constant fear and intimidation came one major high point -- on day 70 -- when Ms Commins was allowed to ring her mother, Agatha, at the family's home in Clontarf, Co Dublin. "It was good to know that there was the collective activity going on at home," Ms Commins said.



The abduction of the two women -- the longest in the history of Sudan -- was punctuated by false dawns that they would be freed. Both women were sceptical when they were told over the weekend that they were going to be released. "When we were eventually on the road and we realised it was for real, we were overjoyed, but still very concerned about what was happening," Ms Commins said.





"The moment I knew we were free was when we got into a familiar car and there were no guns and people said: 'welcome home, you girls did well, welcome home'. That was it."



Ms Commins' overjoyed family were yesterday busy making preparations for her return. Her mother said the family home would have an "open door" for the next two months to welcome her daughter home.



Meanwhile, Sharon Commins says that her priority now is to rest, meet up with friends and "kick back" until after Christmas, when she aims to return to work.



She is determined to continue working in the humanitarian-aid sector, but admits that she has no intention of returning to the scene of her kidnap ordeal. "I think my family will have something to say about that (going back to Darfur).



"However, I will not let the issue change my view of the people here (in Sudan). There has been a huge outpouring of grief from such lovely people."

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