By Timothy Appleby, Globe and Mail, July 2, 2012
Aid workers like Steve Dennis know the risks they are taking when venturing into one of the most volatile regions of the world.
But nothing could prepare him for the events that unfolded this weekend.
On Monday, Mr. Dennis and three other kidnapped foreign-aid workers, including fellow Canadian Qurat-Ul-Ain Sadazai, were rescued in Somalia. The four aid workers are believed to be recuperating in Nairobi, and have made no decision about returning to work, a spokesman for their employer, the Norwegian Refugee Council, said.
In a 2009 op-ed piece he penned for The Globe and Mail, Mr. Dennis, 37, grappled with the challenges all aid workers face when confronted with abductions and violence.
“The troubles of the world will continue, and my contribution is to be engaged in bringing life-saving aid to individuals in desperate need,” he wrote. “I accept a degree of personal risk, because I can’t accept standing aside in the face of another person’s suffering.”
Monday’s rescue was not just a victory for the humanitarian assistance so desperately needed in the war-ravaged Horn of Africa. It was also, perhaps, a small sign of the times.
Since late last year, the fanatical Islamist militia believed responsible for the abduction at gunpoint of the four volunteers, the much-feared al-Shabab network, has sustained an erosion of popular support and a string of defeats in firefights.
Now, the freeing of their captives looks to be among the losses.
Traumatized but safe and in good spirits, the quartet were kidnapped in Kenya’s biggest refugee camp Friday and freed Monday after a dramatic pursuit into Somalia and a gun battle that saw one of the kidnappers shot dead as the other three fled.
Mr. Dennis of Richmond Hill, Ont., and Ms. Sadazai, 38, of Gatineau, Que., were assisting displaced Somalis in Dadaab, a chain of sprawling refugee camps 100 kilometres north of Nairobi, when they and two other foreign volunteers from Norway and the Philippines were kidnapped.
Stung by cross-border raids and pressured by the international scourge of Somali piracy, the Kenyan government and its allies have since October been mounting a fierce counteroffensive in support of the fragile Somali government of President Sheik Sharif Ahmed ,which al-Shabab seeks to dislodge.
And among the Kenyan government’s key allies is a militia, dominated by one of the region’s most powerful clans, the Ogaden, that took a key role in Monday’s rescue. Supported and trained by the Kenyan military, the Ras Kamboni group takes its name from a former Shabab stronghold on the Kenya-Somalia border.
Although the militia comprises only 300 to 400 members, its leader, Ahmed Madobe, has evolved into a significant player in the seemingly endless Somali conflict, said a Somali-Canadian journalist who has long tracked the travails of his homeland.
“He gets money from Ethiopia, he gets money from Kenya and he gets the collaboration of the Somali government,” said the journalist requesting that for safety considerations he be identified by his given name, Mohammed.
Al-Shabab did not claim responsibility for the failed kidnapping, but suspicion immediately fell on the heavily armed militia, which has long held sway in much of Somalia and beyond.
The NRC identified the four as Mr. Dennis; Ms. Sadazai, a Canadian of Pakistani origin with long experience in both her homeland and east Africa; Astrid Sehl of Norway, 33; and Glenn Coses, 40, of the Philippines.
“They’re all doing quite well considering the circumstances,” said Christian Jepson, the NRC spokesman in Nairobi, who has spoken to the four rescued aid workers but declined to say where they were staying. “They are in a safe place in Kenya.”
The four were kidnapped in Dadaab when they and three Kenyans travelling in a three-car convoy were attacked by a party of four gunmen who fatally shot one of the drivers and wounded the other two Kenyans.
One of the vehicles, carrying NRC Secretary-General Elisabeth Rasmusson sped away.
The four remaining captives were then driven away away in one of the vehicles, heading north toward Somalia, but the car was abandoned and the kidnappers and their prisoners crossed the unmarked border on foot.
The captors had only nut-based rations for the aid-workers. Mr. Dennis, who is allergic to peanuts, had to subsist on a meagre allocation of chocolate.
The journey was particularly arduous for Mr. Coses, who sustained a light bullet wound during the abduction.
In pursuit, however, were members of the Kenyan military together with another Somali militia, the pro-government group called Ras Kamboni, and they caught up with the kidnappers about 60 kilometres inside the Somali border, at a small village named Alu Gulay.
A gun battle ensued, and Ahmed Madobe, Ras Kamboni’s leader, told the Associated Press that his men killed one of the four kidnappers but that the other three escaped.
From the nearby town of Dhobley, another liberated al-Shabab redoubt now under Kenyan control, the four freed workers were then flown by military helicopter to Nairobi.
“We are happy, we are back, we are alive and we are happy this has ended,” a jubilant Mr. Sadazai was quoted as saying upon arriving in the Kenyan capital.
None of the four are ready to answer questions about their ordeal, said Eril Abild, NRC’s media co-ordinator in Oslo.
“The experience has been quite traumatic.”
Friday’s abduction at Dadaab, home to roughly 500,000 Somalis who have fled chaos in their homeland, was not the first of its kind.
Two Spanish women working for Doctors Without Borders were grabbed there in October and are still believed held by al-Shabab, an affiliate to al-Qaeda that over the past year has carried out numerous attacks on the shaky Somali government based in Mogadishu, the capital.
Since then, some aid workers at Dadaab have begun deploying bodyguards. In this instance, the four aid workers had planned to to hire armed guards but that the arrangement was cancelled at the last minute, on grounds that the extra security would attract attention.
Anti-Kenya hostility by al-Shabab has mounted since Kenya’s decision last year to send troops to Somalia to help hunt down the militia.
Ras Kamboni has been part of that effort, working alongside the Somali government, the Kenyan military and troops deployed by the African Union.
Canadian officials voiced relief at Monday’s rescue and said the High Commission in Nairobi would be providing support for the two rescued Canadians.
The elation, however, was diluted by the death of the Kenyan driver killed by the abductors, and the two others wounded.
“It is good news,” said Mr. Jepson, the NRC spokesman. “But we also have to remember we lost a colleague.”
Whether Mr. Dennis and Mr. Sadazai go back to Dadaab is moot, Mr. Jepson said.
“Not at this point, they will need some time to decide what they do next.”
With a long-time reputation for efficiency, the NRC is a well-known name in the field of refugee assistance, deploying 3,000 staff spread across 20 or so of the world’s neediest regions.
Ms. Sadazai is the NRC’s deputy regional director for the Horn of Africa, a post she has held since February. When the kidnapping took place, she was visiting the Dadaab refugee camp, along with other NRC officials.
Mr. Dennis joined the NRC last year, after a spell with Doctors Without Borders, and other humanitarian agencies.
"I accept a degree of personal risk because I can't accept standing aside in the face of another person's suffering." (from above, by Mr. Dennis)
Should the motivation of people like Mr. Dennis, and his colleagues erode in the face of attacks like the one these workers have endured, not only will the Islamic militant terrorists have won another battle on the ground, where the suffering is horrific, but more aid workers will question their commitment to help those in dire need, like the half-million refugees in the camp where these workers helped.
Once again, it appears that the scourge of Islamic radicals has reared its ugly head, arms (both physical and military) and threatened the lives of courageous aid workers, in a refugee camp of the most needy human beings on the planet.
Will there be others of similar courage, conviction and commitment to consider joining in the fight to preserve the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of refugees in the Horn of Africa?