'We went through some very dark hours, but we prayed and thought of our families'

 

THREE MONTHS, two weeks and one day. That is how long Sharon Commins and her colleague Hilda Kawuki spent in captivity, living and sleeping in the open air amid the dust and searing heat of Darfur, the guns of their kidnappers never far from sight.

For someone who had endured many of those 107 days fearing for her life, Sharon Commins was remarkably calm and collected yesterday as she gave her first interview to The Irish Timesjust hours after her release. “It feels just unbelievable. It’s like as if the past 3½ months have been like a dream. There was not one day that we weren’t fearful and extremely stressed, and it’s an amazing, amazing feeling to be finally free,” she said.

There had been no signals that a release was imminent. “There was no indication at all, so when they told us we were going to be freed we just raised our eyes to heaven and said yeah, whatever, because they had on numerous occasions joked about it before – so at that point we didn’t trust anything they said.”

When it finally became apparent she and Hilda were about to be released in the early hours of Sunday, Sharon said her first thoughts were of her parents and two brothers waiting for news at the family home in Clontarf in Dublin. “I was thinking, my God, I can’t wait to speak to my family. I haven’t spoken to them properly since we got abducted, apart from a two-minute phone conversation last month. And I thought of all my friends. So much was going through my mind . . . It was really exciting.”

The two women have received medical attention since their release, but Sharon said both are in good health, given the circumstances. “We’re both extremely tired. We haven’t slept in ages. We’re living on adrenalin at the moment.”

Sharon (32) and Hilda (42) were abducted at gunpoint after armed men stormed their compound in the north Darfur town of Kutum on July 3rd last. The two women worked for Irish aid agency Goal.

Sharon recalled days of fear and despondency, but said her friendship with Hilda, a nutritionist from Uganda, strengthened her resolve. “It was extremely, extremely difficult for both of us. We were constantly fearing for our lives, especially in the initial stages when there were constant threats and intimidation. We weren’t sure at all if we were going to get out alive in those first months. After a while we became more hopeful, but there were mood swings because you would be paralysed with fear over what was going to happen next.

“We went through some very, very dark hours, but we prayed and thought of our families. When one of us was in really bad form the other would try to be more upbeat. We took that in turns. We just knew that there was no way our families and governments would allow this to continue.”

The women were moved around different mountain areas in Darfur where they slept out in the open and were given strictly rationed food and water supplies.

“We lived outside the whole time,” Sharon explained. “We had no tent, so we were sleeping on a canvas with a blanket. We would use the blanket during the day to shade us away from the sun because it was extremely hot in the mountains.”

The kidnappers were men in their mid-40s and their only motive was money, Sharon says. At first, she and Hilda wondered who their captors were, and whether they were involved with any of the rebel groups or militias.

“They had no political agenda,” she said. “It was purely about money, that’s all they wanted, and that’s all they cared about. They would talk about nothing but money. They were extremely poor people trying to make a quick buck.”