Meeting with tribal elders was key development

 

ANALYSIS:AS WITH most kidnapping cases, the precise circumstances that led to the release of Irish aid worker Sharon Commins and her Ugandan colleague Hilda Kawuki will probably never be known, writes MARY FITZGERALD

The Sudanese government is adamant no money changed hands. “To my knowledge, there was no money paid,” the country’s minister for humanitarian affairs Abdul Bagi al-Jailani told me.

“The government stated in black and white from the beginning that no money should be handed over. That would only encourage malpractice.”

From the outset, Jailani has taken responsibility for the case, overseeing negotiations for the women’s release and acting as the Irish Government’s main point of contact in Sudan. He has also been in regular phone contact with the Commins family.

Jailani traces the genesis of yesterday’s breakthrough back to a trip he, along with Irish Ambassador Gerry Corr and his Ugandan counterpart, took to

El Fasher, a town which serves as the main hub for north Darfur, earlier this month. There they met 10 tribal elders from the area where the women were abducted.

Darfur erupted into violence in 2003, when rebels complaining of marginalisation took up arms against the government. Riven by ethnic and tribal rivalries, Darfur has since played host to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises with the conflict claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. Shifting alliances among rebel groups together with those who pledge an often tenuous allegiance to Khartoum make for a political environment that is as volatile as it is opaque.

But the Sudanese government swiftly established in July that those responsible for the Goal kidnapping were not from a rebel faction. Instead, they were members of a nomadic tribe who were demanding a ransom.

Jailani says the meeting in El Fasher was noteworthy because the tribal elders condemned the kidnapping and told the delegation that they would employ what Jailani calls “social isolation” to pressure those responsible to release the women.

“We succeeded in mobilising all the people in the area,” the minister said. “I think the pressure from their families and their chiefs was the main factor in convincing these people they had to let the women go.”

Yesterday’s release brings to a close the longest-running abduction of foreign aid workers ever to take place in Darfur. Though humanitarian personnel in the region have been subjected to robbery, carjackings, beatings and even rape, no kidnappings had taken place before March, when four Médecins Sans Frontières staff were seized, only to be released three days later.

Several Government departments were involved in the situation, with the Department of Foreign Affairs leading an effort that also included input from the Army and the Garda.

Ireland has maintained a constant presence of diplomats and negotiators in Khartoum since July, including Gerry Corr, who as Ambassador to Egypt also has responsibility for Sudan.

Attention in Sudan will now turn to the fate of the men who abducted and held the women for almost four months. Jailani does not mince his words. “We are keen to bring them to justice and punish them.”