‘Durban should have had us first’

2012-07-09 00:00

AS the arrival doors at Durban’s King Shaka International Airport closed behind him, Bruno Pelizzari took into his arms the grandson he had never seen.

Then followed a shower of hugs and kisses and whoops of joy from family and friends as they swarmed Pelizzari (53) and Debbie Calitz (50), the South African couple held hostage by Somali pirates since October 26, 2010.

Ushered upstairs to the VIP lounge for a quick media conference on Saturday night, Pelizzari bent and kissed the floor.

“Durban should have had us first,” he rasped, his voice still gravelly from illness. Pelizzari and Calitz were finally home where they belonged.

Behind them lay the trauma of 20 months spent in a Somali “hell”, their lives contingent on ever-changing million-dollar ransoms.

Their release on June 21 was secured thanks to the diplomatic efforts of the Italian and transitional Somali governments.

Pelizzari has dual South African-Italian citizenship and the European country is a former colonial master of Somalia.

The couple spent the first two weeks of their freedom in Italy and Pretoria, catching up with loved ones, receiving medical attention and debriefing authorities.

Back in Durban and squeezed onto a leather sofa, the pair was happy to engage with all their supporters.

And despite their punishing ordeal, they spoke without a shred of anger — even when asked how they felt about their captors.

Pelizzari described them as “children” who couldn’t be faulted for following orders from their criminal bosses.

But he added piracy had to end. “What they are doing is not right. It’s no good, life is precious.”

The first words from Calitz were to thank the South African public for keeping their plight alive.

“Without your prayers, I don’t think we would have made it,” she said.

Together they told how they spent their days in darkened rooms, forbidden from communicating and subjected to psychological torture and death threats.

They were allowed to go to the toilet once a day, for no more than two minutes. Calitz provided a lighter moment, remarking: “Bruno’s job was to fill the water bowl. It was my job to clean the toilet. Women get those jobs.”

They were fed once a day, mostly just rice, which was thrown or kicked into their room in a bowl.

On the few occasions when it seemed like they may be released, they got fattened up with soup, bread rolls and fruit.

Otherwise they were treated like “infidels”, said Pelizzari. “You are an animal [to them].”

About every two months their captors phoned South Africa to press home their demands. It also meant a brief moment to connect with family, something Calitz said they cherished because “we knew they knew that we were alive”.

She wore the same dress until it fell apart, at which point she was finally given a change of clothes.

In a magazine interview published last week, Calitz said she had been raped, a subject she refused to elaborate on in a subsequent press story.

Pelizzari summed up their anguish. “You’re given a sentence for no reason, with death row hanging over your head all the time.”

Still, they never gave up hope, believing there was no room to feel sorry for themselves. Both agreed they had grown stronger physically and mentally.

With rest and relaxation beckoning, the couple said they would use the time to begin writing a book.

Last week, it was Calitz who enjoyed tearful reunions with her four daughters and two grandchildren born while she was in captivity.

This time it was Pelizzari’s turn. His 21-month-old grandson Calvin, seeing granddad for the first time, sat perched on his knee.

Four of Pelizzari’s five sisters, Patti Kelroe-Cook, Vera Hecht, Nora Wright and Dora Hunt, with all their families, gathered round him. The siblings’ mother Francesca Pelizzari (83) clasped her son’s arm and beamed. And never far away were Pelizzari’s own two sons, Frans (27) and Jeff (24).

Both boys revealed their own torment not knowing if their father would ever return.

“When I heard he had been captured, I burst into tears,” said Jeff, who was working in Newcastle at the time.

Agreeing that precious family time now lay ahead, Frans said: “I’m overjoyed.”

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