MOMBASA, Kenya – Alicia Kalhammer and Jose Tena came to Kenya for a month of sun and safaris. What they got was a three-day ordeal that ended Saturday when they were released from the police station where they were held on suspicion of taking part in the twin attacks on Israeli tourists.
Shepherded out of the police station in this Indian Ocean port by American and Spanish diplomats, the casually dressed young couple's relief was obvious. Thoughts quickly turned to practical matters -- "we have a rental car that's been sitting here for three days, so we're paying for it and we want to either use or get rid of it," said Kalhammer, 31, of Tallahassee, Fla.
Kalhammer and Tena, her husband, arrived in Kenya on Nov. 6. Before heading to the coast and checking into a beachfront room at the Le Soleil Beach Club on Nov. 26, they took a 10-day safari to the parched northwestern region of the East African country and spent time with a friend in the capital, Nairobi.
They were picked up by plainclothes Kenyan police when they tried to check out of the Le Soleil shortly after hearing news of a suicide bombing at the nearby Paradise Hotel on Thursday morning. The attack on the hotel, popular with Israelis, killed 10 Kenyans and three Israelis, as well as the three bombers.
The Le Soleil was also popular with Israelis. Fearing another attack, "we decided because we had a rental (car) we would leave," Kalhammer said. They didn't know where they would go.
They told the front desk they planned to check out and began packing. But the hotel manager had been told by police to call them if any guests tried to leave and to keep them at the hotel until authorities arrived.
The couple managed to check out, but they were taken away by police as they were leaving the hotel.
"When they first took us, we tried to ask questions -- 'are you taking us for our safety or are you taking us because we're in trouble?'," Kalhammer recalled. "They said 'this is not the time to ask questions, you talk to our boss.'"
An hour later, they were sitting on chairs behind the front desk of a police station at Mombasa cargo port. The couple would spend the night on those chairs before being moved to a cell.
"The first day I was quite afraid, just because we had no idea why were being detained," said Kalhammer, who lived in Kenya between 1976 and 1981 when her father was an auditor with U.S. Agency for International Development. "I have lived a foreign service life, I've lived overseas, I know what can happen ... and you always think the worst."
By the second day, a friend in Nairobi had managed to contact them and alert U.S. officials about their predicament. Soon after, U.S. investigators arrived to check on them — "when calvary arrived, I cried," she said, referring to the Americans.
They were interrogated three times by Kenyan police. During the first two they were only asked who they were, what they did for a living and who their parents were. She didn't have a chance to discuss the third round before being whisked away.
Low-ranking police and workers at the station made their ordeal a bit more bearable.
"These guys have been really amazing, they were helping us, saying things like 'it's not such a big deal' and 'you should be released,'" she said. "So we were among people who made us feel like this isn't someplace where you're going to get hurt."
And what of a return trip to Kenya?
"Absolutely, it's a beautiful country!" she said. "If they let us back in."