Clementina Cantoni, a Friend in Trouble

EDITOR'S NOTE: Italian aid worker Clementina Cantoni was freed Thursday by the kidnappers who had been holding her hostage for more than three weeks in Afghanistan. Khorshied Samad, a close friend of Cantoni, wrote this column for one day earlier.


By Khorshied Samad

OTTAWA, Canada — It has been more than three weeks since my friend, Clementina Cantoni (search), was abducted by armed assailants in Kabul, Afghanistan. Since that time there has been a flurry of media coverage, daily protests by Afghan widows and children in the streets of Kabul, and candlelight vigils held both in Rome and Milan, her hometown.

Pope Benedict XVI (search) called for her release in his sermon from Saint Peter’s Square last Sunday, saying, "I add my appeal to that of the presidents of Italy and Afghanistan, and of the Italian and Afghan people, to release the Italian aid worker Clementina Cantoni."

Clementina’s mother made an emotional appeal to the parents of the abductors, asking them to urge their sons to release her daughter.

"I beg you all — to use all your influence on your sons for the immediate release of my daughter," Germana Cantoni said in an open e-mail on Sunday.

On Monday night in Kabul, as Clementina's ordeal stretched into its third week, Afghan authorities and CARE International (search) lit a beacon on the hills above the capital to keep her in the public eye.

There have been countless press conferences from the Afghan Ministry of Interior and the Italian Foreign Ministry at which both have expressed hope for her safe release, or at times great frustration at the negotiation process with those who kidnapped Clementina on May 16. Afghan officials say they were able to speak with her once to confirm that she was alive and in good health, after media rumors circulated that she had been killed.

Nothing hit home harder than a video the criminals released on May 29 that showed Clementina wrapped in a heavy shawl, on her knees, pale and drawn, with two gunmen, heads disguised, pointing Kalashnikovs (search) at her head. They had her speak on camera, confirming her name, the names of her family, and the date. It was terrifying and horrible to see her this way, but at least she was still alive, and her eyes showed strength and courage.

When I called her mother in Milan, she told me, “At least Clementina didn’t look so bad considering her situation; she looked strong, though thin and weak.” We agreed that she spoke clearly with determination under the most gruesome of circumstances. However, the days have now stretched into weeks, and everyone close to Clementina is wondering why this process is taking so long.

The security situation in Afghanistan has worsened over the last couple of months since the warmer weather has melted the deep snows. The harsh winter kept the Taliban and insurgency in hibernation, but now springtime has coaxed them out of their caves and from across border sanctuaries to wreak havoc on the Afghan people and internationals alike. They have threatened to step up their violent tactics against foreigners and Afghans who work with or support the government of President Hamid Karzai (search) and the international community in their country.

Though reconstruction efforts are slowly starting to become evident all over Afghanistan, many Afghans have not seen the relief they expected at this point, nor have they benefited in their daily lives from the millions of dollars of aid that has poured into this nation. Most of the money has filtered through multiple U.N. agencies and NGOs, and has been spent on rebuilding the infrastructure of the struggling Afghan government.

After nearly 23 years of destruction and political upheaval brought on by the Soviet occupation, foreign interference, civil war, and the Taliban regime, it will undoubtedly take several years to see the results of reconstruction and renewal efforts. But, the Afghan people’s frustration is understandable: They have survived more injustices than most other countries in the world, and they now long for peace, stability and prosperity.

So, you may ask, why did they kidnap Clementina Cantoni? What do they hope to achieve? There is confusion about the kidnappers’ motivation and demands. There is uncertainty whether the kidnapping is politically motivated, a criminal act for ransom, or even a personal grudge against foreigners who seem to be benefiting financially in this impoverished country.

Clementina’s abductors did not realize when they smashed in the windows of her vehicle and dragged her into their car that they had kidnapped a young woman who has lived and worked in Afghanistan for over three years, who has diligently tried to help thousands of Afghan widows and children to make a better life for themselves, and who really loves the Afghan people and their country.

She had several chances to leave Afghanistan before, but she had agreed to extend her contract with CARE International until June 7. Karzai recently called her “the daughter of Afghanistan,” and pleaded with her abductors to set her free. The reaction by the Afghan people themselves against her heinous abduction has been overwhelming and emotional.

It is easy in today’s world to become jaded or cynical about these situations that are occurring so far away, in troubled spots on the planet where most people would not venture. It is easy to remove ourselves from the context, blurring so many faces together of so many victims of these gruesome crimes. But, we must remind ourselves that these situations are happening, sadly, all over the world right now, and Clementina is trapped in a living hell.

The solution lies in remaining vigilant and staying the course in places like Afghanistan, until the country’s institutions and economic foundation are rebuilt within a secure environment.

Clementina deserves our attention, our prayers, and our fervent hopes that she will not become yet another innocent victim of a meaningless crime. She had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, she is a person of goodness who deserves much better.

Khorshied Samad was a Kabul-based reporter for Fox News. She is the wife of the Afghan Ambassador to Canada.