JOHANNESBURG – A South African woman and her Italian partner were handcuffed throughout the nearly two years they were held by Somali pirates, who fed them little but rice, pasta and bread, the now-freed couple said Wednesday after arriving in South Africa.
Deborah Calitz and Bruno Pelizzari, captured in late 2010 from a yacht off the coast of Tanzania, spoke to reporters at an emotional Johannesburg airport news conference. They were freed in Somalia last week and stopped in Italy to see Pelizzari's family before coming to South Africa, where friends and relatives draped in yellow ribbon printed with the word "believe" greeted them at the airport with tears, hugs and flowers.
"We were treated like untouchables" in Somalia, Calitz said. "We were treated worse than animals at times."
The two were held captive 20 months, among the longest periods hostages have been held by Somali pirates.
Relatives have said the two were sailing on a budget after buying a used yacht several years ago to pursue a dream of traveling the world's seas. At the time they were kidnapped, they were working for another South African yachtsman to earn money for a visit home.
The pirates originally demanded a ransom of $10 million, which relatives had said they could not pay. Their relatives in South Africa sought donations and organized concert fundraisers, and said the pirates kept changing their demand.
"Thank you for not giving up on us," a tearful Calitz told her friends and relatives Wednesday. She also thanked the governments of South Africa, Somalia and Italy.
"We're home! We're safe! And we're happy!" she said.
Calitz said Wednesday the couple did not know whether a ransom was paid. Last week, Somalia's defense minister said Somali security forces helped secure the release. He did not describe it as a rescue, but would not say if a ransom was paid. Most such cases end with payment of multi-million dollar ransoms, which security experts say only inspires more hostage-taking.
South Africa's foreign minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who met the couple at the airport Wednesday, told reporters the hostage-taking could only end once stability was brought to Somalia. Somalia has been beset by decades of civil war, and its last fully functioning government collapsed in 1991, allowing piracy and other crime to flourish. In more recent years, Al Qaeda-linked militants have gained a foothold in the Horn of Africa nation.
Pelizzari echoed the South African foreign minister's calls for peace.
"We've created a rainbow nation in South Africa," he said, referring to the negotiated, peaceful end to white racist rule here. "We've got to do the same for the world."