Nearly 40 South Africans kidnapped, jailed, missing or presumed dead in foreign countries
Following the escape of South African photographer Shiraaz Mohamed from his Syrian captors last week, Gift of the Givers has highlighted that there are nearly 40 South Africans who remain missing, are presumed dead or have been jailed or kidnapped in foreign countries.
Gift of the Givers founder Imtiaz Sooliman on Wednesday gave a breakdown of some of these cases.
He said about 15 or 16 South Africans are trapped in a camp called Al-hal in Syria. "These are mostly women and children who are trapped there and cannot be brought back home because they entered what is regarded as an Isis area, so getting out has been a problem.
"They went to Syria years ago believing they would get a better life, but they didn't know of the situation there. Over the years, their husbands or male relatives have died," said Sooliman, adding that the SA government is attempting to bring them home.
In the Syrian capital Damascus, one woman and her six children - the youngest of whom is two years old - have been missing since December 2017.
"There are so many stories coming from their disappearance. Some people say they were sold for their organs; others say they are being kept in a jail - but so far they have not made any contact with their families," he said.
In Oman, Sooliman said, there is one woman believed to be held captive. "Her brother was accused of murder and he has since left the country. They have held her, accusing her of being an accessory to the crime because they say she knew of his plans to leave," he said.
In Iraq, a South African woman and her three children have been reported missing. "They crossed the border from Syria in Iraq in January 2019 and all contact with them has been lost since then," he said.
In the UAE, three South Africans remain behind bars after being arrested for their business dealings.
In Vietnam, two South African men, in their 20s, have been missing since May.
Another person of interest who remains in captivity is Gerco van Deventer, who is in Mali.
“He was taken in Libya. He was moved to Mali and is in the hands of the captives. They have just sent us a video last week, but that video was old - it was from October 2018. We told them we can’t use it. They have sent us a letter which we sent to his wife, who confirmed it is his handwriting … The captors sent us a message saying he is sick,” said Sooliman.
Van Deventer's captors are demanding $1.5m (about R22m) for his release.
Also kidnapped in Mali is Christo Bothma.
“I know the family finds it hard to accept, but in our minds Christo Bothma has passed on in Mali ... He was also taken hostage,” said Sooliman.
“When the captors tell us that a person is dead in their own words, it is like that. What makes it more possible is they have not asked for any more ransom for him. We are not negotiating for Christo. We are only negotiating for Gerco.”
TimesLIVE reported in September that Bothma's wife Amanda would not accept that he had died until she had seen his body.
Mohamed, who is believed to have fled from his captors last week, was kidnapped in Syria in January 2017.
In May, TimesLIVE reported on a video of Mohamed in captivity, in which he made a plea to Sooliman to rescue him. In the 59-second video, Mohamed said: “To my family, to my president, my government, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman … You sent me here, but now you have forgotten about me. I can't understand. You help the whole world, but not me … I need your help. Please get me out of here."
As questions have been raised as to why the Gift of the Givers did not ensure that he was released and brought home safely, the organisation has clarified that the photographer was not on a mission for them when he was kidnapped and detained in Syria almost three years ago
“I didn’t know Shiraaz was going to Syria. I don’t even know Shiraaz. I’d never met him,” Sooliman told the SABC on Wednesday following news that Mohamed had escaped from his captors last week and was now in the hands of Turkish authorities.
“I just got news that he was there. I was wondering why Shiraaz was there, and why did he go? People said at the beginning that he was on a Gift of the Givers mission, but there was no Gift of the Givers mission - the mission was over a few years before that.”
Sooliman said the only link that Muhamed had with Gift of the Givers at the time was through one of their volunteers, who apparently facilitated his entry into Syria.
After entering the country, Muhamed "went to the Gift of the Givers hospital because it is a South African landmark. Through the hospital, he went to the camps that Gift of the Givers is running. He was very visible in the three or four days before he got captured,” he said.
Sooliman stressed that when his team went on missions to dangerous places like Syria, they seldom allowed the media to go with them. He said they don't allow this, “except if we have taken all the precautions and made all the arrangements".
"So Shiraaz, I just heard he was there … He had good intentions to tell of the suffering of people, but I would have never allowed him to go,” said Sooliman, adding that he had stopped other journalists from going to Syria in the past.