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November 2009

Kidnap Victim Sharon Finally Home

Ms Commins at Khartoum airport with Sudanís minister for humanitarian affairs, Abdel-Baqi al-Jailani
Ms Commins at Khartoum airport

When Sharon Commins returned to Ireland last month after over 100 days being held hostage in Sudan, there were scenes of relief and joy. The GOAL worker, who was held by members of a nomadic tribe along with Ugandan colleague Hilda Kawuki, was abducted from a compound in northern Darfur in July.

The kidnapping of Commins and Kawuki was the longest-running foreign hostage situation ever to occur in Darfur, and was the first time that a GOAL worker had been abducted and held hostage since the foundation of the Irish charity in 1977. The organisation currently works in a number of African states, including Niger, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi, Zimbabwe and of course Sudan.

Commins and Kawuki will receive the Hugh OíFlaherty International Humanitarian Award in Killarney, County Kerry, on 7 November 2009. Though this brings an air of closure to the saga, the experience will perhaps change the way that aid agencies work in volatile regions.

The manner of the abduction and the subsequent involvement of the governments of Sudan, Ireland, and Uganda raised questions about the security of foreign aid workers in Africa and Sudan in particular. The pair experienced mock executions and a severe lack of food and water while in captivity, as well as being held outdoors and regularly being transported between locations.

Non-governmental organisations such as GOAL attract workers who know that they could be entering unstable situations, and all parties who helped in securing the release of Commins and Kawuki are now making efforts to make sure that such a scenario does not occur again.

Irish ambassador to Egypt, Gerry Corr, who was involved in the release negotiations, stated it was crucial that aid workers felt able to operate in Darfur without fear of kidnapping, robbery or other crimes, given the war-torn regionís massive humanitarian needs.

"It is important that perpetrators of crimes like this be found so that banditry, hijackings and kidnappings stop," he said. "I think the central point is that this really must not happen again." Minister for Foreign Affairs MicheŠl Martin added that the kidnappings had put the broader humanitarian effort in the region at risk. "Kidnappings of this kind have a very difficult and traumatic impact on those who are kidnapped but also have a wider impact on the entire humanitarian effort in Darfur," he said.

GOALís continued involvement in Darfur was already in jeopardy before the kidnapping after Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, ordered all foreign aid groups to leave the country within a year last March. Bashir had already expelled 13 large aid agencies from northern Sudan, accusing them of assisting the International Criminal Court (ICC), which issued an arrest warrant against him for war crimes in Darfur on March 4. The organisations carried out about half the relief work in Darfur, where 4.7 million people receive aid.

The political situation and the continued warrant for Bashirís arrest makes policy decisions difficult for non-governmental organisations. There has been no official statement from GOAL regarding any potential change of policy to its operations in Darfur at the time of writing. Ms Commins has vowed never to return to Darfur, and it appears that GOAL will have to alter its operations on the ground in Sudan in the wake of her ordeal.

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