Monday 22 October 2018

I will never return, vows Sharon as she flies home

Shane Hickey

FREED aid worker Sharon Commins was embraced in a wave of love when she returned to the arms of her family early today.

Amid laughter and tears the GOAL worker said: “It’s a bit like a dream that I dreamt so often on top of that mountain of getting back down. I hope I don’t wake up on top of that mountain again,” she joked.

Last night the Commins family finally had their daughter Sharon back in their arms after 106 days in captivity in Sudan and they simply couldn’t contain their joy.

The Government jet touched down at 11.53pm and a member of ground staff sprinted forward and handed a coat to one of the flight crew.

It was Sharon’s overcoat, brought by her mother Agatha from her bedroom in Clontarf so she could have some protection from the bitter cold.

And then her family engulfed her in a bear hug.

Snatches of laughter could be heard drifting across the runway as Agatha held her daughter’s face in her hands.

“It’s a bit like a dream,” said Sharon.

Asked what she wanted most, she said: “ Champagne, eggs Benedict and a bed that doesn’t smell like onions.”

And to sleep “for more than three minutes at a time”.

Scant details of her ordeal have already emerged, including mock executions, where the women were forced to kneel on the ground and shots were fired around them.

She also hinted that she and fellow victim – Ugandan Kawuki – were subjected to physical violence, but did not want to speak about individual incidents.

That was pushed aside early today as the family reunited for the first time.

Her parents Mark and Agatha, her brothers Derek, and his wife Aishling, and Martin with his girlfriend Aine, engulfed Sharon as she emerged from the jet onto the floodlit runway.

The family then disappeared into a building for some private time before emerging for a short press conference 10 minutes later.

Sharon said there were some “very dark minutes” but they dispelled them as soon as they could. She said they were “predominantly” treated well.

They slept outdoors with just a blanket for shelter. They were exposed to the searing sun and had little water.

“Their policy was to treat us well and they stuck to that for the most part,” she said.

She did not know that they were set to be released until 15 minutes before they were put into a car and driven away.

Her parents thanked everyone for their support – and Agatha warned she is not letting her only daughter out of their sight.

“We’re just so thrilled. We’re going to hold on very tight to her. I think Khartoum won’t be seeing Sharon anymore,” she laughed.

The family thanked the press for “responsible media” and Sharon added that the kidnappers had been monitoring the media and she had feared reports could compromise them. But for now she is planning to rest.

“I’m going to go up to a bed that isn’t on a rock,” she said when asked what she is most looking forward to.

“And I have a pillow that’s not dirty a sack that used to be round onions and smells of onions and I’m going to know that I’m safe.

“And I’m going to try and sleep for longer than three minutes at a time. And I’m going to wake up fresh and go for breakfast in the morning somewhere nice.”

“We’ll treat her to that,” her father joked.

Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin thanked the Irish army and the Sudanese government for helping secure Sharon’s release.

“It was an example of public service at it’s best,” he added.

He also asked people to pray for two Unimed aid workers who were kidnapped in Darfur on August 31.

The Commins family also asked people to pray for the family of Fr Sinnott who had been kidnapped in the Phillipines.

“We know what his family is going through,” added Mark.

Sharon said that she does not plan to return to Darfur.

“But what doesn’t break you makes you stronger,” she added.

Earlier in an interview with the Irish Independent, Sharon spoke of her 106-day nightmare.

She told how her captors -- former members of a nomadic 'Janjaweed' militia:

  • consisted of a group of 15 to 18 heavily armed mercenaries who watched over them on a roster system.

  • carried out fake executions, firing bullets into the ground around the hostages.

  • took away her glasses, which meant she had to be led around by fellow kidnap victim Hilda Kawuki.

  • subjected the women to a "lot of suffering".

  • forced her to sleep outdoors as she was moved between mountainous areas in one of the most dangerous regions in the world.

  • "There were several lows. There was a lot of suffering and extreme negativity. Both of us spent our birthdays there," Ms Commins told the Irish Independent. "There was a lot of intimidation in the first few days. I kept my distance from them. They had no English and my Arabic is very poor."

    But it was Ms Commins' deepening bond with fellow GOAL worker Ms Kawuki that helped her to overcome the gruelling conditions and constant state of fear.

    She said that as they shielded themselves from the 40C mountain-top heat during their ordeal, it was a series of "girly chats" that kept the pair's spirits from flagging.


    The two women were sitting down to watch TV on their day off on July 3 when three armed gunmen dashed into the sitting room of the charity's compound in Kutum, north Darfur.

    The women were bundled into the boot of a car and driven for three hours to the first of four areas where they would be held captive for over three months.

    The pair then suffered the most ferocious abuse during the first days and weeks of their abduction.

    Frequent fake executions kept them in a constant state of terror. Ms Commins said they were forced to kneel as their captors shot around them into the dirt.

    During the three-and-a-half-months in captivity, they were moved between mountainous areas and slept outdoors on canvas mats with just a blanket to keep them warm.

    Through the day, the blanket doubled as a shield from the searing heat of the sun.

    Irish Independent

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