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Wednesday 21 November 2018

Phone rings at 4am to bring 106-day nightmare to an end

Shane Hickey

AFTER so many false dawns and crushed hopes, the call they had been hoping for finally came.

At 4am yesterday morning, a ringing telephone shattered the silence in Mark and Agatha Commins' home -- but unlike the first call telling them that their daughter had been kidnapped, Sudan's humanitarian affairs minister, Abdel-Baqi al-Jailani, brought the news they had been praying for.

After 106 days in captivity, Sharon had been released. She was alive and well and was finally coming home.

As a mixture of relief and delight swept over the couple, Mrs Commins immediately started sending texts to family and friends.

Within minutes, their two sons, Derek and Martin, had arrived at the family home in Clontarf, north Dublin.

"He said 'your daughter is released'. We were overjoyed. It was a highly emotional call," Mrs Commins told the Irish Independent.

Shortly afterwards an exhausted but "ecstatic and thrilled" Sharon rang her mother.

"She was asking how are we and how are the boys. She was saying she can't wait to go home," said Mrs Commins. "She certainly sounds healthy, the Sudanese government were taking her for medical checks."

Meanwhile, in Uganda, Ann Kawuki received a similar call from her daughter Hilda, who had been held captive alongside Sharon.

"She told me 'this is Hilda calling, we have been released'. She didn't sound bad, she was in high spirits. She said that they hadn't had any sleep and they were very tired," said Ms Kawuki.

The Commins family described yesterday how they have been in an "unbelievable dark period" in their lives since July 3 when they were contacted by chief executive John O'Shea who told them their daughter had been kidnapped.

Since then, they have had to suffer through five false dawns, when they understood her release was imminent.

"On one occasion on the August [bank holiday] weekend, we were told it was just a matter of hours away, that there is a plane and a helicopter standing by," Mark Commins said yesterday. "After all those calls, it is very hard to come back again but we did."

Every day since Sharon was kidnapped, Mark and Agatha would be joined by their two sons at 5.30pm in anticipation of a daily update from the Department of Foreign Affairs on the progress of the negotiations which were taking place to secure the 32-year-old's release.

In Sudan, two teams of officials from the department had been working on the ground, headed up by the Irish ambassador to Egypt, Gerry Corr.

Officials remained largely silent about the negotiations, careful not to upset the delicate talks. John O'Shea, one of the most outspoken commentators in the country, also retained an uncharacteristic reserve.

The kidnappers were believed to be members of a nomadic tribe from North Darfur who were demanding a ransom. The governments were quick to point out that they would refuse to pay.

Rumours abounded that there may be a resolution at the end of the holy month of Ramadan on September 19, but this passed without incident.

In the meantime, stories were circulated and dismissed that Sharon had married one of her kidnappers.

As the days passed, Mrs Commins refused to let herself think that her daughter had been killed and was reassured by Sharon's colleague from GOAL, who had worked in Sudan.

"The images that I pulled up in my head weren't always nice images and I had to keep pulling myself away from there.

"We had to keep being reassured by the Sudanese government that she was ok. We didn't doubt that Sharon wasn't ok but conjuring up the image of where she was living was difficult," Mrs Commins said.

At the beginning of September, the kidnappers agreed to allow Sharon to ring home. At that time she she said was "desperately sorry" for the trouble caused by the kidnapping on her family and that they would "all would go on holiday together" when she was released.

"When she is stressed, she always planned a holiday," said Mrs Commins yesterday.

In the meantime, the Commins family had made contact with a sister of Hilda Kawuki, with texts bouncing between them about the status of the negotiations.

As the 100-day milestone into the abduction passed, people were asked to pray for the two women in what had become the longest-running abduction of foreign aid workers ever to take place in Darfur.

However, it was after this marking point that things appeared to progress rapidly. Gerry Corr travelled to Khartoum last week to speak to tribal elders, escalating the seriousness of the negotiations in the eyes of the locals.

Finally, a breakthrough came in the late hours of Saturday night when Department of Foreign Affairs officials got word that a major movement was expected in the case, followed shortly after by the good news that she was out.

Yesterday morning, Mark and Agatha welcomed a steady stream of guests and well-wishers to their home on Mount Prospect Avenue, all the time fielding calls and texts by over-joyed friends and family.

Just before going to Mass, Mrs Commins said plans for the return of her daughter were still up in the air but "there will be a lot of parties".

"Sharon has a large circle of friends and our own friends, this house will have an open door between now and Christmas," she said.

Meanwhile, Sharon's future will definitely not involve a return to Sudan, according to her mother. "I got the feeling from her that this will be the end, that she won't be going back," said Mrs Commins.

Irish Independent

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