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Kidnapped Bruno and Debbie finally tell their story

by Times Live/Sail-World on 15 Jul 2012
Bruno and Debbie welcome home .. .
Then the yacht Choizil was hijacked on the African coast in October 2010, skipper Peter Eldridge eventually escaped and told his story. His crew members, Bruno Pelizzari and Deborah Calitz, then spent 20 months in the hands of Somali pirates. Now they are free and telling their own story. It's a sobering read, hopefully a deterrent to those cruising sailors still contemplating sailing anywhere into pirate waters.

The trio were three days away from home in Dar es Salaam on October 25 when Calitz spotted what she believed were whales.

'Bruno was asleep,' she told Times Live this week. 'Peter was on duty. I saw what I thought looked like three whales crashing their tails. When they came closer, I realised they were three speed boats. Peter said it was pirates. I quickly told Bruno to get up,' Calitz said.

By the time Pelizzari came up to the deck a group of pirates was already on board.

'The leader aimed a bazooka at us. Five other guys came on board. They looked like they were taking some sort of drug. This is just an assumption, but they weren't normal and they were also full of fear,' Calitz said.

Eight days later they anchored at Serpenti Island in Somalia where they were given camel's milk to drink. Locals seemed oblivious to their predicament despite the guns.

The three were separated the next day. Calitz found herself in the middle of 'an audience of men, and a woman with her young child'.

'They said they were going to slit my throat in front of all these people so I started talking about light and love. I told my interrogator that we all had a choice in life. We could either choose love or darkness. He didn't know what to do with me because when he tried to speak to me, I was talking about other things. He finally gave up and went and sat somewhere else,' Calitz said.

But Pelizzari was not so lucky.

He was beaten , kicked and made to stand on a roof under the hot sun with his hands on his head.

'One pointed a rifle at me and fired. You could actually hear the empty chamber click. There were no bullets. He did this several times,' Pelizzari said.

When the three were reunited, Eldridge told Calitz of his plan.

'He said, to save us, he had agreed to take the pirates onto his boat. He would sink the boat with them and him aboard. He was willing to die. I told him he didn't have to do that and not to feel guilty about us being in this situation.'

The three boarded and after days of sailing with the pirates the yacht docked again.

'They told us to get off. That is when Peter said he was staying with his boat. You could see he had made peace with himself. He was ready to die,' Pelizzari said.

'We climbed off and as we turned, I saw a gun aimed at Peter and three shots were fired. That was the last time we saw Peter. We thought he was dead or wounded,' Pelizzari said.

An EU warship rescued Eldridge. He arrived in South Africa a few days later.

In the months that followed their kidnapping, the couple were moved to several houses - all of which were next to schools to ensure that would-be rescuers would not attempt to bomb the location.

Their captors were frequently changed. The couple had malaria for a year but were given medication. Always locked in a room with one window, the couple were regularly beaten and always hungry.

But Pelizzari believes the psychological torture was 'far worse than the beatings and whippings'.

'They messed around with the pots all evening. You could smell the food and you could hear that they were doing it on purpose. Then they would push the food to us at 11pm. We were eating in the dark not knowing what we were eating. They would make sounds as if they were spitting in our food before giving it to us.

'It was mind games. They were trained to do these things. They were always instructed by someone higher up. But we knew that when we got out we would be free. It used to console us. We thought that one day we will be free but these poor people will have to stay here and eat the same food, day after day,' Pelizzari said.

THE couple did not believe a guard when he told them on June 20 that they would be going home. That night, they were bundled into a car and taken into the middle of a desert.

'We thought something had gone wrong. We were blindfolded and moved into the boot of a smaller car. We thought they were going to kill us and bury us in the desert. The car drove for about 10m. We were then taken out and put into another car.

'The guy in the car told us to take off our blindfolds. He said he was a good guy and that we were leaving the bad guys behind,' Calitz said.

Even after speaking to an Italian official on a cellphone, Pelizzari did not believe they were free.

'I thought that this was just another gang. Only when we arrived in Mogadishu and were on a private jet flying to Rome did I realise that we had been freed.'

They did not know if a ransom had been paid. Still contemplating continuing their retirement dream of sailing around the world, the couple will travel to Dar es Salaam, where they had been living, to sell their yacht.

'This has made us stronger people. We don't hate our kidnappers. In a way, they are victims themselves,' Calitz said.

Generous words, after 20 months in captivity.

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