With guns drawn, the Somali gunmen asked the two women whether they were Muslims or pagans. One of the women, Sister Maria Teresa Olivero, realising the gravity of the question replied: “We are people who love people in the name of God.”
That answer may have made the difference between life and death.
But they had no idea that they would be in captivity for more than 100 days in one of the most dangerous places in the world today – Somali capital, Mogadishu.
When Christmas passed and then their birthdays – November 19 and February 2 – the nuns knew this was the ultimate test of their faith in God.
Italian nuns Maria Olivero, 60, and Caterina Giraudo, 68, had been abducted from their home at the North Eastern provincial border town of El Wak on November 10, 2008.
Raise the alarm
“We were asleep when we heard some noises. There were lights flashing on our windows. We were in separate rooms... when we went to the windows to check, we saw eight men in the compound.”
Then gun shots started going off. “They were shooting at the front door,” says Sr Caterina whose room was closest to the door. “I tried to raise the alarm when the shooting started.”
It is a manual alarm that is set off by pulling at a lever. But as soon as the door flew open, she stopped bothering and ran to hide behind the cupboard.
The men got inside the house and went from room to room looking for the occupants. When they found the nuns, they dragged them outside and started running off with them.
They ran across El Wak, from one end of the town to the other. There were several cars waiting for them at the end of the town. They got in one of them with tinted windows. It was here that the men who had raided El Wak that night regrouped. There were about 30 of them.
“Our journey in the bush lasted five days,” says Sr Caterina. The most difficult thing on their 132-hour travel to Mogadishu was the lack of water. “We remained in our pyjamas the entire time we were on the road. We didn’t even have shoes on. At least Maria Teresa had a shoe but I had lost both of mine!” Sr Caterina says.
“But the young men were really kind to us. They would lend us their shoes every time we had to go into the bush to relieve ourselves!” chips in Sr Maria Teresa.
Her colleague picks up from there: “We never went without food. They cooked pasta! We ate at least two times a day.”
It helped that Sr Caterina could speak some Somali. She has lived in the North Eastern for 35 years – 10 in Mandera and 25 in El Wak. Sr Maria Teresa had lived in Nairobi’s Mathare Valley since 1972.
On their way to Mogadishu, the gunmen had told them not to worry that they would be back in Kenya soon.
“They said all they needed was money – and as soon as they got what they wanted, we’d go back home.”
The men admitted to being members of the Al Shabaab Islam militant group. They explained to the nuns that they were strict Muslims and that they respected women.
They did not touch them, but the nuns had to remain fully covered – like Muslim women – once they got to Mogadishu.
The nuns only knew of their planned release two hours before it happened.
“They told us that we would be leaving for Nairobi,” says Sr Caterina, both their eyes getting watery. “It was the young men who helped us dress and completely cover up so no one would know who we were…” she says. It had been exactly 102 days.
The nuns do not know the details of their release nor of how much money was paid.
Before parting ways I ask if they will be returning to El Wak soon. “It’s not possible to do that now… We have to go back home first to Italy. Our families are waiting for us.
”But will you be coming back to Kenya? “Oh yes, we are Kenyans!”