Life, etc

Review: 20 Months in Hostage Hell (or What Drove Debbie Calitz to Drugs)

By Simon Allison 1 February 2013

No spoiler alerts needed: we all know the story of Debbie Calitz and Bruno Pelizarri, the two South African sailors who were caught and held hostage by Somali pirates. They were eventually released, but not before 20 brutal months in captivity. In this book, Calitz describes what the pair went through. It’s compelling, frightening reading. By SIMON ALLISON.

Debbie Calitz and her partner Bruno Pelizzari are on their yacht in the Indian Ocean, and you’ve never seen a more hapless pair of sailors. They didn’t have enough money to install the latest version of their navigation software, so they keep scraping up on unexpected sandbanks. They don’t bother locking up the yacht when they go to frolic with the friendly natives on some remote island, and are astonished when they return and find all their stuff is gone. And they quite obviously have no idea of the political, religious, social or economic conditions through which they are sailing.

They just want to fulfil their long-held dream of going to India, where they are going to find their inner-selves and commune with the oneness of the earth, or some such thing.

Spiritualism plays an unexpectedly large role in Debbie’s story. “Can’t people see that we are all connected by an invisible thread that flows through each one of us and the whole of life surrounding us?” she asks, before having yet another conversation with a passing school of fish.

Eventually, the pair rock up in Tanzania with just R70 between them, and beg a job off the harbourmaster, who is gracious enough to let them work off their docking fees by helping out in the yacht club’s catering section. After a year hanging around Dar es Salaam, doing various odds and ends, they get an offer they can’t refuse: a fellow South African mariner, Peter Eldridge, needs crew to take his own yacht home. He’ll pay them, and fly them back up to Tanzania afterwards. This gives them just the time and money they need to say goodbye to their complicated families, fix up the boat and head off, finally, for that spiritual awakening in India.

That’s the plan anyway. Just three days after they set sail in Peter’s yacht comes the moment us readers have all been waiting for: they are boarded by pirates. Debbie and Bruno were taken hostage, while Peter manages to escape after a few days simply by refusing to leave his ship, very fortunately avoiding the gunfire aimed (poorly) in his direction.

Even as the situation gets serious, there is a strange, jokey quality to the book and, I suspect, to Debbie’s experience. This is just another adventure and it will make a great story just as soon as those pesky pirates realise they don’t have any money (they really don’t have any money) and let them go. Debbie’s maternal instincts even kick in, and she treats one pirate’s wounds and gives him some pain medication – unfortunately, it’s penicillin rather than Panado and the allergic pirate swells up like a balloon, not endearing Debbie to the gang. There goes the hapless sailor again.

But as the severity of their plight sinks in, the book gets darker and more compelling. Debbie, channelled through ghost-writer Ulrike Hill, takes a matter of fact tone as she describes their forced march through Somali scrubland, the Spartan cells they are restricted to, and the constant movement between safe houses. Some of the pirates are friendly, and will talk to them; some are violent and mean. They are fed haphazardly, rarely allowed to wash themselves and never allowed outside. They are both subjected to horrific violations of dignity; for Debbie, these are all too often sexual in nature. She is raped once, a trauma which she relates with unflinching honesty.

It is these passages that make the book worth reading. We regularly hear and read about hostages and pirates in the news, and it can be difficult to understand what this actually means for the people involved. Well, this is what it means, and it’s not pretty.

What the book fails to deliver on is the details of how Debbie and Bruno’s release was secured. There were plenty of calls between the pirates and the families in South Africa, and Debbie praises the Department of International Relations and Cooperation for its assistance. In the end, no ransom was paid and a friendly Somali negotiator took it on himself to rescue the couple. At least that’s what we could piece together – perhaps deliberately so, the book is very vague on the mechanics of this operation and how it came to pass.

So don’t buy this book if you want to further your geopolitical understanding, or understand how to conduct a hostage rescue. Don’t buy this book if you’re looking for high literature; it came out in print just months after Debbie and Bruno returned home, and the rush is evident in the stilted prose.

But if it’s a human story you want – a story of two South Africans in an extreme, dangerous and unpredictable situation – then this is the book for you. If you prefer, think of buying it as a humanitarian gesture, for Debbie’s not completely out of the woods yet. She might be home, but she’s still in trouble, this time with the long arm of the South African law, which bust her and eight others (including two of her children) with dagga and magic mushrooms at a party last year. She appeared in court this week, asking the unimpressed judge for more time because she’d had to let her lawyer go. Why? Because she couldn’t afford one. If a few more of you buy this book, maybe that will change.

Although if I was her, I’d try the compassionate defence.

“Did you, Ms Calitz, smoke dagga and munch magic mushrooms at the party in question?”

“Why yes, Your Honour, I did. After 20 Months in Hostage Hell, I think I deserve it.” And, after reading her book, so do we. DM

20 Months in Hostage Hell by Debbie Calitz is published by Penguin Books and available in most bookshops.

Photo: Released South African hostages Bruno Pelizzari (R) and Debbie Calitz (L) are seen after their release in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, June 21, 2012. REUTERS/Feisal Omar, and Calitz’s book cover.

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