Italian hostage liberated, and the melodrama against her begins

Posted: 05/11/2020 by editormary in Activists and Activism, Europe, Human Rights, Religion

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Written by Mary Rizzo

Silvia Romano is a young Italian humanitarian volunteer who was kidnapped by criminals in Kenya, passed on to terrorists in Somalia and, thankfully, liberated, through the coordinated work of the Italian, Somalian and Turkish secret services, whose efforts brought an end to eighteen bitter months of captivity. Once again, Italians can be grateful that our government has been successful in such a risky mission and, at least in some cases, the intelligence services work in the shadows so that innocent prisoners are returned to the safety of their homes and the love of their families without recourse to blitzes that do not ensure their safety.

Only Silvia knows what she endured in those long, terrible months of captivity, and only time, distance and a great deal of psychological support will be able to allow her to build her life as a free woman once again. Italians got to know this woman through photographs of her before her abduction, dressed in a tank top or donning a Masai costume, with a wide smile and often surrounded by African orphans, who were the beneficiaries of her humanitarian efforts. The first hours of acritical joy at the liberation of this woman were quickly replaced with the typical Italian population response of scorn and derision that is reserved for the victims of these crimes. As she descended from the plane that brought her to her country after her rescue, her attire was commented on, with the press continually stating it was “Islamic dress”.

Many of us watched that descent, a small, yet energetic woman, who waved at the press with the wide smile we came to know and love, but clothed in a large green integral veil that covered her entire body with the exception of part of her legs, where we saw the Somalian dress that it is claimed she had worn for the past year and a half. We were in tears, awe and very moved by her walk on the tarmac, toward her parents and sister, and we also were “treated” to witnessing the long embrace with her family. Soon, though, if one follows the media reaction, the principle question emerges, “did she convert to Islam?”. The response to this omnipresent question in comment sections under every kind of article was by and large negative, angry and hostile. We see a renewed playing out of that typically Italian drama that happens at the release of every hostage. There is the idea that “we paid while she played”, which is a disgusting script adopted for almost all of the female hostages, because often, they were not protected by a company or were not working for a newspaper or government, but ventured into difficult situations as humanitarian volunteers for NGOs who “could have stayed home and saved us the money”.

Rather than adopt a position that seeks to understand the complicated and fragile position of a person who had been deprived of her freedom for a year and a half, the Italian people are quick to condemn and judge. They refuse to consider that this woman will undergo a new and different kind of prison, that of being a public person against her will and who is subject to constant criticism and vile attacks. Why does the Italian public ignore that reality that this person will have to travel on a road back to freedom and serenity that will be long, difficult and at times full of depression, regret, anger, fear and a dual and contradictory need to resume a normal life, but to seek an escape from the pressures of life as a freed captive in Italy, where her every move, thought and emotion will be scrutinised and condemned. Never mind that every single Italian is reaffirmed that they will be protected to some extent if something terrible should happen to them overseas. They will not be abandoned to their fate. Every Italian enjoys the guarantee that the Italian government will work to free hostages, and this effort will not be denied to anyone, including any of the lions of the keyboard or their loved ones. Criticising the government for upholding a duty to protect its citizens overseas is always counterproductive and small-minded.

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But, if Silvia had descended from the ramp of that plane dressed in the blue tank top we were used to seeing her in, this criticism toward the government, which immediately morphed into criticism of the victim of the crime and her family, “let THEM pay the ransom!” may never have been so loud. It’s always painful to read the commentary that follows one of these liberations. The petty and resentful nature of the Italians that claim to be speaking for the common man shines brightly through them. Some comments were borderline absurd, “We have been forced for two months to not be able to embrace our relatives and here she is holding her mother tightly! How unfair”. No, that was not ironic, and yes, the commenter used the word “congiunti”, here translated as relatives, which has been the subject of much discussion as it was the mysterious word the Prime Minister used to define which persons could be visited at the first loosening up of the lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic. Other comments were vicious and cruel, claiming she was in cahoots with the criminals, and it was all a trick so that she could get the terrorists money so that they could commit horrible acts in Europe and she was returning to Italy only to give birth in our hospitals, as her body under that veil was scrutinised shamelessly. Perhaps that veil was intended to protect her, as it may have done for such a long period of captivity, but here in Italy, it has put her on the defendant’s stand.

Again, Italian public opinion, upon the release of hostages, always tends toward the vicious and nasty when a young woman is concerned and where the crimes committed against her take place in a country where Islam is the dominant or state religion, particularly if there are terrorist organisations in those countries who define themselves as Islamist. In the eyes of these critics, she must be condemned because she committed some cardinal sins: she didn’t “thank the Italian people”, “she went into a dangerous place unprepared and we are paying for her adventure”, and “she did not condemn the criminals”. Not only did she claim that she was throughout her captivity she treated without violence, but she admitted that she had converted to Islam.

The mass media, quick to pick up on the anger and gossip mood of a people that has become even more provincial after three months of navel-gazing during a lockdown where the rest of the world barely existed and our own return to normality is a huge worry and a massive problem for millions who have not seen the governmental support required to ensure not only a future of work in the long-term, but survival in the short-term, as they are undergoing difficulties in paying their bills and purchasing food, jumped on the “Conversion to Islam” angle. From the more detached and objective outlets to the most reactionary or conservative, all the titles of the news focused on that aspect.

That Silvia had decided to answer the question of her conversion is one thing, that it has been rendered public is totally another. In addition to this statement, the papers have disclosed that she said she was always treated well by those who held her captive, that she was not subjected to violence or forced into marriage or forced to convert, but that she had asked for a copy of the Qu’ran, was taught some Arabic and decided without constraint to convert. Was the press violating a pact of confidentiality by revealing these words that were made to investigators, in a place, evidently that was microphoned for the press? Isn’t the investigation to find and subject the criminals to legal procedures ongoing? Shouldn’t any statements made to the investigators be strictly confidential, particularly if they have the capacity of instigating public outrage and anger?

“If she was not subjected to violence, why did she need a ransom paid or a State flight to take her back to Italy?” Yes, this is a legitimate question for someone to ask, but it also reveals a lack of comprehension of what a person who is a victim of this kind of trauma and violence might be able to say or how he or she is able to process such awful events. I know several victims of kidnapping and persons who were taken hostage, but I also know humanitarian volunteers and workers who were abducted by foreign governments and imprisoned and subjected to torture, physical and psychological violence. They are well aware that their freedom was robbed from them, that their families had to undergo periods of terrible anguish and dread. They have experienced situations of such unique and painful separation and fear for their very survival, that they have had to learn a new way of survival in a situation where they may not know if they will see another day. It is not whitewashing criminals to speak of relative good treatment, favours granted or even to never speak at all of the violence or to need years to process the experience and even talk about it at all. They have to learn ways of protecting their own sanity and also protecting those whom they love who do not physically share the prison with them, but are also imprisoned by the criminal acts.

Persons who have undergone these experiences may also decide to not reveal the worst to those who love them the most, to spare them the sorrow and pain. It is a logical and quite natural thing to keep bad things from those you love, to prevent them suffering any more than they have to. To state that her captors used no violence against her may not mean that they were wonderful people with whom she identifies. There may not be any Stockholm Syndrome going on, but a coping approach that either spares the loved ones’ knowledge of the violence beyond that terrible crime of holding a person against their will and denying them their human rights. Silvia was aware of the loss of freedom that millions of persons in Africa and elsewhere are subject to, as her university thesis was on human trafficking. Before her captivity, she must have been familiar with the mechanisms, where the prisoner relinquishes their freedoms and ceases to fight in order to be able to survive until a moment arrives for their release or escape. They have to bear with the situation in order to survive and see a future that will restore their human rights to them. Whatever Silvia had undergone during that lengthy captivity, she had the strength to know and apply the survival mechanisms and to be able to make it through until the joyful moment of her reunification with her family and loved ones.

Was her conversion a free choice? Is anything a free choice under captivity? That is a question will can and will ask ourselves, but she should be neither condemned for it nor praised for it, as I have seen in, for instance, an article in the Naples edition of La Repubblica, where an Imam says that since there is no constriction in Islam, her conversion was entirely her own choice and should be respected. There are certainly many who celebrate this as a wonderful outcome of a horrible situation. Whatever her choices are, for belief, for survival, for conviction, or even to study the only book that she would have been allowed access to under the terrorist group Al Shabaab, these choices should and must be respected and understood as belonging to a person in an extreme situation and in a condition of imprisonment. Since the conversion has been rendered public, that doesn’t mean that it has to be accepted as a wonderful thing or condemned as a terrible thing. All of those kinds of responses are irresponsible and damaging to this person who is fragile and will require time and effort to come back to freedom. Italians should be more understanding of this, as we too have been deprived of our freedoms due an event out of our control, just as the abduction of Silvia was out of her control.

Hopefully, full light will be brought on the perpetrators of this crime and all the crimes committed against the freedom of individuals, and the criminals will be tried and punished to the full extent of the law. That is where energies and efforts are needed, in addition to creating more security for the people in the places where there is suffering, poverty and war, as well as for those humanitarians whose mission it is to bring them comfort, aid and support. Right now, we should feel joy at the liberation of such a decent human being. Life offers so few opportunities to feel pure joy, and this is one of them. Bentornata a casa, Silvia!

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