Militants released Samaritan's Purse aid worker Flavia Wagner Monday, but conditions in the Darfur region of Sudan where she was abducted continue to be "highly insecure," according to one aid specialist.
Even as Wagner, who was kidnapped in South Darfur more than three months ago, arrived Monday morning at the airport in Nyala, the regional capital, three members of a Russian helicopter crew were abducted from the same area while traveling in a minibus. Since the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, hostage taking directed at foreign aid workers in South Darfur has increased, as has the activity of the UN-African Union (UNAMID) peacekeeping force that patrols the region. In July the ICC added genocide to Bashir's charges, and he has since ordered some relief groups and specific aid workers to leave the region.
But Samaritan's Purse vice president Ken Isaacs told me the Sudanese government in Khartoum "was instrumental" in securing Wagner's release: "We are grateful to them for the help and also grateful to the U.S. government. There was a lot that went on behind the scenes."
Isaacs said he was part of a team from the North Carolina-based relief organization that worked "full time" for her release in Darfur over the last six weeks. Wagner was traveling as part of a 10-person team doing educational assessments in South Darfur when eight armed men stopped her two-vehicle convoy on May 18. The gunmen kidnapped her and two other Samaritan's Purse workers, both Sudanese; a week later the militants released the two Sudanese.
Wagner's kidnappers, who originally demanded a ransom, told Reuters they released her to the South Darfur authorities without being paid any money. Officials at Samaritan's Purse also confirmed that they did not pay a ransom for her release.
Wagner, 35, a California native who worked as a development officer for Mercy Corps before joining Samaritan's Purse, has been the only American female captured and held alone in Darfur. But she was "physically strong" despite her captivity, said Isaacs shortly after her release. Upon arriving later Monday in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, Wagner told reporters that her kidnappers at first treated her well but had begun to threaten her in recent weeks. Conditions also became desperate, as her captors forced her to sleep under a tarpaulin in heavy rain with 20 armed men, and to drink only camel's milk.
Not too long ago, South Darfur's Nyala was a showpiece for the government of Sudan-a place where officials of the Islamic regime could demonstrate to journalists and other outsiders that the conflict in Darfur was neither as devastating nor deadly as human rights monitors depicted. When I visited Nyala in 2006, the airport where Wagner was released (and only miles away from where she was kidnapped) was newly renovated and its runway recently extended. I saw recently paved highways, a new water system, and a new hospital-all within range of primitive camps for the displaced and dying. The development supposedly signified that the Khartoum government could bring peace and development to the region. But in Darfur, more than 300,000 have died and perhaps as many as 3 million have been displaced since fighting began there in 2003, resulting in one of the world's worst humanitarian crises and a conflict the ICC and others have said has been supported and financed by the Khartoum government.
The kidnapped Russian helicopter crew was carrying UN-sponsored food and other supplies to the displaced in Darfur. It was the second abduction this month: Gunmen captured two Jordanian police advisers with UNAMID on Aug. 14 but released them several days later. In July another Russian helicopter pilot was taken prisoner after landing in Nyala but was freed four days later.