Mohammed Abdel Azim, a tour leader kidnapped along with a group of European tourists, gives a graphic account of the captives' 10-day ordeal.
'I thought this was the end'
CAIRO // For the eight Egyptian drivers and guides held hostage with 11 European tourists, relief came only after they had been told to expect to die. Enraged by news that six accomplices had been killed in an ambush by Sudanese forces, some of the kidnappers were in the mood for revenge. In a graphic account of the captives' 10-day ordeal, Mohammed Abdel Azim, one of the leaders of the tour group, said: "The kidnappers separated us, the Egyptians, from the tourists, pointing machine guns at our heads. Some of them were shouting that we would pay the price for the killing of their colleagues. I thought this was the end." The kidnappers had just heard about the attack on their fellow gang members, who had left on a sortie to check the roads and possibly to meet German negotiators. "I knelt on the floor, reciting verses from the Quran, and I couldn't believe my ears when one of them shouted, 'No. We're not killers. Go, just go'," said Mr Azim, 34, sitting in his small flat in Al Haram district of Giza, in Cairo, on Tuesday, one day after the group was freed. Glancing towards his wife, Mayada Mamdouh, 25, he added: "I don't know how to describe my feelings, first hearing I was about to be executed and then being set free only moments apart." Mr Azim was speaking soon after leaving the Maadi military hospital, where the 19 hostages were taken following their release. He recalled feeling less than happy when he received a call from his employers last month telling him a colleague had broken his arm and that he would have to replace him on a safari in the Egyptian desert. "I was fasting, not ready for the trip, thinking that the heat would be torturous," said Mr Azim, his face red from the desert sun. "Little had I known that I would come so close to death, almost killed and born again. Being kidnapped is similar to death - no, it's actually worse, you die several times every day. "What complicated the situation more is that as a tour leader, I wasn't supposed to collapse in front of the tourists. It was very difficult finding a place to cry in the desert where nobody can see you." The Europeans - five Germans, five Italians and a Romanian - and their Egyptian guides and drivers were seized on Sept 19 in the Gilf al Kebir, a desert plateau in south-western Egypt famed for its prehistoric cave paintings. Heavily armed gunmen roared up in four SUVs, ordered them to kneel and looted their belongings, including mobile phones, a satellite phone, laptops, cameras, sunglasses and cash. Contrary to official Egyptian statements of a military rescue operation to free the hostages, Mr Azim, the other Egyptians and the tourists all denied that anything of the sort happened. The kidnapping occurred as two of the tour group's four cars got stuck in sand 30km from Wadi Soura, about 220km from the Sudanese border, said Mr Azim, who speaks English and Italian and was in charge of the Italian group, while Ibrahim Saber, the owner of Aegyptus Tourist company, was handling the German contingent. Mr Azim counted about 40 kidnappers. "Some of them were wearing khaki, others in robes, almost all of them were masked and with turbans. [They] had distinctive African features, and spoke very little, broken Arabic," he said. "Their ages ranged from 13 to 60, but the leader of the gang seemed to be in his 40s. All of them were heavily armed with machine guns, RPGs, and other weapons." He believed the kidnappers were from Chad, because they denied they were Sudanese, though Egyptian officials said they were probably Sudanese and Chadian tribesmen. Many were fasting and praying, Mr Azim said. "They were not violent with us, but about 15 of them badly beat Lt Mahmoud, the border guard who was with us, when they discovered his identity," Mr Azim said. "I was so scared; I thought they killed him, but they left him when they discovered he wasn't armed." The kidnappers drove the group south to Sudan, perhaps as far as 350km into the country, Mr Azim said, but they also reached, and possibly entered, Libya and Chad, according to the satellite phone the kidnappers allowed Mr Saber to use to contact his German wife. In this way the kidnappers conducted their negotiations, mainly with German authorities, for the release of the hostages in exchange for a ransom. On the road the kidnappers met several other gangs, exchanging information about the areas they were passing through and discussing the best roads to take. Conversely, the group did not encounter a single border guard. "But [the kidnappers] went ballistic when the owner of the company told them that the authorities of the countries of the hostages knew their positions via satellite, especially after a helicopter hovered around us one day before sunset," Mr Azim said. "They started driving like mad in the middle of the night, then covering the cars, and leaving us under scorching sun; [they were] eating our food and taking our water. Their patience was running out and they were angry for not getting the ransom." Nevertheless, negotiations continued over the satellite phone. The Germans demanded guarantees from the kidnappers they would not kill the hostages, at which point "the gang leader, brought the Quran and swore by it that he wouldn't hurt us. They seemed naive, not professional, and desperate for money. "While it was difficult keeping count of the days, I think it was Sunday [Sept 28], when the leader of the gang took one of our cars, and several of his men, apparently checking the road to get the ransom [from the German negotiators] as well as fuel and water," Mr Azim said. It was this group that was ambushed by Sudanese forces, leaving six of them dead. Two others were wounded and taken into custody. "A few hours later, the rest of the kidnappers were in a state of horror after they learnt that the group has been ambushed, and most of their colleagues were killed," Mr Azim said. "Then, after initially separating us Egyptians from the tourists to kill us in revenge, they opted to let us go and they fled. "The 19 of us crammed into the one car they left us. I and six others stayed on the roof of the car, throwing away all the things we didn't need, driving through the night, with no spare tyres, no extra gas - only what we had in the car's tank - and one global positioning system to navigate, with very limited water and food. "We were scared that the Sudanese forces would mistake us for the rest of the gang and kill us, or meet their fellow gangs, or that we would run out of gas or water, or our tyres would get torn, which didn't happen; another miracle, thanks be to God. "After more than 15 hours driving, we reached the Egyptian borders where we met Egyptian special forces, anti terrorism troops, intelligence personnel and army officers as well as doctors. We washed, ate and made phone calls to our families. Two helicopters took us to the east of Uweinat, where a bigger plane flew us back to Cairo." The Egyptian defence ministry issued a statement on Tuesday announcing that "elements from the Egyptian armed forces succeeded in recovering the foreign tourists and their Egyptian companions peacefully, after taking special measures in spotting the positions and movements of the kidnappers". "This success," the statement continued, "was achieved after complete co-ordination and co-operation with the brother republic of Sudan, which played a helpful and effective role in rescuing the hostages. There was also mutual co-ordination between Egyptian special forces and Italian and German special forces to carry out a joint operation to liberate the hostages." Egypt's official news agency, Mena, quoted Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the Egyptian defence minster, as telling Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, that "half of the kidnappers were eliminated" in the raid. But Mr Azim, along with the rest of the group, disputed the official version of what happened, insisting they were released by the kidnappers, not rescued. "We were - and I still am - in shock and dismay over this farce and the lies that the Egyptians or any other forces or troops liberated us," he said. "It was our prayers, and those of our families, and a miracle and mercy from God that the kidnappers let us go, and that we drove hundreds of kilometres back home safely." Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, seemed to acknowledge this when speaking to reporters on Tuesday. "I never spoke of a raid, I never spoke of a violent incursion," he said. Although free, Mr Azim says the trauma of the kidnapping has taken its toll, prompting him to question his future. "I haven't had any sleep for the past four or five days," he said. "I'm taking at least a week off and will spend the Eid with my family, and think about what I will do next. "I've been with Aegyptus for five years, but now I'm not sure I want to continue being a tour guide. If I do decide to stay, I will never do a safari trip again."I'm even thinking of leaving Egypt, go make a future and use of my languages somewhere else. "This experience has changed me drastically; I want to be more religious, to thank God who miraculously saved us, be closer to my parents and wife. And enjoy every single minute of my new life. I feel I was born again on Monday, and I want to celebrate that." email@example.com