Young, armed shebabs from chosen tribes crammed in on each side of us, boxing us in the middle of the back seat. The sound of locking doors confirmed our kidnapped status. With screeching wheels, the driver made a dangerous U-turn across the oncoming traffic,” says Yolande Korkie as she recalls the car ride that would leave an eternal scar in her life.
South African couple, Korkie and her late husband, Pierre, had relocated to Yemen in 2009, four years before this fateful day. This was the first of the 228 days Korkie would be held hostage by terrorist group Al-Qaeda, near Taiz, Yemen.
For Pierre, it was his last day of freedom as he would be killed during an attempt by US Special Forces to free him and American photographer, Luke Somers, from their Al-Qaeda captors.
Pierre died on his 558th day of captivity.
“Sometimes love doesn’t have fairytale endings,” says Korkie.
The silver lining to the tragedy, if there ever was to be one, was their children, Peter and Lize, being left at their Yemen home at the time of the kidnapping.
“Our daughter was almost with us that afternoon. The electricity supply in Yemen is way worse than here,” says the soft-spoken and reserved Korkie when we meet her at a B&B in Bloemfontein in South Africa’s Free State province.
As she laughs about the scarcity of electricity in Yemen, which she says is available for only about 20 minutes on a lucky day, it is obvious that even through her positivity, she has suffered a lot. Lize was supposed to join them on their trip to town that day but decided against it at the last minute.
“The electricity came on as we walked out the door and she was with us. She said ‘no, no,’ she’s going to stay home because she was going to watch television with her brother. I can’t praise God enough that she couldn’t come,” says Korkie.
This would be the last time their children would ever see their father alive again.
After the Gift of the Givers Foundation assisted with negotiations, Korkie was released and returned to South Africa on January 13, 2014, after 228 days as a hostage. She never once knew the whereabouts of their children during the kidnapping.
“We asked and we pleaded and we wrote letters and nothing. They just kept saying if they kidnapped them they’ll bring them to us. That’s not the answer you want to hear,” says Korkie.
Pierre died without knowing the whereabouts of his children.
Korkie says there was nothing specific that made them Al-Qaeda targets, except for being foreigners. She says their captors thought they were American because in their mindsets all South Africans are black and they were reluctant to believe there were white South Africans.
Korkie went on to describe the war Al-Qaeda militants have declared against America, giving examples of videos they’ve posted openly declaring war.
“Of course their prize would be an American hostage, that would be their number one prize, but any other foreigner would be a good option, a better hostage than any other Yemeni hostage for instance.”
Korkie’s relationship with God has intensified since the tragedy and she says she has chosen to forgive the perpetrators as she doesn’t want to be a “hostage to unforgiveness”. She says that will poison her children and herself and will not take them anywhere.
After falling in love with Yemen and its people, the couple made a decision to relocate to the country to assist with education and humanitarian work. Pierre was a teacher in Yemen and Korkie did relief work in hospitals.
Korkie describes Yemen as an impoverished country, scaling it alongside Ethiopia, saying it is in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Never did she imagine that their good hearts would put them through such a traumatic experience.
A trained psychologist who used to practice before marriage, Korkie says trauma and grieving are a bit different from what the textbook postulates, saying she would love to do research on this one day.
“We’ve got that shock stage and that reality stage and anger. Those are emotions, but they don’t really come in the textbook order. I’m not saying I’m right but this is just from my own experience,” she says.
Korkie describes these emotions as having various levels at various times. She says for days there would be very little emotion and then suddenly, there would be days where she would have constant ups and downs. As time goes by, Korkie says the emotions soften out and the time between them gets longer.
“Mostly I think that grieving is very unique to the person who is going through it. It’s unique because we’re different. Every person will work through it differently. Some will not work through it, some will deny it, some will manage to put it behind and build their way through,” says Korkie.
Her psychology background was a tool that they tried to use while being held hostage, along with other tools they acquired throughout life. Some of them were useful and others didn’t work. She describes the difficulty they faced in communicating with their captors as they needed them for food and medical supplies. They tried building relationships with their captors; some of them showed kindness, some of them didn’t.
Korkie says it’s very important that governments work together with groups that do hostage negotiations as she believes this could have saved her husband’s life.
After not being able to meet the initial ransom of R32.5 million (around $2 million), the Gift of the Givers Foundation managed to negotiate a facilitation fee for Pierre’s release.
Korkie says they made it clear in the media that negotiations were taking place and they even said on Pierre’s official website, two weeks prior to his possible release, that he would probably be home before Christmas. On December 6, 2014, Pierre was killed when US Special Forces tried to free him.
“They [US Government] say they didn’t know so it’s not my position to say that they did know. I’m not going to go into that. It’s for them to know what they did know and didn’t know. What I know is that we made it clear in the media that we were getting ready to get Pierre released. The South African government knew because we were working very close with them and governments talk,” she says.
Korkie says this whole experience has emphasized the importance of family. She says one might never get the chance to say ‘I love you’ to their loved ones again, so today and now is important.
Earlier this year, Korkie published the book 558 Days, which documents her ordeal.
“I want it to stand as the testimony of God’s love. The book stands as quite a bit of our journey together with Pierre, my husband, and it stands as an encouragement to husbands; how their support and outpouring of their love can actually see their wives and their children through a trauma like this.”
Korkie emphasizes families with a kidnapped member need a strong support system. She says families are hostages themselves as they are never free until their loved one returns. Korkie advises those close to those families to show constant support and love.
“Every minute was possibly now the minute he’s going to be released, so the phone was constantly in my hand. It’s as hard for the family as it is for the hostage,” says Korkie.
“The children and I are still on a journey of working through it. We still have moments where it’s very difficult to just comprehend that we have to continue without Pierre. Now that is the greatest challenge. To continue without him, without his support, his love, his friendship, his companionship, he was everything. It’s just the biggest challenge.”