Tearful widow receives body of slain South African hostage
The South African government refused to point fingers Tuesday as the body of a hostage killed in a failed US rescue in Yemen arrived home to his grieving widow.
Fifty-six-year-old Pierre Korkie was shot dead by Al-Qaeda gunmen on Saturday, along with an American photojournalist Luke Somers, during a raid by US special forces.
The deaths prompted severe criticism in South Africa, after a non-governmental group claimed it had negotiated for Korkie’s imminent release.
The US government said it was not aware of the talks.
“There were intentions to try and get those hostages free, safe and sound it did not work out the way it was planned,” South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said Tuesday.
“South Africa’s tactics might not be the same as our other interlocutors, but what remains is that we all are engaged in combating this terrorism wherever it rears its ugly head.”
Korkie’s widow Yolande was left to wonder out loud to God why he was killed as his body was returned home to Waterkloof Air Force base outside Pretoria.
“Why?” asked Yolande, appearing publicly for the first time since her husband died.
“The voice of prayer that went up throughout this country, throughout Yemen, why was it not answered?” she asked, her two teenaged children sitting numb-faced beside her.
“Why does God not answer our questions and prayers?”
The couple were seized together in May 2013 in Yemen’s second city of Taiz by members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Yolande was released in January following mediation by the Gift of the Givers charity.
The South African charity said Pierre’s release was only hours away when an operation was launched.
Gift of the Givers had been negotiating with Al-Qaeda through tribal leaders in the region for months and had finally reached a deal at a reduced fee of $200,000 (160,000 euros).
The charity’s founder, Imtiaz Sooliman, told Yolande last week that her husband would be home for Christmas.
– ‘Immense relief’ –
Yolande spoke of “immense relief” that his suffering was over.
Her husband had been ill throughout his captivity, losing his hearing and suffering from a hernia.
But she had pictured the return differently.
“We had visualised him holding us in his arms and hearing his soft voice… the reality of this is that we will never have him with us physically.”
She mourned for her children, she said, for the goodbye they never had.
But Yolande said the family had no regrets about moving to Yemen on December 6, 2009, exactly five years before Korkie was killed.
They had been there before and were moved by what they saw.
“My husband has a heart for the poor,” Yolande said. “The immense poverty, the need, just consumed us.”
Korkie was retired, but “a teacher is a teacher is a teacher”, Yolande said, adding that he could see opportunities to help in the country’s education sector.
“Do we regret it?” she said. “We have lost, but one can never regret.
“When you have lived with people that have nothing…,” she said, her voice trailing off.
She shook her head. “This is God’s will.”
The last time she addressed the media was in January, after Gift of the Givers had negotiated her release without ransom.
Were it not for her husband, she said, she would never have made it through.
“He kept me up when I couldn’t anymore.”
But Korkie’s captors still wanted $3 million (2.2 million euros) to set him free.
At their last meeting, he held Yolande and spoke to her.
“I love you,” he said. “Tell the children I love them.”
US forces chose to act after Somers’ captors released a video last week threatening to execute him.
“We had indications, very good indications, that they were going to murder Mr Somers perhaps as early as the next day,” a senior US defence official said Saturday.
“It was either act now and take the risk, or let that deadline pass. And no one was willing to do that.”Somers’ family has since said they would have preferred a diplomatic solution — that were it not for the rescue attempt, he would still be alive.