|Judith D’Souza (left) with Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi on Saturday. (PTI)|
TT, New Delhi, July 23: Calcutta aid worker Judith D’Souza, abducted in Kabul last month, returned to India today after a criminal gang released her following six weeks of search and negotiations over an undisclosed ransom amount.
D’Souza, 39, freed yesterday, was accompanied on a special flight from Kabul to New Delhi by India’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Manpreet Vohra.
She was then whisked away to a meeting with foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, who officials said had supervised the rescue efforts since the June 9 abduction. Sushma later accompanied D’Souza to the Prime Minister’s residence, where Narendra Modi chatted with her for about 20 minutes.
D’Souza works with the Aga Khan Foundation as a senior technical adviser on gender. Indian and Afghan officials had initially feared that the Taliban or an affiliate militant group had abducted her as a political message. But no militant group claimed responsibility.
Eventually, investigators traced her to a village in the Shomali plains north of Kabul, captured by a group of ransom-seeking criminals and not terrorists, Indian and Afghan officials said.
The group had panicked after it saw the wide dragnet Afghan security forces had laid for D’Souza’s captors and decided against making a ransom demand till the search cooled off, the officials said.
D’Souza has told officials she was not harmed physically by her abductors, and was fed regularly.
“I am happy to inform you that Judith D’Souza has been rescued,” Sushma tweeted just after 6.30 am today. “Judith D’Souza is with us – safe and in good spirits.”
Indian and Afghan officials said they could not reveal too many details about the search and the negotiations because they had to protect strategies and intermediaries that might be needed again.
Officials from both countries acknowledged that the kidnappers had sought a ransom but none would explicitly say whether it was paid.
New Delhi has followed a policy of not revealing details of hostage-takers’ demands ever since Pakistani terrorists hijacked an Indian Airlines aircraft in 1999 and traded the passengers for three jailed terrorists.
Organisations too usually do not publicise any ransom they may have paid to secure an employee’s release as that would be an incentive for other abductions.
“The Foundation is deeply grateful to the Afghan authorities and the Indian government for their sustained efforts to secure D’Souza’s release,” Sam Pickens, the Aga Khan Foundation’s deputy director of communications, said in an email from the group’s Geneva headquarters.
D’Souza’s rescue comes at a time some among her friends and family were beginning to lose hope, said Javed Rizvi, an agricultural scientist and close friend of the aid worker. They had worked together in Afghanistan.
“It’s a very big relief for all of us,” Rizvi, who had spoken to the D’Souza family after Judith’s arrival here, said. “This has come when we were just beginning to lose hope.”
The search for D’Souza had begun hours after she was kidnapped on June 9 night while returning home from her office.
She was travelling with a driver and a guard in a car her employers had provided. Police investigators have told Indian and Afghan officials that a larger car overtook the vehicle, forced it to stop and then overpowered the guard and the driver. One of the kidnappers asked about D’Souza. On confirmation that she was a foreigner, the gang pushed her into their vehicle and drove off.
Police probed the driver and the guard. They concluded that the duo were innocent but had shared their schedule with friends. Afghan officials began the lengthy process of questioning all those the driver or the guard had spoken to about their schedule, the trail leading them to a gang based in the fertile Shomali plains. As the investigators continued their hunt, Vohra and his embassy team in Kabul sought regular updates and stressed D’Souza’s rescue at every meeting with their Afghan counterparts.
Modi urged Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to speed up the probe when they met in Tashkent on the margins of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit on June 24.
“Requested President Ashraf Ghani to expedite efforts to rescue Judith D’Souza and extend all possible support to her family,” Modi had tweeted.
Today, after meeting D’Souza, Modi thanked Ghani on Twitter and added: “Welcome to India, Judith.”
Officials said the breakthrough in negotiations with the kidnappers had come earlier this week.
The foreign office then contacted D’Souza’s brother Jerome, who works in Bangalore, and asked him to rush to Delhi. Jerome met Sushma yesterday afternoon and was informed about his sister’s release and her imminent return. “Her assurances on bringing back Judith give us hope that she will be back home soon,” Jerome had tweeted last evening. He had to wait just one more day.