Who is she?

Aisha Romano, born as Silvia, is an Italian 25 years old aid worker who was kidnapped in Kenya 18 months ago while she was working for an Italian charity called Africa Milele. She was brought and held in Somalia, freed on the 9th of May, and returned to Italy on the 10th.

What happened while she was in Africa?

Before going too deep into the story, it is important to say that there was no direct information on the matter yet. All the news were taken by third-parties and there are still numerous hypothetical information.

It is summer 2018 when Silvia -still- goes again to Kenya to join an NGO called Africa Milele as an educator for kids, in a small village called Chakama in the Kilifi county.

Chakama is situated in South-East Kenya, in a breathtaking nature. It is a small village where since Silvia’s kidnapping, evertything has stopped. No other volunteer wanted to go there, all of them were scared. This village has frozen. 

As long as it might seem dangerous, the percentage of kidnapped Italian volunteers in Africa is low. Obviously, a zero percent would always be optimal, but this low level goes already against a lot of cliché.

It is clear that Silvia’s kidnapping had a huge echo, of which the outcomes can still be felt, with the decrease of volunteers in the zone for example.  There is a constant fear among the volunteers working in small villages lost in the middle of nothing, but unfortunately those are some of the realities that need to be taken into consideration when a decision is as important as working in another state. 

Africa is a place that strongly requests the presence of volunteers for any kind of improvement.  It is a way to experience how much other countries are privileged compared to the entire continent of Africa. Every volunteer’s aim is to bring good and equality to the most vulnerable. This is what Silvia and every volunteer’s aim was: doing something good, a wish that is stronger than fear. 

Africa Milele, the onlus joined by Silvia, was a small and young organization considered safe. Silvia was constantly supervised by two Masai men. But apparently, it was not enough. The organization is described as naive and without a good knowledge of how to behave in Kenya, but on the other hand passionate about helping kids and fully dedicated. Nevertheless, Africa Milele could be seen as not complete as an organization, since the volunteers did not have any insurance, and had to bear all the possible problems, including Silvia’s situation. 

One of the villagers reported Silvia’s presence to the al-Shabaab jihadist Somali group, connected to Al-Qaeda. The main purpose of this terrorist attack was to obtain in exchange of the release of their hostage, money and possibly armaments, useful for their military cause. 

Some days before the catch, few strange men came to the village of Chakama, where she was living -probably to check the situation, Silvia’s daily routine and make a plan of the kidnapping.  Back then, it didn’t seem important. However, it took these two men just a few days to come back again with other two, and capture her. It was November the 20th of 2018. The kidnapping was clearly well organized: the moment when it happened, Silvia momentarily remained alone, probably due to a misunderstanding between the two Masai that always kept an eye on her. 

Before arriving at the first house where she had to stay as hostage, it took them more than one month.

At the beginning, they had motorbikes, but not long after the departure they broke it while there was still a long way until the predetermined place. The whole process was well studied before, in order to make their traces disappear. They had to continue on foot through a jungle, a river (Galana river), mud and among the brambles. During the way, they cut her hair so that it would be easier for her to pass between small spaces.  She didn’t know her destination, but continued to move just for the sake of getting somewhere and finding an escape. It came out that they had to walk from the little Kenyan village to an unknown place in Somalia.  It was an exhausting and very difficult trip due also to the temperature diversity: hot during the day, cold during the night, taking also in consideration that they slept outdoors.

Arriving at the first house, they gave her just a pallet to sleep on and locked her in a room.  Despite the bad quality and circumstances, they did never hurt her. In her room, she was free, and always had something to eat. As long as she asked for something easy to obtain, she was pleased by the guards. It seems that her biggest enemy, back then, was time.

She was alone and it was very hard to communicate with them. One of the things that she asked for was a notebook: she wanted to write down her whole experience and track the time passing by. Later on, she was provided with books and also a computer with no internet connection. 

Among all the different books they gave her also an Italian-Arabic version of the Quran. The loneliness gave her the possibility to analyze each one of the books very deeply and that’s what she did with the religious book of Islam. She passed her time studying it and praying with videos that were previously uploaded on the computer. She even learned Arabic. After days and nights passed on it she started her journey for the conversion to Islam. She was helped by the main guard with whom she spoke in English and who introduced her to the shahada ceremony. She pronounced the formula and from that moment, finalized her conversion which was not forced but voluntarily done and ended with her acquiring the name ‘AISHA’. 

She always remained updated on what happened in the ‘external’ world because the guards were constantly giving her videos of the main information from Al Jazeera. She was confined, but she was always able to hear the outside world full of life and the muezzin’s calls which made her realize that she was not lost in anything, but close to vitality. They all were always staying in big Somali cities, but during her whole stay, she met only six men. No woman was ever in contact with her since the kidnapping. She did change the hideaway multiple times (probably six) and each time she was forced to move mainly on foot. She was always enclosed and alone. It happened twice that she was seriously sick. The supervisors called a doctor and helped her to come back to health. 

Her relationship with the kidnappers improved in time. Regardless that she has never seen their faces because they always covered them, she was able to recognize their voices even though they spoke Arabic and it was hard for her to understand them. They did treat her well, not perfectly but as a human with some dignity. If she was freezing they would give her blankets; they were giving her books and were keeping her informed. The main guard assisted Aisha during the conversion and, the most important for her, they were telling her what day it was. 

During the stay, diverse videotapes of her were taken where she was informing the Italian intelligence that she was doing fine, and in which every time she was always giving the same information about the kidnapper’s requests.

On January the 17th 2020, a videotape was delivered to the magistrate Sergio Colaiocco. Its main content was Silvia telling them that she wants to come back home and implores them to help her. She seemed calm and her voice was quiet, but her gaze betrayed what she wanted to hide: that she was worried, scared, and desperate. But she was also full of hope while she informed them that the kidnappers treated her well. 

When she least expected it, a Somalian man came into her room speaking in English and informed her that the operation ended positively and that she was going to be released.  After some days, he came back again on a cart with a tractor. Aisha’s last transfer was finally happening. It took them three days and two nights to arrive at the place where the so attended exchange was going to happen. Two military men escorted her and took her to the Italian embassy in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, where the ambassador Alberto Vecchi long attended her. 

Aisha Romano was finally free after 18 months of confinement. 

What happened when she came back to Italy?

On the 9th of May 2020, the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the release of Aisha Romano with a tweet, even before warning the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. 

The girl spent the night at the Italian embassy and the day after she landed in Italy at around 2 pm at Ciampino airport, in Rome.

During the time she spent in captivity, the news about her kidnap and about her conditions were very few and uncertain, as well as never officially confirmed by the Italian authorities. 

On the 10th of May, the newspapers published some details, obtained through their own sources, about the hostage-taking and about the last months of Aisha in Africa.  

It seems like everything started in the summer of 2019 when after a “long silence” some militia of al Shabaab got in touch with the Italian intelligence in Somalia, as the Repubblica newspaper reports.

After a few months of negotiations, the Italian intelligence was finally convinced that Romano was still alive in January 2020. 

The Corriere della Sera claims that the conclusive evidence of her wellbeing was the last video in which she appeared during the captivity.

«Suddenly a certain optimism started spreading between the people following the case», says la Stampa: «with the weeks passing by, this optimism was consolidating».

The people who have been working in order to achieve the liberation of Aisha, were mainly functionaries of AISE, the Italian secret services that operate abroad. Some of them were already in Somalia, while others only arrived in the last weeks.

In helping the Italian intelligence, besides the local officials, there were also some Turkish ones. Turkey, in fact, has extended and ancient relations with Somalia, both under the aspect of economic and infrastructural development, as well as for security.

The negotiations became official in mid-April as Corriere della Sera writes: «Reaching an agreement between Somalians and Turks is one of the most delicate passages. The security conditions in Somalia are pretty much nonexisting, it is therefore fundamental to hurry up».

Also, Giuseppe Conte, when he was at the airport of Ciampino after greeting Aisha, explained that «for some months» the compromise was «reaching the finish line».

There are, understandably, no details about the operation that brought to the liberation of Aisha. The newspapers didn’t receive information about supposed conflicts or violence, and the way in which they write about the case suggests that we’re dealing with an exchange.

The Corriere della Sera assumes that Italy paid a ransom, but also states that “there is no precise amount of money”.

Right after her release, as the Fatto Quotidiano also writes by citing intelligence sources, Aisha «had a long phone conversation with her mother and with Giuseppe Conte».

Corriere della Sera writes that at the moment of her arrival she «appeared in good health conditions» and also let us know that she was wearing a jilbab, a traditional dress of Somali and Kenyan women, with her head covered, gloves on her hands and mask on her face. 

In this way, she revealed the news of her conversion to Islam and her willingness to change her name from Silvia to Aisha. She also wanted to stress that this choice was made by her free will and that «Nobody forced her». 

She greeted the Prime Minister and the minister Di Maio with the elbow – in observance of the anti-COVID-19 norms – and then she was finally able to meet her father Enzo, her mother Francesca and her sister Giulia. 

«I feel good, physically and mentally» she stated, «Now I just want to spend lots of time with my family. I’m very happy, after a long time, to be home».

After landing in Rome, Aisha was brought to a carabinieri barracks to be interrogated by the prosecutor Sergio Colaiocco, who was following her case. 

On the same night, she came back to Milan, the city where she lived before being kidnapped.

Unfortunately, returning home was not so easy for her due to the verbal attacks that she received. Nonetheless, she stated that she was «serene despite the threats». At the center of the investigations, there are many messages, accusations, and threats received by the 25-year-old, via social media and not. Under examinations, there are also many intimidating messages and letters.

On the other side, the investigators that are focused on understanding the truth about the kidnap, are now examining the videos recorded during the captivity as well as the phone records that ended up being in the network of the numerous calls in the area of Chakama. The attention of the detectives is also concentrated on the NGO for which Aisha was working, Africa Milele, and particularly on the security protocols. 

The hypothesis of the criminal offense, still against unknown persons, is the one of “aggravated assault” for the threats received by the young girl. Since she came back to Italy she was a victim of a hate campaign also linked with the alleged payment for a ransom. Under the discussion of the prosecutors there is also a post of the commentator Vittorio Sgarbi, who wrote that Aisha should “be arrested” for “external partnership in terroristic association”. 

Police units are frequently present around the house of the young aid worker, which is a clear symbol of how authorities are also worried about her safety. Her father, Enzo Romano, talked to the microphones of Radio Capital: «My daughter is coping just like any other person who has been imprisoned for eighteen months. Just because she is smiling, doesn’t mean that she is doing great, let’s not confuse the smile with the capacity of reacting in order to decently resist a situation which brings you into the deepest depression».

Her mother also spoke to the journalists that kept asking her questions: «How do you think she is doing? Try to send one of your relatives there for two years, and let’s see if they don’t come back as converted». 

«Use your brain» she added, reaffirming that she didn’t want to make any other comments about it: «Leave us alone, we need peace».

What are the main controversies and fake news about the case?

Now let’s go deeper into the main controversies that are surrounding this story. Before we begin, it’s fundamental to underline again the fact that Aisha came back to Italy just a few days ago and the investigators are still working on the case, so many of the pieces of information people are talking about are not confirmed yet. What we will do here is analyze the facts that we have and the news that are circulating, to better understand this complex situation.

The money issue is a preeminent one and has sparked serious controversies on the internet. But, again, the payment of the ransom, that some newspapers affirm to be around 4 million euros, was NOT confirmed yet by any governmental sources. Still, some people have found it “outrageous” to see “Italian citizens’ money” spent in freeing someone that was in a dangerous situation because of her own choice, and not use them to help Italians who are starving. Let’s unpack all of that. 

First of all, almost all the states, even the ones that say the contrary, spend money or at least long diplomatic actions to free their citizens when captured outside their territory (yes America, I’m looking at your “no concession” policy). Of course, it depends on the situation, but Italy has a long history of negotiating for the safeguard of its citizens and has been very successful during the years in doing so. 

Let’s remember the Achille Lauro situation (no, not the singer), the Italian cruise ship that was taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists in 1985, with more than 400 people on board. At the end of the difficult negotiations, the Italian government managed to solve both the situation and handle what was probably the most serious crisis with the USA, since one American citizen, Leon Klinghoffer, was killed on board. So yes, Italy has historically dealt with terrorist organizations for the sake of its citizens and has bargained for their liberation many times. 

Some states have also asked our help in freeing their citizens, as France did in 2004 to free two citizens captured in Iraq (and they paid the ransom). It is not unusual, also in Europe, to pay to have their own citizens back, as Great Britain did for Judith Tebbut, hostage in Kenya with her husband for six months, for which the British government paid 1.2 million euros in 2012. The alternative to diplomacy is a fight, during which hostages are most likely to die, and this is not something we want, right?

So the polemic around the negotiation is pointless, since in the majority of the cases in which hostages are freed there are diplomacy discussions with either the release of money, prisoners, or other factors. Israel is an example of that, exchanging numerous times its soldiers with Palestinian political prisoners. 

It’s almost not worth mentioning the fake news about her receiving some of the money spent on her release, a thesis completely made up and absolutely unthinkable by anyone with a basic comprehension of international relationships and negotiation.

If someone’s really worried about financing terrorists with Italian money, why these same people are not worried about who buys Italian weapons? Italy is one of the largest exporters of weapons all around the world and, between its major buyers, there are Qatar, Pakistan, Turkey, and UAE. It’s surprising to see that Italy sells weapons to Pakistan, an authoritarian regime which periodically fights with India over the territory of Kashmir, and also the sale to some monarchies of the Persian Gulf, which are torn between the constant competition of the Sci Iran and the Sunni Saudi Arabia (or they directly participate, like the UAE). Even more controversial is the weapon sale to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In the first case because of its borderline dictatorial regime and the assassination of the Italian journalist and student Giulio Regeni by the local police, while in the second it has been proven that german bombs produced in Sardinia are being used in the Yemen “war” (more appropriately the Yemen genocide), mostly against civilians, and the situation certainly did not improve after the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. It is indeed worth reflecting on why do some people feel so angry about the 4 million euros which have allegedly been used to free a person and not on the 32 billion euros that Italy earned in 2015-2017 aiding dictatorships, mass genocide, and wars. 

Another controversy is spiked by the Italian law n.82 of 1991, which freezes the accounts of the family of the kidnapped person to avoid paying ransoms and disincentivize the abductions. This applies only to acts that happen inside the Italian borders, and it worked well in stopping the trend of kidnapping that had taken place during the seventies and the eighties. If it worked so well on the Italian soil, why not use this law and the strong line of no concessions linked to it? 

First of all, since Italy is a “democratic republic” (Art. 1 Italian Constitution) which values human rights and wants to protect them, it is safe to assume that the protection of its citizens it’s a cardinal principle, and the State will do whatever is possible to try and save them. It’s also true that Italy should let international criminals know that they cannot kidnap their citizens without consequences, but using force when there are lives at stake is not always the best choice. 

Besides, in the international environment, there are particular dynamics that entail the involvement of other nations’ secret services or alliance systems which, most of the time, are not publicly known. There’s also the image of the country at stake, and having a firm hand in these kinds of situations is not a policy common to many countries (e.g. France which, during the al Qaeda kidnappings of 2008-2013, paid around 58 million dollars). Again, it’s worth mentioning the fact that in Italy executives of all ideologies, colors and political affiliations have always followed the line of negotiating, also Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right government, in which there were, between the others, the Lega and later Giorgia Meloni, who are now firmly arguing against treating with terrorists but did the same thing to free Giuliana Sgrena, Simona Pari, Simona Torretta, Clementina Cantoni and more. Let’s not forget about the “marò case”, that has already cost 8 million euros between legalities, lawyers and compensations, and it’s not closed yet. For this litigation, the Lega and Giorgia Meloni pushed many times to see them brought back home, so why are they now so against bringing back Italian citizens using State’s money? 

Moreover, people should also stop combining different problems, like the kidnapping of a young volunteer and the economic crisis after the COVID-19 situation. These are two serious but completely different situations, and this mentality to approach each crisis comparing it to another already happening does not help to solve either one of them. The problem of “starving” and unemployed Italians it’s a crucial one, and the Italian government is dealing with it, but it’s important to remember that taking care of one crisis does not lessen the importance of another one. It’s also fundamental to clarify that the ransoms paid by the secret services do not appear in the official financial reports and, if not used for said ransom, they would not have been spent on the “cassa integrazione” or any other fund for the Italians. This money properly belongs to the secret services, and even if they did not, these alleged 4 million would have been 6 cents our of every Italian. A pretty low price to save a human being, don’t you think?

On a different note, let’s tackle the “it was her own choice, she decided to volunteer there, she knew the risks, why would she volunteer there when in Italy we have so many other issues?”. First of all, why there was no polemic, or at least not this vicious, about the liberation of Luca Tacchetto, Alessandro Sandrini and Sergio Zanotti, all three freed in this current year, one of them with a criminal record and two of which are now converted to Islam? It does seem peculiar that no one started shouting about the “money given to terrorists” or that if they embraced the Islamic faith we could have “left them there” (an Islamophobic and ignorant comment that does not even deserve to be addressed). 

Some may argue that we were not in a global pandemic, but we were still in a serious economic crisis, so the money issue should have been raised as brutally as now, and maybe even more since we were freeing a person who had a criminal record (in Italy). We are absolutely not saying that they should not have freed them and we’re not doing a comparison since every situation is particular and should be addressed singularly, but we are wondering why there was a mediatic process to a volunteer who was helping people and not to a former criminal? In both cases stating that the government should not have rescued them is not something we agree on, because the State should help all of its citizens, regardless of what they did, their religion, or any other discriminating factor. But since we’re hell-bent over attacking Aisha, a volunteer that has been defined as a “neo-terrorist” by a representative of a far-right Italian party, it is normal to try to understand why we did not have these kinds of reactions for similar cases. Can it be because she’s a woman, who, as the Italian newspaper Report Difesa writes, did not come back “emaciated, with her dress shredded by her kidnappers and rapists”, but with a smile and a jilbab? A woman who managed to resist in difficult situations, adapt and use her freedom of choice to change her religion? We leave the answer to you, dear readers. 

But regarding the change of faith, we cannot leave without stating some facts. Italy defends the freedom of choice and religion, in fact in the art. 19 of the Italian Constitution is affirmed that “everyone has a right to freely profess their religious faith in any form”. Moreover, Aisha herself stated that she did not feel pressured at all to convert herself and, to shut down some fake news, she declared that she is not married nor pregnant, “there has been no marriage nor relationship, just respect”. She told the investigators that she “needed to believe in something, to know the reasons for what was happening to her”, so she turned to religion and “declared that Allah is the only God”. While some investigative sources do not exclude the fact that this conversion might be “linked to a psychological condition caused by the context she lived in these 18 months, not necessarily meant to last”, neither she nor the family doctor share the same concerns. Indeed Doctor Matteo Danza, after visiting her privately, declared that “she’s fine, as you’ve seen her when she arrived, also psychologically”. So again to speak about her psychological situation without being a medical professional who has visited her and had done a proper evaluation is inappropriate and pointless.

To briefly comment on the thesis of “it’s her own fault, she has to deal with it by herself, she knew the risks”, again, the Italian State believes in the importance of human rights and the protection of life, so it would surely do everything that it can to save a life. Furthermore, the connotation that since she knew the risks she should not have been saved it’s a reasoning that’s applied to literally nothing else. Did you go skiing and broke your leg? Well, you knew the risks, so the State is not going to pay for the operation and the consequent medical treatments. 

Now that she stated she wants to come back to volunteer, people are saying that if it happens again she “went looking for it”, since “she already knew what was going to happen”. Would you say the same thing to a person who had a motorcycle incident and then continued using it? In addition, the concept that “she should stay in Italy since we already have so many problems and volunteer here” takes away the immense value that international volunteering has in helping people and fostering our image at an international level. We should be proud of the thousands of women and men which, each year, spend their time and efforts to help people all around the world.

In the end, dear readers, we should remember that she’s a human being who just went through a traumatic experience that we know very little of. Regardless of our opinion on the case, Aisha’s decisions should be respected as well as her wish to be “left alone”.

by Carolina Busko, Annalinda Giudiceandrea, Diletta Graziosi.

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