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Chinese kidnapped in Sudan back home finally
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-04-01 09:13

After a 14 hour flight out of Africa, the plane that carried Li Aijun and Jia Huipeng to Chinese soil landed at Beijing's Capital International Airport at 7 pm. After two hours of unwanted bureaucracy, the two men were finally swarmed by colleagues and a throng of journalists eagerly awaiting them.

Li Aijun shows journalists the scar on his arm he suffered when he was detained by villagers. [newsphoto]
Li Aijun's wife and Jia Huipeng's mother had been standing quietly by smiling and answering reporters' questions, trying to remain calm.

But the minute the women saw their loved ones, and could not conceal their feelings. Bursting with tears, they hurried forward and embraced their men.

They had separated a year and four months ago, but it seemed forever, the women told reporters.

Over the past two weeks, they had prayed nonstop for this moment.

The misfortune came in the morning of March 14, when Li Aijun and Jia Huipeng were heading for the next construction site after finishing their work on a water project in a small village in the western part of Sudan.

Li and Jia work for the Sudan Water Well Company, a joint-project between the North China Engineering Investigation Institute, which is based in Shijiazhuang, capital of North China's Hebei Province, and the North China Construction Engineering Company, based in Tianjin.

They were in charge of cleaning mechanically pumped wells their colleagues had drilled, the last working procedure in the whole process.

Twenty-two-year old Jia Huipeng graduated from a technical secondary school two years ago, and went to Sudan last year. He had been planning a family visit and was scheduled to leave at the end of March.

Their heavy truck was stopped by a group of anti-government militants about 80 kilometres from Buram in south Darfur Province, 950 kilometres southwest of Khartoum, the Sudanese capital.

"There were dozens of people in the group, all apparently aboriginals. Some were in camouflage outfits, some in slack suits, while others were wearing long gowns," Jia recalled.

With weapons in hand, the gang went through the truck carefully and took their satellite telephone.

In the following days, Li, 34, and Jia were forced to join the gang's motorcade, consisting of autos the gang had hijacked earlier - a tank truck, a water wagon and another truck loaded with food.

Thanks to their diligence in learning the local language, they were able to talk with their abductors, avoiding any possible misunderstandings, which might have been fatal.

And they were treated quite "politely," they said. They were never left hungry, as they were served biscuits and drinking water whenever they asked.

Even their request for hot water and tea was happily met. They were given a big bag of tea and a bag of white sugar and told to make tea as often as they wanted.

Li Aijun, also back from the Sudan, embraces his wife at the airport. [newsphoto]
But Li and Jia's worries about their own safety were not eased. Journeying with their captors in the jungles in western Sudan, towards an unknown destination, they continually kept their eyes open for a chance to escape, even though they knew their company, colleagues, the Chinese Embassy and international organizations would be doing everything they possibly could to rescue them.

The abduction was a political move as rebels in western Sudan have been fighting for more than a year for an equal share of the wealth of Africa's largest nation, as well as for greater political representation.

In the civil war, hundreds of people have been killed and more than 600,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.

On March 19, the Sudanese Government managed to talk via telephone with the kidnappers, who turned out to be members of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA).

During the conversation, the SLA said they would guarantee the safety of their two Chinese hostages.

The opportunity to escape came on the night of March 16. At a point where a narrow forest path intersected with the road they were following, the Chinese truck dropped out of the motorcade.

Apart from Li and Jia, there was only one SLA man in the truck, sitting on the seat beside the Chinese driver.

After a discussion in Chinese, Jia and Li told the SLA man that one of the tyres had blown out.

Pretending to deal with the problem, they quickly ducked into the thick forest and disappeared before the SLA man realized what had happened.

They wandered for the rest of the night and the entire next day before coming to a village in the evening. They had planned to get some food, but unfortunately, the villagers were supporters of the SLA, and detained them.

On the morning of March 18, Jia managed to break loose from his shackles after a whole night's struggle. But he was not able to undo the iron chains fettering his friend Li, and had to leave without him before daybreak.

This time Jia was smart enough to avoid any villages.

On the night of March 18, he finally managed to reach a safe place in the hands of the Sudanese Armed Forces.

There he ran into an old acquaintance, a Sudanese he used to work with, who drove him to Buram the same night.

The next morning, the police in Buram escorted Jia back to his company.

But it took longer to get Li Aijun returned safe and sound.

Kidnap victim Jia Huipeng embraces his mother as she cried tears of relief at Beijing's Capital International Airport. She had not seen her son for a year and four months. [newsphoto]
Between March 20 and 22, the Sudanese government military surrounded the area frequented by the SLA. After carrying out a series of careful searches, they finally figured out where Li and the hijacked truck were located.

Out of concern for the safety of the hostage, the Chinese embassy asked the Sudanese government military to avoid any direct attack on the anti-government militants.

On March 23, at the request of the Chinese Government and Sudanese Government, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) agreed to act as a neutral intermediary.

On the night of March 25, the representative of the ICRC told the Chinese Embassy that they had reached an agreement with the rebel group. The hostage would be released at 9 am the next day.

However, fearing sudden attack from the government military, the rebel group decided to put off the release time to 5:30 pm.

At 6:30 pm, Li Aijun was finally handed over to the ICRC in the vicinity of Nyala, the capital of Southern Darfur, after nearly two weeks in custody.

Driving the heavy truck, which had been in rebel hands for 13 days, and accompanied by two ICRC cars, he set out for Nyala.

The trip took more than five hours. It was already 12:05 am in the morning of March 27 when he finally arrived at the hotel in Nyala, where a room had been reserved for him.

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