Mysterious Kidnapping of the German Diplomat Explained A Journey for Berns [Archives:2001/40/Law & Diplomacy]
Last Monday, September 24, Rainer Berns, the Commercial Attaché of the German Embassy, was freed. He stayed in captivity for more than 8 weeks, and suffered from tremendous pressure during those days.
Even though the developments were reported by Yemen Times on a regular weekly basis, much information about this mysterious kidnapping incident was not revealed.
Yemen Times has always been active in reporting happenings in kidnapping incidents. The latest incident was no exception.
Yemen Times was the only newspaper that reached Berns, talked to him, and took his photo.
As a result of days of hard work, a correspondent of Yemen Times was able to make a complete and comprehensive report of how the kidnapping happened. He was able to reach the hostage and the kidnappers, who turned out to be two brothers belonging to the Zaidi tribe of Jahm. Namely, they were Mohammed Ali Al-Zaidi and Ahmed Ali Al-Zaidi, who are the sons of the deceased, once prominent, sheikh of Jahm, Ali Al-Zaidi.
On Friday July 27, 2001 at 8:40 am, three armed kidnappers snatched Mr. Berns while he was in his car on 60 Meter street. He was on his way home, coming back from the airport after arriving in Sana’a from Germany. He was with his wife and son.
The armed militants were in a gray-colored three-door Land Cruiser Jeep vehicle (see photo). The militants abducted him after a short struggle, after which they had to hit him with their rifles to calm him down. The car drove straight to the airport road, then to Arhab/Bani Hushaish en route to Mareb.
The kidnapping incident was reported to all police stations and checkpoints all over the country with orders to stop the car whenever found. Police forces at control checkpoints were fooled after the kidnappers made Berns wear the clothes of a traditional Yemeni woman (sharshaf). They took him to Serwah, where they arrived at around 1:00 pm.
The First Hideout
At the beginning, Mr. Berns was put in an indecent place for around four days. He was later taken to a more decent house belonging to another person in the same area. He was well-treated during that time and given all that he needed.
However, due to the fact that Berns had high blood pressure due to a heart disease, his health deteriorated, as he is dependent on medicine he takes daily. The kidnappers attempted to purchase medicine to help him recover. Berns also had a problem with food, as he was required to have certain types of meals due to his health problems. He demanded that the kidnappers give him rice without any salt, and with little meat.
Security Forces Mislead
The kidnappers were able to mislead the security forces and hide Berns easily in the Serwah region. The security forces were in total chaos as they were surrounding areas where the kidnapped subject was not even close to. The security apparatus even went to Al-Hada region in the Dhamar governorate, where they accused the sheikhs of that region of kidnapping, while the kidnapped was in totally a different governorate altogether.
One Million Dollars Demanded
Days after the kidnapping incident, kidnappers called the German embassy and talked to the Ambassador. They demanded one million dollars on the phone. Fifteen days after Berns was kidnapped, the kidnappers openly said that they knew where Berns was. The kidnappers, who claimed to be regular tribesmen from the Serwah region, said they knew who the kidnappers were and where Berns was kept, and they demanded one million dollars to have him released. They said that Berns was kept in Serwah, but later taken to a different hideout.
Islamic Jihad’s Involvement
The Islamic Jihad was accused of being behind the kidnapping for various reasons. One is the sophistication and intelligence in which the operation was carried out. The second was because the two kidnappers were members of the movement. Yemen Times was able to interview a leader of the movement in Yemen who denied that the movement had anything to do with the kidnapping, and that it is “not responsible for the individual actions of its members.” The Jahm tribes had openly expressed their disappointment for the actions of the kidnappers and decided to abandon them and let the forces do whatever they feel necessary. The tribe submitted prominent people from the tribe in a way to express their solidarity with the government and their opposition to the kidnappers.
Security Forces Succeed
For the first time since the diplomat was kidnapped, the security forces were able on September 12, to locate where he was kept. Several military units surrounded the hideout with tanks and heavy artillery and threatened to use force to release the hostage. The forces started attacking the hideout with weapons (see photos) and a crossfire between the kidnappers and the forces took place.
The kidnappers, as if to remind the forces of the importance of not shooting for the sake of the hostage, took Berns up to the roof where they attempted to confirm that he was in the house and that the military units should not break into the house. The kidnappers used pillows and household equipment to cover the windows, fearing that one of the army forces’ bullets could penetrate the house, possibly hurting the hostage.
The kidnappers realized that day that they should either resist in the home, escape the house with the hostage, or surrender. As one of the kidnappers said, “We were told that we would have to get out of the house, and we cannot face the forces. We insisted that we would face them even if that could cost our lives.” They insisted that they were courageous enough to leave the house in the middle of the day with Berns and escape from the house to another hideout. “We were challenged that we could not face the forces. We will prove that this statement is wrong,” one of the kidnappers said.
In an unexpected, almost suicidal manner, the kidnappers took Berns into their car’s backseat surrounded by the kidnappers on the right and left sides, with the car driven out of the house by the kidnappers’ sister. The car went out of the house’s yard at 1:00 pm, with two other people from the kidnappers’ side defending the car by shooting towards the soldiers, who escaped unharmed. The car drove among the military units after it was shot at by the military forces, but thankfully without hurting the hostage.
The car drove to a region outside the Serwah village and was chased by military units, after arriving at an almost dead end for the car. The sister drove the car back to the house, while the kidnappers took the hostage, running to a mountainous area that can only be reached by foot. The tanks were firing at them despite the fact that the hostage was among them. Berns himself admitted that the forces were not careful in shooting at the kidnappers.
Then, the kidnappers succeeded in getting away after climbing some mountains. The car took them to the Al-Majizah region. Al-Majizah is an extremely rough, mountainous and vast area. There are little houses belonging to people unhappy with the state and government, due to the little attention given to the area in terms of projects, schools, and services. “Al-Majizah is a totally isolated region of the governorate. We have been living here a life that could be called pre-historic!,” said one of the villagers. It would have been impossible for the military forces to find where their new hideout was. Berns was now in a much worse hideout, which was basically almost a cave, in which he stayed for 11 more days.
Forces in Embarrassment
Of course, the military forces stormed into the first house which was attacked and found out that the hostage was not there. Later in the day, the house was looted.
The escape of the kidnappers in front of the huge number of armed forces resulted in disappointment by all the people concerned. A dispute arose among the military commanders in the region. Each commander would blame the other for the tragic, yet comic situation.
After realizing that force was not enough to have Berns released, the authorities decided to have mediators involved to put an end to the kidnapping and have the German diplomat released.
Berns Makes a Land Call
Following the change in location, Berns was able to deliver letters to the embassy explaining his situation. He said that conditions were out of control, and he experienced moments when police forces were shooting at the kidnappers, risking him being caught in the crossfire that could have potentially hurt him. He said that his situation getting worse due to the difficult conditions in the new hideout.
However, a breakthrough occurred on September 22 when the kidnappers allowed Berns to call his family by a satellite mobile phone. He talked on the phone for a long time with his wife until the line was cut off.
He explained his situation to his wife, who felt even more worried after she learned the security forces stormed the first hideout and that action could be repeated.
Breakthrough in Mediations
The mediators included prominent personalities, and were headed by Member of Parliament, Sultan Al-Arada. They mediations led to a breakthrough. They were based on sincerity, openness, and the wish to save Berns’ life.
The kidnappers said that the said ransom amount and other demands were all false and that they only wanted the government to show some respect to the kidnappers. But the government did the contrary, which made the kidnappers challenge the government with all their might to have the hostage released by force. “The government should have realized that force could never have released the hostage.”
Just before midnight on the morning of Monday September 24, the kidnappers released Berns, giving him to Al-Arada after an agreement to hold tribal arbitration for all that happened in the past and to resolve the issue once and for all. It is still unclear whether the kidnappers will be brought to justice. However, the government seemed to have given up hope in releasing Berns by force. That is why mediations took place, leading to the eventual release of Berns.
Finally, Berns returned to Sana’a on the same morning. He was submitted to the German ambassador at 3:00 am. Berns came back to his family, safe and sound, but after living through miserable times and unbelievable conditions. It was an experience that he will remember all his life. Berns left for Germany following the event, and it is still not known whether he will resume his post, which he had just started.
President Saleh called the latest kidnapping incident the latest fashion in kidnapping techniques, in an interview with Al-Jazeerah Satellite Channel. The closest ever kidnapping incident to this one was that of American expert Kenneth White, which also embarrassed the security apparatus and puzzled authorities.