In the fight against terrorism, NGOs are indispensable

Silvia Romano, who works for the Milanese charity Africa Milele, was seized by gunmen in south-eastern Kenya in 2018. Alessio Colonnelli,  translator and commentator on European political and social affairs, examines why her sudden release has sparked such a large debate in Italy.

Silvia Romano was freed in Somalia on the night between Friday [May] 8 and Saturday 9 after 18 months’ captivity. Kidnapped by al-Shabab in Kenya, where she was working with children for an NGO, Romano finally got back to her native Milan on Monday 11 – safe and sound. During her imprisonment she learned Arabic and converted to Islam.

Upon arrival at Rome’s airport from Mogadishu, she told the media – and repeated this in Milan – that at no point had she been treated badly by her captors. At some stage, having fallen ill, the captors got hold of the necessary medicine to make her better, Romano reportedly said.

She was wearing a veil, but also a surgical mask like everyone else. And so, after months of tragic coronavirus news, this great story pops up at a time when Italians had almost given up any hope of seeing her ever again.

Italian authorities were assisted by Turkish and Somali intelligence. A hefty ransom was paid; perhaps well over a million dollars. The exact amount hasn’t been disclosed. Not all among the public have cheered: the huge sum spent on someone who was basically looking for trouble, they say, is a scandal. Social media are full of such sentiment.

Others, without mocking her but still suspicious of Romano’s motives behind her altruism, were also sceptical about the use of public money that will go to fund terrorist activities. These members of the public argue that it’d be better to train up local NGO workers instead of sending “our” people. This, I think, is both the most interesting and insidious point to debate. It is indeed a reasonable objection to make. To sum up this argument against Romano’s type of voluntary work in Africa: let’s help, but not in situ.

A compelling point, no doubt. Yet, there’s a danger in this proposal: NGO work seeks to establish a connection between our world and theirs; a human bond. Doing otherwise might beget a sense of segregation, of confinement and abandonment. That’s surely not the goal. Or we might as well send robots and drones piloted via satellite technology. Even this might not come cheap; certainly not cheaper than occasionally paying a ransom to free a hostage, as regrettable yet necessary as this is.

More poignantly, the importance of having “our” people there to teach and play with children, like Romano did, is to hopefully see one day happier people who won’t fall prey to terrorist groups. Al-Shabab recruits desperate, angry individuals, likely to have been neglected as children. That’s what poverty and violence do to people; they tear human bonds apart, leaving us feeling wretched and alone. Chronic neglect can be – not always – the breeding ground for warped minds, seeking revenge through brutality. Al-Shabab kidnapped Romano to fund its bloody revolution, but also because of hatred towards people bringing smiles and happiness from afar.

The scary story of this young Italian woman, which has luckily ended well (impossible, however, to imagine how traumatic this must’ve been for her), tells us that volunteer work in Africa of the kind Romano did – worth stressing: entirely unpaid – is a great investment and, on the whole, extra government payments included, still very cheap at that.

We all benefit from this and surely that makes for a better and happier world. Of course, it’s a strenuous path, with no apparent end in sight. But fewer terrorist recruits means fewer attacks, either over here or there – that is less misery. Not difficult to understand, is it?

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  • Alessio Colonnelli is an Italian freelance translator, writer and commentator on European political and social affairs, and a contributor to publications that include The New Statesman, The Independent, Prospect Magazine, the Huffington Post (UK), Foreign Policy and Politico Europe. His regularly updated blog, Thoughts on Europe, can be found here.

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