POLITICS

Big feet, wallet helped save Canadian aid worker kidnapped in Kenya

07/03/2012 12:42 EDT | Updated 09/02/2012 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - Big feet and a fortuitously placed wallet helped save the day for a Canadian aid worker snatched at gunpoint at a Kenyan refugee camp and marched with three other captors across the border into Somalia, his parents said Tuesday.

Clearly relieved after days of frantic worry, Carol-Ann and Peter Dennis were able to share some of the humour that helped sustain their son Steve Dennis during his ordeal.

"He's tall, so he's got big feet," Carol-Ann told The Canadian Press.

"The trackers could track them because they could see the big foot and some little feet in the pattern of walking."

Dennis, 37, of Toronto, and fellow Canadian, Qurat-Ul-Ain Sadazai, 38, of Gatineau, Que., were among four aid workers snatched at gunpoint from the huge Dadaab refugee camp inside Kenya near the Somalia border on Friday.

Their Kenyan driver was killed when four gunmen attacked their two-vehicle convoy. The group later abandoned the vehicle they had taken and walked across the border.

A pro-government Somali militia rescued them Monday several kilometres inside Somalia in a mission that saw one of their captors killed.

Also kidnapped and rescued with them were Astrid Sehl, 33, of Norway, and Glenn Costes, 40, a Filipino, who was shot during the initial kidnapping. Dennis was also grazed by a bullet.

"In Steve's case, it happened to hit him right in his wallet that he carries in his front (leg) pocket — it bruised him a little bit," his father said.

"He said he was saved by his credit cards."

Dennis, who had worked with Doctors Without Borders, grabbed a first-aid kid and was able to bind Costes' wounds, his parents said.

The civil engineer also cut branches to fashion into walking poles — his parents are instructors in Nordic pole walking — and joked that he planned to introduce the recreational exercise to the African continent.

Dennis told his parents the kidnappers treated their captors respectfully.

Rolf Vestvik, with the Norwegian Refugee Council that employs the aid workers, said from Oslo on Tuesday the former hostages were taking a day to get some rest before pondering their next steps.

"They have actually been making a lot of decisions the last three days that meant life or death to them, so they've been in an extremely stressful situation," Vestvik said.

Vestvik said Dennis seemed like he is "mostly keen" to go back to Dadaab and continue his work there.

His folks said that comes as no surprise.

"He looks like he just stepped off a cruise or something," Peter Dennis remarked when they saw their son on TV.

"He looked worse when he used to go camping three days in the woods in Canada and not been held hostage," Carol-Ann chimed in.

Carol-Ann said when she saw her son on TV, she immediately recognized the clean white shirt she had bought him for Christmas.

Because they were walking at night, his captors asked him to put on something less visible, so he tucked the shirt into his bag, leaving him something clean to wear after his rescue.

The Dennis's said they were grateful to the governments in the region, even if they are "not quite sure who all they are."

They also praised the Canadian government "for reaching out" to them and the refugee council for helping them get through days of worry and sleepless nights.

"Those three days felt much, much longer," Carol-Ann said. "We wouldn't wish it on anyone."

While they cancelled Canada Day celebrations they had planned, they did keep a supper date Saturday night so as not to draw attention to their son's plight and to help keep their minds off the possibilities.

They were all too aware two Spanish aid workers remain hostage, eight months after they were kidnapped from the same refugee camp.

"Your imagination isn't always your best friend," Peter said.

The couple extended their condolences to the family of the dead driver and expressed sadness at the two missing Spaniards.

The Pakistani-born Sadazai had just returned to Kenya — where she had worked from 2007-2010 — in February to become deputy director of the NRC's operations in Somalia and Kenya.

"We are alive and we are happy this has ended," Sadazai said after the group landed in Nairobi Monday.

Dennis had worked for the council in Kenya for the past year but also had a lengthy background in humanitarian work.

Dadaab is the world's largest refugee camp with a growing population that has swelled to about 464,000 people.