Clementina Cantoni, kidnapped (and released)
Italian CARE International Aid Worker
… single-handedly managed a relief project helping 10,000 Afghan widows and their children… While Clementina was held hostage for 24 days, these Afghan widows opened their doors and took to the street to protest for her release.
CARE, the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, is an organization working to end poverty and provide aid during any kind of emergency across the globe. Importantly, CARE has a major focus on empowering women in places where they have few opportunities to thrive and succeed. CARE began in the U.S. in 1945 when it was known as Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe. It has since grown into an operation with twelve international sections, working in some of the most unstable and dangerous areas of the world, including Afghanistan. CARE International Afghanistan has been operating since 1961 and works in communities to help the overall living conditions of the people, including improving education, health matters, clean water and sanitation, and increasing economic opportunities.
Clementina Cantoni, an aid worker from Italy, moved to Kabul in 2002 to work for CARE International. As a young aid worker, Cantoni was soon managing CARE International's Humanitarian Assistance for Women of Afghanistan program (HAWA), working with thousands of Afghan widows and their children (including children who were orphaned). HAWA’s mission is to ensure that those who were left behind to care for themselves and their children, with no family or support system, are not forgotten. Often, the plight of these women goes unnoticed by the public, who are concerned with their own day-to-day lives. HAWA is there to supply clean water, food, medicine, and clothing. In addition, beyond these most basic necessities, HAWA creates job opportunities to help give women the chance to become more independent, strong, and self-sufficient. Clementina Cantoni was in charge of this project, overseeing jobs programs and going to the homes of the women to listen to their stories and to help provide them with what they needed; in many cases, Cantoni was all they had.
It is always dangerous to travel in Afghanistan, a country still in turmoil and chaos, impatient for the positive changes that have been promised. Cantoni had ten years of experience in humanitarian work, and had been living in Kabul for three years working for CARE International. She was unafraid to travel out to visit the women, but was always careful. As a friend of hers, Nadene Ghouri, noted, “If you choose to live in a post-conflict zone, the risk of explosions and the odd rocket is something you can accept. The risk of bring abducted at gunpoint, however, is genuinely terrifying.” On May 16, 2005, Clementina Cantoni was forcibly taken from her car by armed men into another automobile. After three weeks in captivity, and a false report of her death, Cantoni was released, relatively unharmed.
The kidnapping of any foreign aid worker would naturally bring about calls, for his or her release, from the organization of which the person was a part, family members, and the government. This was done in Cantoni’s case—CARE International spoke out immediately for her release, her mother appealed to the kidnappers’ mothers, and both the Italian and Afghan governments demanded her release, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai calling her a “daughter of Afghanistan” for her work. But there was one appeal that had the greatest impact—the number of Afghan women who came out of their homes to protest her kidnapping, and request her release. Living their lives behind the walls of their homes, it took incredible courage for these women to go and speak out. The answer to the question, “Why did they?” lies in their own words. One woman said, “She helped us. After God, she was our hope.” At one of the public rallies, another declared, “She is our guardian serving us. We pray to God to bring her back safe and sound. I request my brothers (kidnappers) to release her as soon as possible.” Others added their voices to the call for Cantoni’s release. She was more than an aid worker; she had become a caring friend who never forgot a face, a name, or a story. Empowered by Cantoni, the women she helped were proud to help her in return.
In a time where many aid workers would consider leaving the country because of dangerous circumstances or frustrations that their efforts were not making a difference, Clementina Cantoni chose to stay and help the women she cared about in the country where she had been living for three years. When she was captured by Afghan criminals, those whom she had helped showed the world the difference she had made by opening their doors and their voices to support their friend while fighting for her release.