Simona Pari and Simona Torretta arrive at Rome’s Ciampino military airport.
Pier Paolo Cito  /  AP
Aid workers Simona Pari, left, and Simona Torretta arrive at Rome’s Ciampino military airport Tuesday night.
By NBC News Producer
NBC News
updated 9/29/2004 3:27:03 PM ET 2004-09-29T19:27:03

Good news swept through Italy with lightning speed just after 5:30 on Tuesday afternoon. Kidnapped women aid workers Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, both 29, were suddenly free after three weeks of national angst.

Regular neighborhood folks poured into the streets and congregated in front of the girls’ families’ apartment buildings in their hometowns, one in Rome, the other in the beach resort of Rimini.

The news broke first, as it often does, on Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite news network. A few minutes later a statement released by the Italian Prime Minister’s office confirmed the TV report.

Not long after that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi personally took the floor in Italy’s parliament to officially inform the nation’s government and its people. 

For once Berlusconi appeared to exhibit more relief than self-satisfaction.  After Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni was killed by kidnappers last month Berlusconi could not afford for this situation to end badly.

Mothers’ relief spreads across country
In Rimini, it wasn’t until Simona Pari’s mother appeared on her apartment balcony, simultaneously crying and smiling, that the waiting crowd on the street below knew the news was finally true. 

An Italian mother’s emotion is one of the most compelling forces in this culture, and her relief spread through the cheering crowd.

The coffee bar on the block quickly brought out bottles of Italian sparkling wine called Prosecco, and the crowd toasted Simona’s release. They even handed a glass to the TV reporter while he was doing a live shot.

In Rome’s working class neighborhood of Cinecitta” (named after the nearby film studio complex where Federico Fellini’s films were made) the picture was the same, but the crowd was much thicker in the heavily populated area.  Simona Torretta’s mother was beaming in a sea of people, cameras and microphones, her eyes gleaming with a mother’s joy.

When a reporter yelled out from the crowd if she planned on preventing her daughter from returning to Iraq after this, she responded differently than the stereotype of the Italian Mamma that would lead one to expect. 

Torretta’s mother said, “No. She will definitely go back.  Maybe not to Iraq but to dangerous places where help is needed. This is her calling in life. You can’t stop your children from doing what they want to do in life.”

Smiles at arrival lit up nation
When the two Simonas, as they are fondly known in Italy, landed at Rome’s Ciampino airport just after 11pm Tuesday night their smiling faces on live television warmed the hearts of the whole country.

People were glued to their TV sets, watching the mothers board the plane first to hug their daughters privately before the media onslaught.

The freed Simonas stepped off the private jet wearing Arab kaftans and sandals. The kaftans were different colors, Pari’s was cream colored and Torretta’s was pink, but that’s where the differences ended. The two aid workers, with the same first name, the same age, 29, and the same radiant, beaming smiles were bathed in a universal sense of gratitude and relief.

Crowds waiting at the respective homes would have to wait four more hours to see them in person, because they were first taken to a debriefing with the chief anti-terrorism prosecutor who is investigating the kidnappings of all Italians.

The morning papers didn’t spare any ink on some of the largest type headlines seen in a very long time.  Rome’s most popular daily, Il Messaggero lead with the headline, “At Home!”, the Neapolitan daily Il Mattino read, “Welcome back!”, and Turin’s La Stampa said “The Nightmare Is Over.”

Candies from captors
Simona Torretta told reporters before going up to her Roman family home that they were treated with the utmost respect, by kidnappers who were “religious, modest, never laid a hand on them, and told them they wouldn’t die.”  Torretta said that just before releasing them, the captures apologized for kidnapping them, asked for their forgiveness, and gave them a box of Iraqi candy and a Koran.

The two Simonas made it clear that they harbor no resentment against their captors and Simona Torretta said she would definitely be going back to Iraq.

After a lot of bad news from the continuing violence in Iraq, Italians on Wednesday morning seemed to be sharing a collective hangover of good cheer.

Despite rumors that a ransom might have been paid to secure the two women's release, the collective relief at their return could not be diminished. Unlike previous kidnappings which divided public opinion, this first kidnapping of Italian women brought unprecedented unity at every level of society and universal joy at their safe return.

Stephen Weeke is the NBC News Bureau Chief in Rome.

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