NAIROBI, Kenya — Gunmen firing indiscriminately into a coastal trading center kidnapped an Italian woman and wounded several other people in the first kidnapping of a foreigner in Kenya in several years, authorities and witnesses said Wednesday.
Silvia Costanza Romano, a 23-year-old volunteer working with Kenyan students, had begged for help before she was violently taken away by the attackers who stormed the Chakama trading center on the coastal county of Kilifi at around 8 p.m. on Tuesday, police and witnesses said.
Romano, who studied linguistic mediation in Milan, had told friends back home how happy she had been in Kenya and had planned to stay at least until the end of the year because she felt enriched "like never before in my life."
Five people were wounded in the attack, including three children, said Kenya's police chief, Joseph Boinnet. The motive for the abduction isn't clear and the identity of the attackers is not yet known, he said.
Romano had been working for the Italian-based humanitarian group Africa Milele, according to Boinnet and Italy's foreign ministry.
The gunmen came looking for a white woman, according to Ronald Kazungu Ngala, 19, who said he witnessed Romano's violent kidnapping. Ngala's high school education is being sponsored by Africa Milele and he had gone to the NGO's offices to present his grade 10 end of year report card to Romano, he said.
He heard gunfire which prompted all the shops in the area to close and many people in the trading center to hide.
At around 7.30 p.m. six men, some armed with guns and others with machetes and clubs stormed into the Milele offices and demanded to know where is the "mgeni" (Swahili for visitor).
"I told them she had left to go and get a power bank, but they didn't believe me and surged into the room where they found her," he said.
Ngala said he followed them and heard one gunman ask the other if she is the one and when he was answered in the affirmative, he proceeded to "slap her very hard until she fell."
"Ronald please, please! Ronald, please help," Romano said, according to Ngala. "I tried to push away a man who was smothering her while holding her down for her hands to be tied behind her back, but someone hit me in the head with a club and I got dizzy. She told me to help myself and I ran for the man at the door with a club and pushed him away and escaped." He said two of the gunmen who were outside the room shot at onlookers.
Ngala said the gunmen took Romano across the Galana River. He said the gunmen looked and spoke like members of a local herding community known as Orma. Many herding communities in Kenya that live near the border areas are armed to protect themselves against rivals, who may come across the border to steal their livestock.
In one of her latest postings on Twitter, Romano said she was grateful to the kids she was working with for showing her how to live without material things.
"These children, these people have taught me to live with no material things but with love, Joy, gratitude, smiles, sincere eyes ... and be happy in such simple way. Thank you Kenya, thank you Chakama. This has been the deepest experience of my Life," she said.
In Milan, where Romano lived, friends and her former employer said she had found fulfillment in Kenya and had even delayed a planned return to Italy.
"She told me about the beautiful people that she met, people who although they had nothing were always joyful, ready to smile at you," said Silvia Cirstaldi, a friend who worked at the Zero Gravity gym where Romano taught gymnastics. "This is what I think pushed her to go back."
Gym manager Francesco Pisani said he had heard from Romano in September, when she called to say she wouldn't be coming back as planned. He played for The Associated Press a WhatsApp audio file Romano sent him, where she said she has been offered a position through November or December.
"It has to do with what I have studied and anyway in these two months I found it very fascinating and I have felt really satisfied and happy inside," Romano said. "I feel as though it is the right decision for my future and it will enrich me a lot as it has in the past two months like never before in my life and well, big hugs and let me know."
Somali-based Islamic extremists have been blamed in the past for a spate of kidnappings of foreigners along Kenya's coast. Kenya said it was prompted to send troops to Somalia in 2011 to fight al-Shabab militants after the kidnappings of four foreigners.
One of the foreigners, a cancer-stricken quadriplegic Frenchwoman kidnapped off a Kenyan resort island, died in captivity in Somalia.
Confronted by a slump in tourism following the kidnappings, Kenya deployed troops to Somalia later in October, 2011, to fight the militants. Al-Shabab has since carried out numerous attacks in Kenya, saying it is vengeance for the country's troop presence in Somalia.