“Why them?” is the question being asked by people close to Kenilworth botanists Rod and Rachel Saunders, allegedly abducted in KwaZulu-Natal by people with links to terrorist group Isis.
News of the couple’s disappearance has shocked their neighbours in Silverhill Crescent, but most were reluctant to talk or have their names published.
“They are such lovely people with such a positive outlook on life. I simply cannot put two and two together. They always offered to help where they can and always made themselves available,” one resident said, peeking through a slight opening in the door.
It was clear that news of the couple’s alleged abduction by an Isis-linked group had reached the residents.
“I could not believe it at first, because somebody spoke about their disappearance and then we read an article which stated Isis had something to do with their disappearance. My alarm bells immediately went off and I asked several questions,” another neighbour said, adding: “But why Rod and Rachel? I would love to know.”
When asked what the couple, who are British citizens, were like, the neighbour said: “The sweetest couple you could find. A walking encyclopedia when it came to plants and seeds. The go-to people when you were in need of assistance.”
The clearly distressed neighbour could not recall the last time she had seen the couple but said she was becoming increasingly worried about them as more details emerged about their disappearance.
She said: “If rumours of them being abducted by a terrorist group are true, then it would be very puzzling, because why would you abduct Rod and Rachel?”
Dr Tony Rebelo, of the South African National Biodiversity Institute, agrees.
“They are among the last of all people who deserve this to have happened to them,” he said.
He described the couple as “empathetic, generous, supporting, encouraging, helpful” and their disappearance was “simply devastating”.
The couple went missing in rural KwaZulu-Natal, on Sunday February 11, while searching for rare seeds. Days earlier they had filmed with the BBC show Gardeners’ World.
Nick Bailey, a presenter on the show, tweeted a photograph of himself with the couple saying: “The amazing Rod and Rachel of Silverhill Seeds. These guys know their South African native plants and, vitally, where to find them. They sell an incredible range of seeds”.
The photo is believed to be the last taken of the couple before their disappearance.
Three people have been arrested in connection with their disappearance.
Two of them, a couple, have alleged links to the terrorist group Isis.
The couple have lived in Kenilworth for many years. They run an online rare-plant and seed business from their home in Kenilworth but spend most of their time travelling to search for seeds.
They are well known and respected in horticultural circles.
The local branch of the International Plant Propagators’ Society (IPPS), of which the Saunderses have been members since 1997, appealed to the couple’s alleged abductors on its website to bring them home. The website said the couple were “always willing to share their incredible knowledge of the southern Africa flora”.
Botanical groups’ social media sites have all been posting media articles on the couple’s plight.
Warwick Bayer replied to a post on the Cape Green Forum, saying: “This is such a shocking and numbing story. That this should happen to two such gentle people. They could only have been out in the veld enjoying the plants and environment.”
Hawks spokesman Lloyd Ramova said there had been no new developments in the case.
“The couple is still sought. They were last seen around Vryheid. A dedicated team remain in place continuing with the search,” he said. “At this stage the accused have been charged for robbery with aggravating circumstances, kidnapping, amongst other charges.”