Real Life

Kiwi’s OE terror – I was kidnapped in Cambodia

It was supposed to be a well-deserved holiday in Asia to help Kiwi woman Claudia Kelly overcome the sudden death of a close friend.

But instead, the trip resulted in a terrifying kidnapping ordeal in Cambodia where the Auckland personal trainer was forced to give her captors her life savings before they let her go.

Nearly a year after the horrific incident, Claudia (24) has gained the confidence to finally speak about her experience, and to warn others about the dangers of travelling alone, and being too trusting in a foreign country.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to be so messed up when I return home,'” Claudia says. “I’d never experienced true terror before then. It was really scary.”

It was on a whim that Claudia decided last June to spend two months travelling through India, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. She was grieving the death of her PhD supervisor and friend Johann Edge, who died suddenly in an accident, and an overseas trip was what she needed.

“I decided to go travelling alone to try to clear my head and gain some perspective on life,” she says.

After a fun-filled month in India, Claudia travelled to the second leg of her trip in Cambodia. She spent an eventful week in the Southeast Asian country and on her second to last day, Claudia befriended two women who approached her while she was walking by the river in the capital city, Phnom Penh.

“When they discovered I was from New Zealand, they said their sister was going to move to Wellington. I agreed to meet their sister and their mother the next day to talk about New Zealand because their mother was nervous.”

The following day she was picked up by one of the women on a scooter and they rode for 20 minutes to a small apartment.

The two woman said her sister and mother were in hospital and while they waited for their return, they introduced Claudia to their brother, a dealer at the local casino, and taught her blackjack.

“They were very hospitable. They fed me dinner and we talked about our countries,” says Claudia. “I felt so warm towards them that I gave them gifts and told them that being with them was the highlight of my trip.”

But the visit soon turned sour. After a few rounds of blackjack, where gambling chips were used but Claudia thought she was playing for fun, her guest revealed that she owed $78,500 and they demanded she pay her debt.

“They were holding me tight and being threatening,” she says. “I felt that if I didn’t do what they said, they would hurt me. I was alone and felt vulnerable. There wasn’t an opportunity to escape.

“I had been duped by how nice they were and how smooth their story had been until the point they got really nasty.”

They drove Claudia to a nearby money exchange and forced her to withdraw $10,000, and then took her to an internet café, making her transfer money between her accounts so she could withdraw more from ATos around the city. Even after giving them $24,000 – her life savings – the captors dropped Claudia back to her accommodation, insisting they would return when Claudia got more money from her family and friends.

Scared and suffering from severe panic attacks, Claudia went to the Cambodian police, only to discover they did not take her seriously.

“They accused me of being drunk, taking drugs and sleeping with the offenders,” Claudia says. “They laughed and insulted me as I was crying in the offices. When they finally decided to file a report, they told me to pay them if I wanted them to pursue it.”

After discovering there was no New Zealand embassy, Claudia found her way to the British embassy, who directed her to a safe place to stay while she waited for her flight back to New Zealand, cutting short her Asian jaunt a month early.

Claudia says she was an emotional wreck on her return, and suffered severe depression. She was only able to recoup half of what she lost through her insurance.

But despite what happened, there is a silver lining. Claudia was recently accepted to study medicine at the University of oxford, the only Kiwi to do so this year.

“I want to do the best I can in life. I’m stunned and amazed to be accepted into oxford,” she says.

Claudia says the focus of attending oxford has helped her overcome her horrific ordeal. She’s saddened to lose most of her life savings but is holding an auction in July to help her fundraise.

“I worked so hard to save and all that effort has gone. The fact that oxford medical school is expensive means that money would have been useful.”

Despite what happened, Claudia doesn’t hold a grudge against her kidnappers. In fact, she plans to visit third world countries like Cambodia to do relief work when she becomes a doctor.

“To them I was a walking dollar sign. I don’t feel resentment – I feel sorry for them. I only wish there was more warning about this kind of thing before I left. If I had been warned, if I had known, I would have been more careful.”

Travel advice for Cambodia

New Zealand Foreign Affairs says there’s been an increase in violent crime against foreign travellers, particularly in areas frequented by tourists and expatriates, including the riverfront area of Phnom Penh, and at isolated beaches in Sihanoukville. New Zealanders are advised to be vigilant and maintain a high level of personal security awareness at all times.

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