Two American Families Plead for the Return of Sons Caught in Zimbabwe's Tangled Political Web

updated 02/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

For the two young Americans, the tour of southern Africa was irresistible. Along with 16 other young people from England and Australia, they traveled by truck, camping out at night, buying food in local markets and getting to know the people of Zimbabwe, South Africa and Tanzania. The trip was everything they hoped for—until last July 23. The truck was moving south through Zimbabwe when a group of armed men stopped it, removed Kevin Ellis, 24, of Seattle, Brett Baldwin, 23, of Walnut Creek, Calif. and four English and Australian tour members, and disappeared into the bush. The young men haven't been heard from since.

In a note sent to Prime Minister Robert Mugabe a few days later, the kidnappers identified themselves as Zimbabwean political dissidents. They said that they would release the six prisoners if the Mugabe government would release seven of their colleagues who had been accused of treason. For months the Ellis and Baldwin families trusted their sons' fate to the Mugabe government, receiving daily advisories from the U.S. State Department about the Zimbabwean Army's search. They even sought to touch the Zimbabwe villagers with taped radio appeals. "I am the mother of Kevin Ellis," said Dorene Ellis, 57. "We love Kevin who is a loving and gentle person.... My husband and I from the depths of our hearts ask for your help in obtaining the release of Kevin and his five companions." But the waiting continued.

This month William Ellis, a senior vice-president of the Westin hotel chain, and Brooks Baldwin, a real estate man, decided on a more aggressive approach. Two weeks ago they flew to Zimbabwe to announce their plan. The fathers offered to pay the legal costs of Lookout Masuku and Dumiso Dabengwa, the most prominent of the jailed dissidents. Their defense against charges of high treason will cost $25,300. In exchange, Baldwin and Ellis want their sons and the other hostages freed. "We've created a totally new channel of communication," said Ellis, who claims to have received a favorable response to their offer, but won't discuss specifics.

The situation in Zimbabwe is volatile. The former British colony of Rhodesia became independent in 1980 after a seven-year guerrilla war. But in the 1980 elections, former guerrilla leader Mugabe defeated his ex-comrade in arms Joshua Nkomo at the polls; soon Nkomo's supporters had taken up arms again, this time against their fellow Zimbabweans. The kidnappers are believed to be guerrillas sympathetic to Nkomo. There is no certainty the hostages are still alive. An article in South Africa's Johannesburg Star on Feb. 2 reported that "reliable sources indicated that all six had been slain by their captors." Yet Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe's Minister of State Security, says his intelligence tells him that "at least five are possibly alive. Of the sixth, I have doubts."

Now back from Africa, the fathers remain confident their sons are alive in the bush. "It looked like a green sea," Baldwin said of the target area in southwest Zimbabwe. "It's very heavily vegetated and very easy to hide there."

While Ellis and Baldwin traveled to Africa, their wives launched a campaign to bring national attention to their sons' plight. In interviews, Dorene Ellis and Kay Baldwin reminisced about their sons, who met in Singapore when their fathers worked there 14 years ago. (Later the boys were roommates at the University of Washington.) "We lived in a hotel in Singapore," remembers Kay Baldwin, "and Brett built this tent under the porch. He'd have his friends over. That's the way boys are. They'd do everything in that tent." Said Dorene, "Kevin was a toucher. He'll touch you. He'd sometimes put his arms around you and say, 'I love you,' and give me a kiss."

While the parents wait, bright green leaflets are being dropped by helicopter and taped messages are being broadcast throughout Zimbabwe. "Every mother in the world understands the pain in my heart," Dorene Ellis pleads in her message. "These young people are guilty of nothing but traveling through your country." That message has been broadcast throughout Zimbabwe for the last three months. But, as of last week, the pleas of the parents had drawn little but silence from the sea-green Zimbabwean bush.

Reported by V.R. PETERSON in New York and PETER HAWTHORNE in Johannesburg

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