Missing for over three weeks, Yale senior found in South Africa

More than three weeks after vanishing without a trace in South Africa, Yale senior Natasha Smalls has resurfaced and is on her way home, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks said Friday.

Smalls placed phone calls to her mother and the American consulate in Johannesburg, South Africa, Thursday, 23 days after failing to board the airline flight she planned to take home to New York.

Mike McKay, Meeks’ spokesman in Washington, said Smalls would return to New York over the weekend, but would not specify her arrival time. He also declined to discuss her physical and mental condition or her current whereabouts, citing concerns for her safety.

“Ms. Smalls is still in danger,” McKay said. “Until she’s safe and secure, very limited information will be released.”

Smalls traveled to Durban from Johannesburg Thursday, State Department spokesman Christopher Lamora said. He declined to release further information, citing Smalls’ right to privacy.

A press briefing will be held at John F. Kennedy International Airport at 8 a.m. Sunday. A spokeswoman for Meeks, who represents Smalls’ Queens, New York, congressional district, would not say whether Smalls would be returning at that time.

Smalls’ mother, Glory Smalls, told the New Haven Register Thursday that her daughter had called her from a pay phone in Johannesburg earlier in the day. Smalls told her mother she had been abducted on the way to the airport and drugged.

“She sounded like a 3- or 4-year-old. She’s scared as hell,” Glory Smalls said.

Natasha Smalls studied at the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa, for the spring semester. Her mother traveled to South Africa in April after Smalls told her she had been assaulted, but Smalls insisted on staying and finishing her studies. She decided to travel home July 31 after a period of confinement in a mental institution in Zimbabwe, the Register reported.

Although Smalls called the Johannesburg consulate Thursday, she said she did not want to meet with American officials, said Judy Moon, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa.

Even as Glory Smalls celebrates her daughter’s return, the matter has apparently turned into something of a political football. Meeks’ representatives accused the State Department and the Bush administration of failing to take all the necessary steps to find Smalls.

“This administration didn’t do everything or use all their available resources to unite her with her mother,” McKay said. “They said they just didn’t have the money and resources.

“It’s just been like going up against a brick wall, unfortunately. We’re all in government together, whether Democrat or Republican. She’s an American citizen; we have to work together to bring her home.”

But Lamora specifically refuted McKay’s claim and said the State Department contacted government officials throughout South Africa and Zimbabwe in their efforts to locate her.

“Any allegation or assertion to the contrary is completely baseless,” Lamora said. “We were in nearly daily contact with her mother throughout that time and we made her mother aware of our efforts at every turn. We are continuing to assist Natasha and we will help her get back to the states as soon as possible if that is what she wants to do.”

Back in New Haven, organizers cancelled a vigil for Smalls at Yale’s Afro-American Cultural Center planned for Thursday night after she was reported found.

Yale University Secretary Linda Lorimer, who actively worked with the State Department to help locate Smalls, said Yale administrators were relieved that Smalls had been found.

“We are so relieved that she has reappeared. We have been in contact today with the State Department about her plans for her return home. We hope this is the end of a long ordeal.”

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