Life can be cheap in Africa, and this weekend my parents experienced it firsthand. 50/50, my dad said. It was 50/50 as to whether they would come out alive or would be found dead together, husband and wife, lying side by side in a pool of blood in their own bathroom.
I know this is shocking, but I am going to tell you like it was. This weekend we could have lost our parents to murder. But we didn’t. By being submissive and co-operating with the armed intruders and possibly with an army of angels looking over them, (for you mom!) they were allowed to live. Many others in their small farming district, however, have not been so lucky.
It was a normal Friday night on the farm. The stars were out and the nightjar was calling. The thousands of frogs nearby were in mid song and the crisp country air hinted the beginnings of winter. Friday nights are always ‘nights in;’ a chance to put your feet up, relax and escape the heavy demands of the farm with a good movie. Lying on their favourite couches, slippers on and surrounded by their most loved 5 furry dog friends, they were content. They could never have anticipated what would happen next.
‘What’s that noise? I heard a noise outside,’ said my mother.
‘I didn’t hear anything. I’m sure it’s nothing,’ said my father. They carried on watching their movie.
2 minutes later my mother heard another noise and she wondered if maybe one of the dogs had been locked out and wanted to get in. But she counted 5 dogs. They were all inside. Then she turned her head as the creaky brass handle of the front door slowly began to move, her mind struggling to process what her conscience already knew. They were not alone.
Panic and fear consumed the cozy room as the door was smashed open with a heavy metal pipe. 4 vehement men stormed in, armed with Tasers, pepper spray and a gun. My father instinctively turned in the direction of his safe, the place where he kept his gun. Luckily he had no time to retrieve it; otherwise him and my mother would surely have been shot dead during the course of the night. In those few split seconds of them breaking in, my mother escaped out the kitchen back door. But she was caught exiting the garage as she attempted to flee into the darkness of her garden. She was dragged back inside.
When she came back in, my father lay huddled on the floor as they tasered him over and over again. They demanded that he tell them where the safe is? They had come for guns and money.
My parents do not keep money in the house. All their farm staff are paid via internet banking, because of this problem. (Paying your staff cash in South Africa is like an open invitation for criminals to pay you a deadly mid-night visit.) But there was a problem. Losing keys in my family seems to be a genetic downfall, myself included! My dad could not remember where he had put the keys for the safe and these people seemed not to be the type to accept anything less than what they had come for. Luckily my mother had thought about this possible scenario just recently and had gotten a spare key made for the safe. They pushed my father into the bathroom and tied him up into a fetal position. From there, it was up to my mother to communicate with the intruders and to lead them to the safe. With a gun to her head, she located her key and opened the safe, knowing there was no money inside; only a gun.
The intruders became extremely agitated at not finding money and believed, without a doubt in their mind, that there must be another safe in the house. They believed my parents were lying to them. They shouted at her, threatening to blow her husband’s brains out. They repeatedly made reference to the brutal Underberg farm murder that took place not so long ago. With a barrel of a gun pointed at her temple, she told them over and over again, that they were hiding nothing. They tied her up too. My parents lay side by side, at the mercy of their captors.
In the meantime, the others ransacked the house in search of another safe, ripping down the paintings and family photos from the walls, stripping the beds, toppling over furniture and spewing books from the bookcase. Possessed by the thought of acquiring money, they became more and more enraged at the possibility of not finding it.
Back in the bathroom, my parents had switched to survival mode. By now, they instinctively knew that one wrong move, one wrong word, one wrong look at these people could mean that ‘tonight’ would be their last. They remembered everything that had happened this last year. They remembered the elderly Richmond couple and their son who had come back from Germany to celebrate his parent’s anniversary. They were all massacred on his first night back home. They remembered the Eston father and son who ventured out into the night after the farm guard informed them there was a burglary taking place in the shed, only to be ambushed and attacked and finally shot dead in their sugarcane field. They remembered the Underberg couple where the man was bludgeoned to death with a hammer while his partner was forced to watch. They remembered Mr. Hackland, a gentle farmer in our district who was recently murdered when he was burgled for money in broad day light. And finally they remembered my younger brother who was also once locked in a bathroom with his best friend and the mother, while intruders attacked and killed the father in an armed burglary. Death was on their doorstep and they knew it. The only chance they had of surviving this was to do as they were told; to not make eye contact and to co-operate as much as possible.
My mother kept thinking, ‘Don’t make them angry.’
She suggested they take the bank cards and that she would write down their pin numbers. She offered them her jewelry, her wedding ring. ‘Take the TV, the laptops and our cell phones,’ she said. She also offered them the farm vehicles, all of them if they wanted.
But they just wanted money and they already had my father’s gun.
He tasered her in the neck and she screamed. Then his fist smashed into her face, while my father lay tied up on the floor, helpless. “I love you Cheryl, I love you,” my dad said, believing that the end was inevitably here. At this point my mother began to panic. ‘How far is this going to go? Are they going to rape me? Are they about to kill us; is this how it’s going to end for us?’
After being beaten, they left them alone in the bathroom for a few minutes except for the one pointing a gun at my mother’s head. Any talking between my parents would prompt the intruder to motion his finger across his throat, warning them with no uncertain terms, to keep quiet or he would kill them.
A few minutes later, they asked my parents for the pick-up keys and the remote for the gate. They loaded what they could and left the property.
10 minutes later, they were gone and my parents are still alive.
I firmly believe that being non-aggressive and co-operative in this situation helped save their lives. So many others have not been lucky. I have only mentioned a few murders that have recently happened in our farming community, but it is no secret that in the rural areas in South Africa, innocent people are plagued with murder and violence all the time.
Our family has had a bad run these last few months. First my husband received a call from a gang saying that they had a ‘contract’ on our family (Mozambique) and now my parents have experienced a violent armed robbery. (South Africa)
I cannot speak for anyone else, but for me. These 2 experiences have given me huge clarity about what is important to me in life. Those few minutes that I believed my child might have been kidnapped have been ingrained in my soul. I wonder if it is the same for my parents. First, the importance to live in an environment that we feel safe and secondly, the overwhelming realization that nothing else really matters except that you and your family still have each other and are alive; that possessions, savings, deadlines and the other daily matters that consume our life mean nothing in the end. It’s when ‘life’ is about to be ripped away from us that we really understand what is important and what is not.
The Bright Field by R.S. Thomas
I have seen the sun break through to illuminate a small field for a while,
And gone my way and forgotten it.
But that was a pearl of great price, the one field that had treasure in it.
I realize now that I must give all that I have to possess.
Life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past.
It is the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush, to a brightness that seemed
As transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you.