(written, in the most part, last night)
Although I started writing this last night in my head, nearly seventeen hours ago, I’m finding myself strangely lost now that I’ve managed to borrow a computer to sit down at and begin to get the words up onto the screen. I feel numb and exhausted, and my right hand is surprisingly painful as I stretch to reach the keys. I thought this would be easier than sitting in a busy police station giving a straightforward account to an unsympathetic police officer, but it feels more difficult than I expected. Right, enough procrastinating, here is the story….
Last night, not long after I had posted on my blog, I was sitting on the couch with my laptop on my knees when I glanced up to see a look of surprise on my husband Clive’s face. He was sitting at the desk in front of me, working on the computer, and had turned around upon hearing a sound behind me. I turned to follow his eyes and saw three young men walking briskly from the kitchen into the living room, about a meter away from me and moving fast, one holding a gun pointed at me and the other two holding knives, telling us firmly to get on the floor, face down. One of them saw Clive and ran towards him with a knife, while the gun stayed pointed at my head. I didn’t hesitate – with a glance to check Clive was doing the same, I put my laptop on the couch next to me and lay quickly face down on the cold floor tiles. It’s amazing how many thoughts can run through your head in quick succession, as I remembered many stories of armed robberies, and knew without a second’s hesitation that our best chance of surviving the situation was to be as calm and co-operative as possible.
Clive was slower to get down on the floor, as he was watching to see that I was okay, and he was too slow for our visitor’s liking – a sharp kick to the side of his head as he went down sent his head hard into the floor. I felt the impact. We ended up at 90 degrees to each other, and by rolling my head to the left a little I could push it up against the crown of his head – a gentle pressure as I said softly, “I love you.” It seemed the only important thing to say, the only comfort we could offer each other, and when we could no longer say the words, I kept gently pushing against him every few minutes, sending as much love silently through this small physical contact as I possibly could.
The blanket that had been on my lap had fallen beneath me, and provided protection from the cold for some parts of my body, and I had cosy slippers on my feet, but my dress had ridden up as I lay down and my legs and underwear were exposed. I hesitantly reached behind me to pull the blanket up over my legs, not sure if I was going to evoke rage, but the man standing next to me said, ‘We’re not going to rape you. I have a wife, and children, and we’re not interested in raping you. We’re just desperate, and we don’t have jobs, and we need money.’ In that moment, he seemed to speak with sincerity, and I hung my hopes on him: I believed him.
As they began to tie us up, they asked so many questions, and we answered as quickly and clearly as possible. When they heard we had two children, they asked their ages – four and six – and told us they wouldn’t hurt the children as long as we co-operated. Clive said, ‘Please – we’ll do anything you want, please don’t hurt our children.’ We needed to believe them when they said they wouldn’t.
First, they tied our hands behind our backs with rope, wrenching my right shoulder and tugging it even harder with a derisive comment when I winced. Next, they tied rope around our ankles, then our knees, and then we heard something being torn and cut – we discovered later it was my shawl – and a second layer of binding was wrapped over hands and feet.
They wanted to know where our money was, and why we had so little in our wallets. They wanted to know why we didn’t have wedding rings on, where our gold was – I told them where my white gold and diamond necklace was. They wanted to know where our safe was, and we had to explain we don’t have one. They got angry when we said we didn’t have a gun – they questioned us on why, as we desperately explained again we’ve never owned a gun, never had a safe, lost our wedding rings years ago. They spent a long time unbolting the TV from the wall – Clive told them where his toolbox was, but it still took them a while – they were clearly determined not to leave without it.
Most of the time, we stayed calm and co-operative, which we knew was our best strategy. There was plenty of time for a multitude of fears and thoughts to flood my mind, but I tried to stay focused on relaxing as many muscles as I could, knowing tension would only make the pain worse, and send out a calm, positive energy to Clive as well as the three young men. Clive said afterwards he was working on doing exactly the same: trying to relax the aching muscles, and try and keep them as calm as possible. We could hear each other’s breathing, and I tried to keep mine regular and deep without being loud enough to attract attention. “Whatever happens”, I told myself, “this will all be over soon. We can only hope for the best, and hope we survive.”
At first, they told us they didn’t want to kill us, and that as long as we co-operated they wouldn’t hurt us. For the first half an hour or so, I believe them – but as they became increasingly aggressive and angry, I began to think that it had just been a ploy to get us to do what they wanted, and they were going to kill us all in the end anyway. I didn’t panic at the thought – I just hoped it would be clean and painless.
They talked about how ‘us whites’ had taken land and resources from the ‘blacks’, and asked Clive where his father was born.
“South Africa,” he replied.
“And your grandfather?” was asked with more aggression.
“South Africa,” he replied again, which raised their ire, and a deluge of cursing about foreigners coming into ‘their’ country, taking their jobs, and their land. I lay silently, wanting to engage them on a human level, but knowing that saying anything would only add to their rage.
“We are suffering!” one man cried, “We can’t get jobs!” To which we both responded,
“We know. We understand.”
And, the thing is, we do. But in that moment, I had to battle internally to accept the painful fact of being judged for the colour of my skin, part of a cultural group, as we are all judged (and judge others) all the time – not as an individual. I felt it crucial in that moment to simply accept that judgement, and not let it damage my sense of who I am. Of course, some of those judgements were valid – we are privileged, and our privilege comes in part from an awful system of Apartheid, whether our families fought against it or not – and some were not. It didn’t matter that I am passionate about poverty alleviation, job creation, rural development and empowerment; that my work enables us to provide care for some of those most in need of help in our near-by communities, and that we are dedicated to making as much of a positive impact in these communities as we possibly can. In that moment, to those men, none of that mattered.
Before they left, they cut chunks of foam out of our coach and shoved them down our throats. As I felt the foam going further and further down my throat, I thought I was going to vomit, and desperately controlled the impulse, knowing I could very well choke if I did so. They gagged Clive first – rope over the foam, then binding round and round until I heard his muffled panic as they covered his nose and he couldn’t breathe. ‘He can’t breathe!’ I called out, desperately, and they immediately loosened the material and apologised. They didn’t want to kill us – a wave of relief washed over me, even as my own gag was being tied on. I told them he has asthma, and they found his pump in the kitchen and put it on the floor next to him – a kind if unhelpful gesture, which we laughed about later, when Clive said, “What did they think I was going to do with it? Stare at it while I had an asthma attack with my hands tied behind my back and a gag in my mouth?!”
As they left they tripped the electricity. We lay still in the dark, hardly daring to breathe, their final threats in our ears: “Don’t do anything, don’t cause trouble for us, or you and your family WILL die. Don’t turn us into murderers. Wait one hour before you alert anyone.”
We waited. The silence dragged out for minutes. Were they gone? Did they have a sentry silently watching us? I eased onto my side to relieve some of the pain, and quietly spat my poorly-tied gag out – fresh air an incredible relief. Clive managed to remove his gag with equal ease, but was cautious, talking softly, listening intently. We eventually, slowly and quietly moved back-to-back so I could reach Clive’s hands. His wrists and hands had been tied so tightly that he had lost feeling and movement in his hands, so I fumbled to untie his ropes with the limited movement I had left in my fingers. I managed to loosen the ropes enough for him to get blood flowing back into his hands, but I couldn’t undo the material bindings. The pain in my own hands became almost unbearable at times, but I managed to undo the ropes around his knees, and he could then move enough to get through to the kitchen, where his tool box lay on the floor, thankfully left open by the intruders. At this point the pain was getting so intense I didn’t feel like I could bear it any longer, and I said, “I think we’re going to have to wake Tristan up and ask him to call your parents.” Clive wouldn’t hear of it: we had come this far, and we were NOT going to put our children through the trauma of seeing us like this.
I wriggled to the sliding door to pull open the curtains a little with my teeth and let some light in from outside while he found side cutters. We managed to get back next to each other; Clive passed the side cutters to me, and I managed to cut his hands free, and he then untied me – the relief was inexplicable. We had a quick look around, held each other tight in the darkness, then picked up our still-sleeping children – wrapped in their blankets – and walked up the hill through the softly-falling rain to his parent’s house: towards light, comfort, and sweet tea.