A mother’s anguish: Hope, then pain

2011-06-25 00:00

THIS is about a mother who lived in hope for six weeks before being told that her famous South African photographer son, Anton Hammerl, had been shot in the desert in Libya where he was left to die.

Now all Freda Hammerl wants is his body back.

It was reported yesterday that an Argentine forensic anthropology team has offered to help analyse Hammerl’s DNA if his body is found, because the Libyans might not have the facilities to extract DNA from the bone.

His mother has been asked to give DNA once she gets back to London.

A memorial service takes place at The People Church in Parktown North in Johannesburg today.

Hammerl said yesterday, “The whole time he was missing I never believed that he was dead. It just wasn’t like Anton. He was the kind of person who managed to get himself out of any kind of situation,”

In the only interview she has done with the press, Hammerl said his death still feels unreal.

She has come from Cornwall in England where she was house-sitting before staying with Anton’s widow Penny and her two little grandsons, to spend time with her oldest and dearest friend, Bev Schaub, in Untentweni on the South Coast.

They have known each other for 48 years and Hammerl needed healing time with her friend before facing today’s memorial service — and to simply talk about facing a future without Anton, to whom she was remarkably close.

“Looking back on how things happened it was absolute providence that I chose to take leave from my last care-giving job one day earlier than I did, because that night I went to Penny and we Skyped him before he went missing and that was the last conversation we were able to have with him.

“He was happy, sick of eating tuna sandwiches, which was all there was left to eat in the city, but excited about what he was doing,” said Hammerl.

That night that Anton got to Skype with his mother, his wife Penny and his sons, seven-year-old Neo and six-week-old Hiro.

“He never planned on being away from his baby for long, just a week or so, because the baby was so little,” said Hammerl.

When she got the call to say Anton was one of four journalists who had been captured by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, she wasn’t unduly worried.

“Anton had a way of always organising things — there was no ways he wouldn’t sort it out. He just wasn’t the sort of person so I wasn’t too worried.

“From then on, I started looking after the baby and Penny, and other journalists embarked on a campaign that didn’t let up for the whole time that we didn’t know where Anton was.

“We wrote endless letters to various authorities to campaign for them to put pressure on the government. We petitioned and petitioned for something to be done to find him.

“The days just rolled by — I looked after my grandchildren and Penny never stopped writing letters and doing everything she could to try and find Anton, and somehow I never believed he would be dead.

“There were at least 3 000 names as part of the petition on Anton’s Facebook page.

“It was quite amazing to see the support there was for Anton — journalists in South Africa but also overseas — and incredibly moving moments like the vigils here in Cape Town on April 20 and also in London. People really cared.

“I felt like I was moving through a dream. Lighting a candle at a vigil in London I remember thinking, I am lighting this candle, but hurry on home Anton.”

The Yellow Ribbon Day on May 14 was another touching gesture, but it was almost surreal, said Hammerl, because she was still convinced in her heart that Anton would come back.

She is not bitter, she said. “Anton was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could have been a stray bullet … it is what happens in wartime. I don’t blame anybody”

However, she is not sure that waiting so long to be told the truth was fair.

“We will never know when the Libyans knew about Anton … and in fact when [President Jacob] Zuma knew. Obviously the truth could only be told when the three journalists were released because they saw what happened, but I wonder now why it took so long for the truth to be told? But again, what will it help now?”

There are things that Hammerl wants people to know about Anton’s life: “He was the most incredibly loving son. He used to always make me feel so welcome in his life.

“When he wasn’t working he would invite me to be part of his family and he loved cooking — a special treat would be to make a Jamie Oliver recipe.

“He was such a loving and hands-on father. He would spend hours kicking a ball with his son and would ride a bike to school, even in the snow, with his older son.

“He was such a warm, enthusiastic person. Anton’s photos were taken with this passion. He didn’t take frivolous photos. He put his heart into every picture because he used to say they had to tell a story. And that’s how he lived his life, with his heart.

“I think the way people have responded to his death — the way so many people and colleagues came from all over the world and campaigned for his release and for him to be found — is a testament to the way he touched lives with his warmth.”

Hammerl is to visit Johannesburg to see Aurora, Anton’s daughter by Leanne Manique, who turns 11 on June 27. Then she will probably stay with Anton’s widowed family.

“Penny needs me now. She has to work and cope with the children and she has also made me feel like I belong to the family.”

Last year Freda Hammerl’s brother was murdered in Port Elizabeth and this past December she lost her sister, who lived in New Zealand, to a chronic illness.

Anton’s 34-year-old brother, Alex, lives in London.

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