Love story dreams end in nightmare

2009-09-26 00:00

TWO hours after Cornelia landed in Durban to attend the memorial service of her murdered South African boyfriend, Len Hodson, she and her brother were hijacked by five armed men and left shaken and abandoned on a dark roadside near Thornville.

Even by South African standards, hers is a shocking tale of double trauma, certain to send shock waves through the siblings’ circle of family and friends back home in Switzerland.

But Cornelia, who asked for her surname to be withheld, is determined to stay focused on the positive aspects of South Africa, although she feels the country needs a wake-up call when it comes to crime. “With the World Cup just around the corner, people of all races should be striving to fulfill Mandela’s dream of a united South Africa,” she told Weekend Witness.

But her foremost concern is keeping alive her treasured memories of Hodson and paying tribute to his life.

“Yes, the hijacking was a terrible thing, but I wasn’t raped and my brother is alive. It’s really more of a hassle. I don’t care about the material things we lost, either.

“I will have to go for therapy, but it happened. I’m just tired of all the violence.

“I’d rather this story be a tribute to Len, my mountain man. He was a remarkable friend and father to his children and I believe he saved my brother and me that night,” she said.

Hodson was shot dead earlier this month during a botched robbery at Scrumpy Jack’s farmstall in the central Drakensberg. Hodson was a co-owner of the store, which also served as a hub for adventure activities such as horseriding and mountain biking in the majestic Champagne Valley.

After meeting and unexpectedly falling in love with Hodson during a trip to the Drakensberg almost two years ago, Cornelia planned to leave her home in Switzerland and resettle in South Africa, where she had spent some of her childhood.

“Ours is a really classic love story. I am 57, he was 56. And we simply fell in love, just like teenagers.”

Although not a “particularly spiritual” person, Cornelia said she believes that Len was watching over them on the night of the hijacking. “My brother and I were both extremely calm. I want to believe that to protect myself,” said Cornelia.

Among their hijackers was a man whom Cornelia’s brother (who also declined to be named) met minutes earlier at the Umlaas Road petrol station.

He offered to drive in front of them to point out the road to Richmond where they were to stay the night with their sister and prepare for the emotional demands of Hodson’s memorial service.

About six kilometres along the Richmond road at about 10 pm, the siblings stopped to thank their escorts who then jumped out of their vehicle with guns.

The pair lost about R135 000 worth of money and personal items, including passports, in the hijacking. But both were left physically unharmed when the hijackers unexpectedly released them and drove off.

After trying unsuccessfully to flag down passing cars, they eventually found help from a resident in a nearby home, and started the process of making sense of what had happened.

Cornelia, a beautician and well-travelled Red Cross nurse aid, said she visited Hodson in South Africa as often as possible, the last time being just three weeks before his death. Hodson also visited her twice in Switzerland.

They skyped each other at least twice a day, the last time being the morning before Hodson was killed.

She said the couple had “big dreams” for their future life together in South Africa.

While waiting on-line for Hodson on the evening of September 13 — the day he was gunned down — Cornelia instead received a call from her sister, who relayed the news of his tragic death that afternoon.

Hodson left Zimbabwe to settle in South Africa. Cornelia described him as a quiet but intensely caring and well-liked man who was a dedicated father to his two adult sons and daughter. He had a passion for nature and the outdoors, a commitment to South Africa and its people, and was always ready to help those in need.

“The people who killed Len took something away from me. When he died, I didn’t want to live any more,” she said.

Thus, at the time of the hijacking, Cornelia says she remembers feeling very little concern for her own safety. “I felt nothing for myself. I’ve been raped before — many years ago in Europe — so I know it doesn’t only happen in Africa. But carjacking was new to me.

“Still, I don’t remember everything that happened that night, and quite frankly, I don’t want to,” said Cornelia. “All I really want is for my boyfriend to come back to me, but everyone’s talking about the hijacking. I’m sick and tired of all the violence.

“When the hijackers let us go all of a sudden, I believe that was because of Len.”

While Hodson’s death has changed her plan to settle in South Africa, she’s determined it won’t affect her attitude towards the country or its people.

“Yes, I’ll come back to South Africa — not to live, but certainly to visit,” she said. “I’ve met some wonderful people here. So many of them are warm-hearted, kind and caring people. I certainly don’t want to start generalising about South Africans because of my experience.

POLICE UPDATE:

.SAPS spokeswoman Inspector Joey Jeevan said yesterday that no arrests in the Thornville carjacking case have yet been made. She confirmed that police are in possession of CCTV video footage, which The Weekend Witness understands shows at least one of the suspects. The footage was taken at the petrol station where Cornelia and her brother met their future hijackers, who had offered to help with directions.

“At this stage of the investigation, the investigating officer is in the process of tracing the suspects,” said Jeevan.

.In the matter of Hodson’s murder, which is being investigated by the Winterton SAPS, there have been no arrests.

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