Winner 2005

2008-07-22 00:00

This story begins, like all stories, long before it started and didn't end when it finished. The heart of it wants to be heard; the hub around which whirls a dervish, still spinning and spiralling through my world.

We are driving alongside Lake Sibaya en route to our camping holiday at Mabibi. Our daughter Anna is snuggled down between us. From out of the darkness a vehicle bears down upon us, lights blazing. It slashes in front of us, forcing us off the road.

Three men explode from the bakkie with guns cocked. They are screaming at us: "Where are your guns? It's the police!"

I laugh to Stas. "Shame, they won't find any guns here." But a different backdrop to this scene falls like a thunder crack, when one of them yanks me out of our vehicle and hisses. "Get down on the ground! Get down, or I'll kill you!"

He doesn't know it but I can smell his fear. His hand and gun are shaking. His nostrils and eyes are wide, like a terrified horse. His fear gives me courage. Behind me, in the canopy of our vehicle, a huge thug is lunging at Anna. He tries to grab her but she is quick and slippery and will not be caught.

"Well done, Anna! He can't even catch a seven-year-old," I think as she dodges him among the camping equipment and groceries. I imagine the horror of my child being driven off into the night with three armed men and I will not lie down. I am raging with primitive mother instinct.

"Get down! I will kill you!"

"No, I will not lie down!"

Crack! He hits me with his gun.

"I will not do anything until I have my child!"

She hears our shouting and flies to my side. "I'm here, Mummy. I won't let them kill you!"

I hold her down in the sand, her little heart pattering.

They throw the three of us like carcasses into the open back of their bakkie. It is cold and ridged; it is hard and smells like iron and I can't soften it for her little bony body, all arms and legs and naked except for thin trousers. She is whimpering to God.

"Please God don't let me die. I'll do anything you want, just don't let me die."

What will stop the unravelling that has started in this little soul?

I whisper to Anna. "These men think they are the boss here. But actually God is the boss. If he wants us now, we will die. I know it feels so unfair to die at seven. Let me tell you a big secret. Dying is going back to God and it is a beautiful feeling. You don't need to be frightened of it. Whatever God wants to happen is going to happen now. All you need to do now is wrap yourself very tightly in God's blanket and trust that the right thing is going to happen. Shhhh."

She lies quietly between us.

"Don't look at us! Keep your head down," they bark.

I do not look - and for the next nine hours of this ordeal I steal only furtive glances at the three men. But I have a strong sense of each one. Our guard is young and terrified, the driver is full of menace and curses. The third man exudes professional calm and talks with a Mozambican accent.

The two vehicles lurch off the road and into the plantation. I can see the silhouette of the scared man and his gun looming over us. There is a thin crescent moon in the sky. We are being driven in mad zig-zags and circles. I can no longer keep track of our bizarre trajectory as the Mozambican follows us in our vehicle.

I know that I am going to die. I think about how much of my life I lived either ahead of myself or behind, how seldom I have been totally in the sensations of the present. I surrender to this moment now - to the sound of my breath and my beating heart, the texture of sand in Anna's hair, the dry taste of my fear and the smell of it. My senses are shouting.

The men get out and start digging in the sandy forest floor. I think that this is to be our shallow grave. I feel strangely calm and ready for death. I wish that I could tell those who will be devastated by this how peaceful it feels.

But they get down to the business of dividing the spoils between them. The scared man gets R100 and my sim card. He is still shaking and I pick it up for him when it falls for the third time.

The driver hesitates beside me. He pushes his fingers roughly into my pants and speaks gruffly in Zulu about what he is going to do to me later. Ngizoku dlwengula. My heart is lost in my throat and my mouth is too dry to swallow it back into my chest. "At least this is me and not Anna," I think, clutching at a whisp.

I hear my voice saying calmly and conversationally, "Don't go down that road brother. For your own sake don't do this." But what about my sake? Oh God. HIV, pregnancy, and my body, can she bear the assault?

He gets back into the bakkie and roars off again deeper into the plantation. I have a chance to gather myself. I remember my motherly advice to Anna about God and the benevolence of God's blanket. The blanket shreds and in its place is an astounding realisation. This might appear to be a human situation but this is all an unfolding of God. This plantation, this night, is God. This man who wants to rape me is also part of God. There is no point in hoping to be released from this because this is being given to me. For some reason, I need this. And I know too that only compassion can turn this around.

My mind is wheeling, trying to find something that will make this real and provide the ballast to keep me steady. I remember a Tibetan meditation technique called Tonglen. It is often performed for the dying or at moments of great suffering; a way of cultivating compassion when everything seems lost. Imagine the suffering of others as a black smoke emanating from them. Take it into your heart, purify it and breathe it out, returning their light to them. Usually this is done after a lengthy preparation in a calm, centred space. My heart is still trying to claw its way out of my throat. Its clatter is drowning out the sounds of the night. I cannot use it. What about the transforming power of symbol? I invoke what is there, but no Tantric deity, no Chenrezig or Tara present themselves. But out of the panic emerges a gentle, radiant Jesus, a relic from a reverent childhood, an image from a Catholic holy card, hands in the Avatar mudra radiating light. He settles into my heart and we begin to breathe.

I breathe the rapist's black smoke into the Jesus in my heart. It is transformed into light. I breathe out his light. I breathe in. I breathe out. I do this over and over. My life and his life depend on this.

After another crazed drive the vehicles stop again and I know that the moment is here. The driver leads me away. Anna and Stas are forced to lie in the grass with guns to their heads.

"Don't look at me, Anna, Daddy will hold you."

To Stas: "Trust me I can handle this. It is only my body."

I know that this is almost more than he can bear. Can I bear it?

The rapist throws my pants into the grass and bends me over. The moment stretches Soft and hairy, he nudges against me. I wait, preparing to be split apart. It doesn't happen. I straighten up and turn around. Forlorn, almost comic, he stands at a distance with his folly hanging limply out of his fly. I am a mixture of elation and compassion.

"Hold it," he implores me, trying to recapture his command. This is delicate. I am humming with a new power. I must not humiliate him or he could kill us all. "I don't understand what you want." I feign confusion and go over to my husband and hold his shirt.

"I am holding it."

The Mozambican is only interested in delivering our vehicle and this is wasting his time. He complains. The rapist has to zip himself up. He tells me he is coming back to finish this business.

The two men drive off and leave us alone in the forest with the scared man and his gun.

We sit in the grass. I've got ants crawling all over me, but I am so focused on breathing that I don't care. Anna strikes up a conversation with our guard.

"Why do you do this? Why not try another job that doesn't scare people?"

He looks away.

"What about asking your mom and dad to help you get one?"

He tells her that his parents died when he was 13. He and Stas talk quietly about the shared experience of lost parents. I try to explain to Anna that sometimes poverty can make you desperate.

The guard starts to cry. "I'm so sorry, Mummy, my job is a hijacker not a killer."

The moon sinks into the trees and away. Everyone sleeps and I have hours of Tonglen, breathing, one with the stars, the ants, and the night.

At 2 am a cellphone rings - they have delivered the vehicle and the rapist is on his way back.

Stas is forced again into the back of their bakkie. I have to sit next to the rapist as he drives, Anna on my left knee, wrapped tightly in God's blanket and a towel.

"I'm the boss now," he tells me. "And I've got no fucking mercy. Ngisoku dlwengula, bese ngikubulale."

His gun is cold against my neck. The heater is on and our fear fogs up the windows. Anna falls into a sweaty sleep. His one hand is cavalier on the wheel, the other shoves my legs open and molests me as he drives. He is looking for the place to do it, he tells me. I breathe for him, for me, for us.

Anna stirs and her towel clears a spot in the passenger window. I see hoof prints and dung in the sand, the same forsaken shell of a house twice, three times, and dry grass blurring past. He has found the place and points out a bush where he will do it.

He rolls down the window and summons the guard sitting in the back with my husband. He tells him to take Stas and kill him. I cover Anna's ears and rub to muffle the shot.

After a long loud silence I hear Stas and the guard talking. They have struck up a conversation about beer. Clearly, the driver's command has been ignored but he pretends not to notice.

He reminds me again what is going to happen and puts his hand on the door knob. I know I have two more breaths. Jesus and I breathe in two great gasps of thick, black soup and cover him in light and compassion. His hand softens on my knee. His breathing shifts. His body slumps so slightly.

He is asleep.

I sit quite still, breathing quietly now. Will I live to give this moment a voice and sing its song? Who will believe this?

He sleeps perhaps an hour. A cock crows far away. The guard keeps coming to the window. He cannot see in through the fog. "I think they are sleeping," he reports back quietly to my husband.

The rapist wakes a different man. I pass him some juice. He finishes it, wipes his mouth and says, "Thank you very much".

"Such a pleasure," I smile.

He drives us back to the plantation and tells us that we are free to go now.

It must be about 4 am. We know where south is from the Southern Cross dipping into the trees. East lights up slowly on our right. We head north. It will be another five hours or so before we are rescued. We are still afraid and very lost.

But our eyes have adjusted to the dark. We are alive and everything is just as it should be.

Fiona Anderson

I grew up on a farm near Cedarville. There was no key for the front door, no one to fear but myself and an all-pervading sense of space and possibility. I became a doctor, imagining I could first see and rescue the world with Medicine sans Frontiers and then settle in a Transkei hospital by the sea.

Unfortunately I realised too late that I can't slice a scalpel through skin and that disease is more intricate than I had learnt. I found my working home in homoeopathy and my family home near a busy road in Cape Town with Stas and Anna. I still have the sense of safety but the space is lacking, so I meditate and go wandering in the mountains whenever time and weather permit.

Bridget Krone

This is my sister Fiona's story and I am only here because I helped her to write it down. Two heads felt clearer than one when trying to describe such a big experience. I live in Pietermaritzburg with my husband and our two sons. One of our sons is diabetic and a lot of my time is spent acting as his pancreas.

But I also watch a lot of schoolboy sport, have started learning to play the guitar and I belong to a little writing group. We drink a lot of tea and say kind and sometimes brutal things to each other about our writing efforts. I also write English text books and other bits and pieces.

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