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WATCH: Rubber bullets and teargas answer Westbury residents' pleas in fight against drugs, gun violence

12 October, 06:11 AM

Sumeya Gasa, News24

While drug dealing and the accompanying gun violence have been on the increase in Westbury, residents say their calls for a safer, drug-free community seem to go unheard as police allegedly fail to respond to complaints.

The death of Westbury resident Heather Petersen, 45, who was shot dead in crossfire during an alleged drug turf shootout on Thursday, September 28, sparked protests that raged for two weeks.

Some residents have alleged that police officers servicing the area are on the payroll of local drug lords.

Heather Petersen Memorial
Memorial cross outside Heather Petersen's home. (Sumeya Gasa, News24)

Failing to see desired results, residents took to the streets, calling for an end to drug dealing and gun violence in the western Johannesburg suburb.

The protest quickly turned violent after residents set tyres on fire and police responded with force in an attempt to disperse the angry crowds.

On Monday, October 1, a News24 camera captured police officers appearing to shoot directly into several residents' homes and yards. 

Police spokesperson Lieutenant Kay Makhubele confirmed rubber bullets were fired at protesters who were hurling stones.

"Yes, police fired rubber bullets to directions where the protesters were throwing stones and petrol bombs in Westbury. Some were taking cover [in] the houses and attacked the police," he said.

Shards of glass lodged in girl's mouth

Ten-year-old Tyra Kers sits silently next to her mother, Jacqueline Kers, who fights back tears as she recounts the day her daughter was injured as a result of police firing rubber bullets into houses. Tyra was at her aunt's house when a rubber bullet shattered a window and pieces of broken glass split her cheek open.

Jacqueline was at work while Tyra and her aunt, Sharon Meas, watched rubber bullets, rocks and stones fly as teargas and smoke filled the air in Westbury on the Monday after the shootout that claimed Petersen's life. 

When police opened fire, protesting residents and observers scattered in all directions. Meas says Tyra bolted into the house and, shortly afterwards, was heard screaming out in pain.

When Tyra's mother was informed of the incident, she rushed to Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital in Coronationville where Tyra was being attended to in the trauma unit. 

"When I got there, they were already finished with Tyra," says Jacqueline. "She was crying because she was in pain."

When they got home, Jacqueline says Tyra still had pieces of glass stuck inside her mouth as the doctors had not managed to remove all the small bits.

"She said: 'Mommy, there's still pieces of glass coming out'. She showed [them to] me."

Tyra Kers injury
Photo of Tyra's injury taken shortly after she was injured. (Sumeya Gasa, News24)

Jacqueline says the doctor advised her to return the next day to obtain a J88 form (used to record medical injuries for legal investigation) in order to open a case at the local police station.

"She doesn't want to see a policeman in front of her because she's very scared," says a teary Jacqueline. "I'm feeling very bad because I wasn't with her. I couldn't protect her."

Jacqueline says while she has opened a case at Sophiatown police station, she feels helpless. She cannot confront anyone because she does not know the identity of the police officer whose shots caused her daughter's injuries. 

Boy, 12, collects rubber bullets after police shoot at him

A few houses away from Tyra's aunt's house, 12-year-old Tyler Koopman was sitting outside observing the protest. Little did he know his curiosity would earn him a couple of bruises.

"He was told not to go outside because we knew he would get caught in the crossfire," says his older sister, Stephanie Koopman.

"I went to sit outside on one of the chairs," says the boy. "The Casspir (police truck) came and they started shooting and they shot me twice while I was trying to run."

Tyler Koopman rubber bullets

Tyler Koopman started collecting rubber bullets after he was shot at by police. (Sumeya Gasa, News24)

Stephanie says Tyler started collecting rubber bullets after police shot at him. While Tyler's injuries were not as severe as Tyra's, police are not allowed to use indiscriminate force when dispersing protesting crowds, according to National Instruction 4 of 2014 (a legal instrument governing the conduct of police).

'All the young men are dying'

Grace "Mama Grace" Mattera, 63, lost her 24-year-old son when he was gunned down in front of his Westbury home last year.

"Every week, it's funerals. Young men dying because of drug lords," she says. "Our children are dying. The next generation will be wiped out because all the young men are dying."

When the protests began, Mattera joined other protesters and took the streets, adding her voice to the call for an end to drugs and guns in coloured communities.

While protesting on Monday last week, Mattera was approached by a reporter to comment on the protest action in the area. 

"Before I could talk, the teargas went off at the back," she says. "I didn't even see that they were shooting [on my] side.

"They actually shot the mic out of the reporter's hand."

Mattera says as she tried to escape the teargas and rubber bullets, she felt her leg become "lame". It was only after finding a spot to sit down that she realised that blood was gushing from a wound on her foot. 

Mama Grace

Photo of Grace "Mama Grace" Mattera's bleeding, bandaged foot after police shot at her. (Sumeya Gasa, News24)

"The people saw that I am bleeding here and they came to assist," says Mattera. "They were threatened by the cops again that they should not come near or they will also get shot."

Later, at the hospital, the elderly woman's injured foot was stitched and bandaged. 

"They had to stitch inside (the wound) and out," says Mattera.

Her main concern is recovering from the injury as she says it feels as though her nerves were seared in the shooting. When she steps on her heel, the sharp shooting pain is more unbearable than that of the wound itself, she says.

Mattera says she will pursue charges against the police and has opened a case at Sophiatown police station. 

Residents plan to march to Gauteng Premier David Makhura's office on Friday in the hope that he will hear and act on their plea for a Westbury free of drugs and gang violence that harm the suburb's young people.

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