PODCAST | MISSING MATTHEW: 23 years without answers - 'a missing child is worse than a dead child'

Michelle Ohlsson holds up a picture of her missing son, Matthew.
Michelle Ohlsson holds up a picture of her missing son, Matthew.
Bertram Malgas
  • Nine-year-old Matthew Ohlsson disappeared outside his Mitchells Plain home on 24 March 1997.
  • His parents have not stopped searching for him and claim police have not done enough to help them find out what happened to him.
  • Police have never identified a suspect but say the case will never be closed.

It was 23 years ago that Michelle Ohlsson was last able to tuck her son in bed, kiss him goodnight, read him a bedtime story or say goodbye to him at his school gate.

It's been 23 years of not knowing - not knowing if her son is dead or alive and not knowing what happened on the day he disappeared.

"God knows, having a missing child is worse than having a dead child," Michelle says.

I first met the Ohlsson family 21 years ago, when I had just started my first job as a reporter. I was struck by their strength and their resilience, mired as they were in such a tragic situation.

missing person
Matthew Ohlsson has been missing for 23 years.

He was just 9 years old at the time.

Many children disappeared on the Cape Flats but the Ohlssons stood out for me because they were always willing to speak to reporters to try and highlight their own case.

When I first met them, I did not have children of my own, but as the years rolled by and I became a mother of two daughters, I would often think about the awful reality of being the parent of a missing child.

The many interviews I conducted with mothers of murdered or missing children took on a new meaning as I looked at the innocent faces of my own daughters when I returned home.

My first daughter was about the same age as Madeleine McCann, the victim of the most widely reported case of a missing child to date.

The 3-year-old British girl went missing at a holiday resort in Portugal in 2007.

Revisiting a cold case

Her case made world headlines. But what about the thousands of other children whose cases never even made it into the media?

Back in Cape Town, Michelle Ohlsson and her husband, Michael, continue to live in their new reality of dashed hope after dashed hope, trying as best they can to keep their son's case in the public eye.

missing persons
Michelle and Michael Ohlsson hold up a photo of their son, Matthew, who has been missing for 23 years.

They have now been searching for their missing son for more than two decades.

In the early years, there were initially promising leads that all led to dead ends. Mostly, there has just been an ongoing silence.

Matthew's disappearance became engrained in the everyday fabric of their family life.

His smiling face, beaming from a photograph frozen in time, takes pride of place in their sitting room.

The headlines from that terrible year, collected and neatly filed in scrapbooks, have faded – their words redolent of the frenzy at the time of his disappearance, a frenzy that has long since died down.

A tight-knit family

It was the first day of the Easter school holidays. Children were playing in the streets, the sun was out and Michelle Ohlsson, a stay-at-home mother, was at home with her four children on that Monday morning.

Matthew was the second oldest of four siblings. He, Melanie, 10, Justin, 7, and Jason, 2, had the Ohlsson parents fully occupied.

"Matthew thought he was older... when my husband was not there, he felt like he's the man. He wanted to fix everything. He would take things out of my hands and say: 'No mommy, let me do this and let me do that'."

Matthew would spend hours with his father working on the house over weekends, doing handy jobs together.

Their former neighbour, Farieda Abrahams, describes Michelle as an overprotective mother who never let her children out of her sight. She described Matthew as a loving and generous child.

Missing Matthew

Michelle remembers feeling uneasy the day before her son disappeared.

missing persons
Matthew's siblings, Jason, Melanie and Justin.

She had an urge to take the children to her sister in Lavender Hill but because her husband was working and could not take them, they had no option but to stay at home.

The following morning, the children were playing inside the house when Matthew went outside to bring in the dustbin.

He never returned.

He was dressed in his underwear and a top, which made it unlikely that he ran away.

So what could have happened? It's a question the family asks every day, without a single clue to help.

The events that followed Matthew's disappearance will forever haunt the Ohlsson family – exacerbated by the lack of urgency displayed by police when they first reported his disappearance and the false leads in the years that followed.

Michelle believes that a narrative was spun in her community that she was abusive and that her son was a runaway. To date, Michelle has never been a suspect in the case.

Police did not search any of the neighbours' homes, nor did they search the Ohlsson family home.

News24 asked police for comment, but they refused to grant an interview.

However, they confirmed that the case remained open.

Anyone who has information about the disappearance of Matthew Ohlsson can contact the investigating officer, Lieutenant Colonel Daliwonga Saki 082 559 4631.

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