For this South African woman, it’s simply been impossible to move on with her life while she doesn’t know what’s happened to her son.
This month marks a year since John Bothma (23) disappeared in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, his mother, Colleen Bothma from Kempton Park, tells YOU.
In November 2018, John put his teaching studies through Unisa on hold to go teach English in Hanoi. For six months, he and Colleen corresponded daily. Then, on 15 May last year, he stopped sending messages and calls to his cellphone went unanswered.
Colleen learnt from social media that her son had gone missing.
And this month, a year since her nightmare experience started, she’s no closer to having any answers.
“I never knew it was possible to live with this much pain. I didn’t think it was humanly possible,” Colleen told YOU on the phone on Tuesday.
“So many people are telling me to move on with my life,” she explained. “Maybe I should stop searching and hoping, accept that he’s never coming home. How does a mother do that? How am I just supposed to forget? He’s my child – it’s impossible to forget.”
A month ago, authorities called Carol from Ho Chi Minh City, a coastal Vietnamese city, to tell her they’d found an identified person’s “decomposing remains”. Once again, Colleen was asked to send DNA samples to Interpol.
Since that call, the hours and days have dragged on seemingly endlessly and the uncertainty is driving her insane, she says.
“They said there’s no certainty that it is or isn’t John – no one knows. Apparently it’s a challenge to determine the person’s identity because of the degree of decomposition. What do you think goes through a mother’s mind when she hears something like that?”
Carol feels no closer to answers now than she did a year ago.
“I’m constantly calling Interpol asking for answers. I want to know if it’s my child, if it’s his body they found. But each time I get the same refrain, ‘Please be patient.’ Do they realise what they’re asking of me? I lie awake nights, wondering when the call will come.”
She’s quiet for a moment, then she says, “You know what’s the worst? If they call to tell me it’s [the body of] my child, then my child is dead. Gone forever. And I probably won’t ever know why. But if it’s not him, then the nightmare continues. The search for him might never end.”
In October last year, five months after John’s disappearance, Colleen travelled to Vietnam. She visited his work in Hanoi where he’d been a part-time teacher, then his lodgings for the six months he’d been there, and then she simply walked the neighbourhood streets and visited local restaurants asking if anyone had seen her son.
When she came up with nothing in Hanoi, she travelled 1 300km to Ho Chi Minh City – just as John had done before his disappearance. But nothing. He’d seemingly disappeared into thin air.
John isn’t the only South African to have gone missing in Vietnam. Mushfiq Abrahams, a teacher from Cape Town, has been missing since 5 July last year. He too was teaching in that country and his mom, Faheema, also had to return to SA alone after searching for her son for months.
“I have to cling to the hope that I’ll soon have peace,” Colleen says. “Because if my son is dead, I’ll bury him. And only then can I move on. But until then, I believe he’s coming home to his mommy. I must.”