I am writing this story for me. I have always written, and it has always helped to offer insight and gain perspective. It is cathartic and, right now, I know that I need it to heal.
I am writing this story for Mick, Alessia and Claudia. I had never, ever wanted to live as much as I did that night, on that gravel road. I wanted to live for the loves of my life.
I am writing this story for my family; my dad and my Liz, my mother, my brothers and sisters-in-law, Mark, Michael, Matthew and Bryden, Kate and Leigh. My niece and nephews, and my in-laws – who are my family – Maria, Adriano and Alderet.
I am writing this for my friends, and everyone who has rallied around me; praying for, supporting, loving me. You know who you are.
This is my story.
Right now, it’s Saturday, the 29th of September 2018. I had an exciting weekend planned, but instead, I’m in an ICU bed at Union Hospital, Alberton, South of Johannesburg. It’s been 36 hours since the incident that left me bruised, battered, and almost unrecognisable – but alive, and thankful.
On Thursday, I became a crime statistic. Apparently, 1 out of 10 hijack victims are taken and assaulted. I guess my number was up. I refuse to be a victim of this crime. I refuse to change the way I see my country and her people because three men chose to viciously beat, assault and terrorise me. Those three men do not make up South Africa. They are evil and cowardly – and they need to be dealt with as the law sees fit.
Thursday was a day like any other; balancing working, studying and being a mother. It had been a busy week. Our company, Community Hours – working with teens to promote active citizenship – offers an Outreach Camp. Learners join us and we work hard to inspire them. We take them into the community to engage in volunteering and giving back. Thursday was the last day of the Camp. The evening had been highly anticipated as the boys practiced and prepared for their lip sync battles.
I was travelling to The Bosco Centre, where the camp was being held. The road I was on is one I know well. I grew up in Walkerville, and had schooled at St John Bosco.
I always use the time in the car to catch up on phone calls, and I was chatting to my friend Lyndsay when, out of nowhere, a car came up behind me, flashing a blue light. The car pulled closer with a siren blaring. Instinctively, I pulled over.
“I am being pulled over, please stay on the phone with me” I said to Lyndsay.
I seem to recall her telling me, “Don’t stop, just drive.”
I wish I had listened.
A man with a gold tooth came to my window. I asked him why I had been pulled over and he responded, “for driving in the yellow lane.” I felt irritated and retorted that I had not. I asked for identification.
Suddenly, everything happened so quickly. The gold-tooth man lent in and grabbed the keys out of the ignition, switching off the car. I remember shouting, “Hey, give me back my keys, you can’t do that, I want my keys.”
Almost simultaneously, two other men jumped into the car; one into the passenger seat and one in the back seat, also on the passenger side. I knew that I needed to get out. I kept saying, “Take my car, you can have it, please just let me get out.” Clearly, they had other ideas. The man in the back seat pulled and yanked me, hitting my head and face, trying to get me to the back. The man in the passenger seat pushed and pulled me, also delivering blows to my face and head. The gold-tooth man tried to lift and shift me. I fought hard, knowing that the best scenario would be to get out of the car. But they had other plans.
They pounded me with their fists on my and face and head. They pulled at my limbs, they pushed and shoved. I remember screaming, shouting, yelling, “please, just take the car, please, just let me out, please!” The shouting didn’t sound like my voice.
“No, no, no please stop!”
I saw stars at one point, and wandered if I was going to pass out. The blows just kept coming.
Once I had been forcibly moved to the backseat, I noted that one of the men had a large tattoo on his upper left arm. He told me, “sleep, sleep”, and tried to push my face down. I negotiated to keep my face covered with my hands. I could feel the blood pouring from my nose and mouth, and just kept thinking, “this isn’t happening, this really isn’t happening.”
Tattoo man asked where I was going. “A camp,” I said, “just down the road. They’re expecting me. I said I’d be there in five minutes. They’re waiting for me.” By this stage, Gold Tooth had turned left onto the Bosco Road. There was no discussion around where to drive; they knew where they were going.
“Please” I said, “Please just drop me off at the gate.” I noticed that the fact that I was expected somewhere had struck a chord. They were speaking Zulu and, having been raised by a Zulu-speaking mother, I knew enough words to follow what was being said.
Lyndsay kept phoning and phoning, and it seemed to unsettle them, creating a sense of urgency.
They kept asking questions:
“What tracking system does your car have?”
I distinctly remember that the insurance company did not need me to have a tracker, so I said, “This car does not have a tracker.” That was not the answer they wanted.
More blows from Tattoo Man and the man in the front passenger seat. They asked what the monthly installment was on the car. I answered. They asked who insured the car. I didn’t know. I know our insurance broker, Henk, but I didn’t know the company. My first thought was Old Mutual, but I didn’t know if Old Mutual offered car insurance, so I blurted out “First for Women.” I’m not even sure where that came from.
The questions regarding the tracking system continued and, every time I told them I didn’t have one, I was pummeled with more blows. Even during a moment of quiet, travelling with my hands covering my face, the man in the front passenger seat burst out, “Fuck you, fuck you” and leant over to hit me.
The phone kept ringing and ringing; Lyndsay kept calling. “Who is this Barr?” they asked. “My colleague,” I responded, “she is expecting me at Camp.” Lyndsay was not at Camp but I knew the fact that I was expected somewhere pushed a button.
The Gold Tooth driver asked how much cash I had on me. I said, “R200”. It was most unusual; I usually don’t even have cash for parking on me! He asked about my cards. “We want R5000,” he said. I explained that if they took me to an ATM, they could draw R1000 from each of my cards. I thought that if we stopped at an ATM, at least I stood a chance. He asked, “so R15 000?” “No” I said, “R3000. R1000 from each card.”
Another friend called; Sharon Gordon.
The men were concerned about the number of people calling me; that I was expected somewhere. They made me take Sharon’s call, instructing me to tell her that everything was fine. I could hear that Sharon was tense on the phone. I called her Jules (another close mutual friend) hoping to alert her to the fact that I was in trouble. By the tone of her voice, I suspected she already knew. I spoke calmly, but I knew Sharon knows me well enough to pick up on the catch in my voice. I remember saying, “Jules, I am nearly there, I am only 5 minutes away.” I hoped that this would give her a clue that I was on the Bosco road.
The questions about the tracking device continued and, with every wrong answer, the beating continued.Tattoo Man told me that they are the “Soweto Boys” and that they are very professional. I was answering all his questions as calmly as I could, and called them “Sir”. When Tattoo Man told me they were professional, I knew that ego played a part in who they are. I knew I needed to use that.
Tattoo Man roughly started to take my earring out of my ear. I dropped my hands to assist with the other one. He said, “don’t look at me, don’t look at me!” The fact that they didn’t want me to look at them gave me hope that I would live. “Sir, I am helping you. I am working with you. I am co-operating because I know you’re professional,” I said. I told him that they were diamond earrings.
Then the man in the front passenger seat told Tattoo Man to “Bamba” me – to restrain me. Tattoo Man told me that they had a machine to help them find the tracker. “What can we do to you once we find it?” he asked. I told him he could kill me, because there was no tracker.
The driver pulled off the road, and suddenly I could feel the car on gravel. When it came to a stop, I was roughly pulled from the car. Initially, Tattoo Man pushed me towards the road, walking behind me. He told me that he was going to kill me.
I thought of Leigh Matthews, who was shot not far from where I was. “Is this it?” I thought “Is this how I die?” Then he turned me around and moved me up the incline, away from the road. I remember stumbling and reaching out to grab his arms to stop from falling. He slapped my hands away. “Don’t touch me” he said. He then roughly pushed me down, pushing my face into the sand.
He told me that they were going to rape me, all three of them. I remember saying, “rather kill me than rape me.” He hit me again. He shouted one more time, articulating each word slowly, “WHAT TRACKER DO YOU HAVE?”.
“After all the pain you have inflicted on me, do you not think I would have told you if I had one?” I asked.
He picked up a rock and hit the side of my face and head.
The threats of rape continued. I could hear Tattoo Man talking to the other two. I could hear the car being searched. As I lay face down in the dirt, I prayed to my Angels to be with me, to protect me, to spare me. I kept calling and calling to my Angels. I am not particularly religious, but I do believe in Angels. I believe that there is always an Angel watching us, with us. I felt comforted, I felt calm; the entire episode felt surreal. I felt my Granny Betty, who I know is always with me. I felt my father-in-law. And, I can’t quite figure out why, but I felt my late gynecologist Dr. van der Wat.
Tattoo Man removed my shoes and pulled my pants off, using them to cover my face. He then removed my panties. I remember feeling so vulnerable. He told me again that he was going to rape me and I said, “please, I am a married woman, please don’t rape me.” He said, “if you are married, where is your wedding ring?”
The questions about the tracking system continued. Tattoo Man put his knee on my throat and pushed hard, constricting my breath. I remember gasping, thinking, perhaps this is it, perhaps he is going to suffocate me to death. When he eventually released his knee, he asked if I hate black people. “No” I said. He asked what work I do. I did my best to explain that I work to uplift communities. He hit me again, and called me a white bitch. He asked what colour I was. I said, “South African, I am South African.”
He told me to get on my knees, on all fours. Again, he said he was going to rape me. “No, you are not,” I said back. Then he asked if I had ever given a black man a blow job. I told him I had not. He told me I had to give him a blow job, I replied it would be difficult, considering the damage he had done to my mouth.
The entire time this was going on, the three of them had been discussing the time available. The five minutes I had until I had to be somewhere. Suddenly, I heard the tires move on the gravel. After one last punch, Tattoo Man left me in the dirt. Bleeding, sore. Alive and not raped.
I sat up and took a breath. I thanked my Angels for their protection. I started to think about my phone. Throughout the beating and search of the car, my phone had been ringing. I was asked, “Who is ICE?” ICE is my “In Case of Emergency”; my husband, my Mick. I knew he knew something was wrong. I knew, without a doubt, that he would come for me.
My daughters and I have the Life 360 app on our phones. I always track them when they’re driving, and so I knew they would know where I was. I knew my family would come for me. I pulled on my panties and my pants. I noticed that my pants were covered in blood from being placed on my face. I didn’t look for my shoes – my favourite shoes – to put them on. I don’t know why. Thankfully, I knew exactly where I was; my school friend and his family had a ski slope just down the road.
I stumbled up the embankment towards the road. I can’t even remember the burnt winter veld hurting my bare feet. When I got to the road, I considered my options. Go left, or go right? Right towards the Rehab Centre or left towards Bosco? Bosco, where I had been to school, met my husband, married him. Where both my children had been baptized, and where the Camp was. I knew that Sarah, James, John, Tshepo and Lucky were waiting for me. I turned left, I walked to Bosco. At that moment, I thought of Alison Botha – the courageous woman who, holding in her entrails and throat after being brutally attacked and raped in 1994, had crawled to the road for help. I thought of all the other brave and courageous women I know; there are so many. I thought of my daughters and my husband and I just kept walking, one step in front of the other. I was alive. I had not been stabbed or shot. I had not been raped. I gave thanks, and I kept on walking.
I saw car lights and waved my hands. The car carried on driving. I saw more cars and waved. They continued by. I would have done the same thing, I thought. A sad indication of the society we have been forced to become. Then the fear set in; what if they came back? What if they weren’t done with me? I knew that I did not have the strength to endure any more beatings. So then, every time I saw lights, I stumbled off the road, either seeking cover behind a tree, or lying face down in the dirt. On one of my trips down the embankment I felt the sharp pain of a glass bottle going into my bare foot. I bent down and removed the broken bottle.
Suddenly, I really needed to wee. A friend once joked that I had a cheap bladder, because I needed to wee all the time. Holding it in wasn’t an option. I could feel blood and snot pouring out of my nose, my clothes were torn and bloodied, by foot was aching. Did it really matter if I had a wee on the side of the road? I weed behind the tree and felt better.
I thought of praying. I said a Hail Mary, the words coming easily after attending Catholic School. Then I thought about how hypocritical I was, only calling out to God when I was in need. I thought of Robyn, who I know prays for me all the time. I prayed to my Angels. I knew I wasn’t alone.
I was worried, so worried; about Lyndsay, who heard my screams of terror. I was worried about Mick and my girls. I knew they knew, and I didn’t want them to think I was dead. I knew they would come.
I walked, one step in front of the other. Thoughts were loud in my head. Why did I stop? I asked myself. How stupid could I be? I know better. More cars coming, more stumbling off road and hiding. Checking, checking that they weren’t returning.
It turns out, I was right. At the same time, Mick was looking for me. He had come. I knew he would. Life 360 also shows how much battery life you have left on your phone and Mick and Claudia were driving to Bosco to shout at me for not charging mine. I was late, people were worried, my phone was going flat, and I wasn’t returning calls. When the app’s locator took Mick and Claudia down the gravel road, they realised there was a serious problem. Seeing notes on the ground with my handwriting on, that had fallen out of the car, caused them to panic. I am so sorry for those moments they had to endure, calling out, looking for me in the bushes. Calling my name and not knowing whether I was dead or alive…
At the same time, alerted by Sharon, friend and colleague, Luke Lamprecht, had notified Sarah at the Camp that I was missing and needed to be found. Sarah and Tshepo left James, John and Lucky in charge of the lip sync battles and jumped into the car to look for me too. All the while, when I saw headlights, I hid. Winning at our game of hide and seek.
One foot in front of the other, until I was at the crest of the hill. I could hear singing and cheering from the boys on Camp. I knew I was going to be fine. I could hear the voices and cheers, and these sounds carried me. I continued to walk. As I approached the Bosco gate, I felt overwhelming relief. I called out to the security guard, and remember seeing the shock on his face when he saw me.
It was then that I cried. I cried and cried and cried. I asked if I could use his phone – but he had no airtime! I asked him to walk me to the bench at reception. He gently took my arm and supported me the entire way. He didn’t say much, but his face said a lot. At one point, he turned to me and simply said, “I am so sorry.” We saw someone walking towards us with a cellphone in hand. I recognised her; just a few days before, we had chatted about having our children at the same time. She didn’t recognise me. I asked to use her phone and called Mick, praying he would answer. When he did, I could hear the anguish in his voice. “Come fetch me, please come and fetch me” I said. I could hear the relief in his voice. “I’m on my way.”
I asked the security guard, Fortune, to wait at the gate to let Mick in. Irene, the kitchen supervisor, assisted me onto the bench. Mick and Claudia arrived a few minutes later. When Claudia saw me, all she could muster was, “oh my God, oh my God.” She told me later she wanted to vomit when she saw my face. Mick pulled us both into his arms. “I’m okay, I’m okay,” I kept saying, “they didn’t rape me.”
And I sobbed and I sobbed.
Claudia climbed into the back of the car with me, cradling me in her arms, soothing me, telling me that I was okay, crying softly. I remember Mick telling the search party, “we have her, we are going to the hospital.” John looked pained. Mick was angry. He kept saying, “why did they do this to you, why did they have to do this?”
Mick called his brother, Adriano, to let him know that he had me and that we were on our way to the hospital. I remember the discussion around which hospital to go to. I initially said Mulbarton, as it was closest and I felt hideous. But then I changed to The Union because it’s a trauma hospital.
It was then that Alessia called. She had been having supper at her wonderful Liam and his family. Mick and Claudia had not told Alessia what was going on, as they had not wanted to frighten her. I remember Mick talking to her calmly, telling her that I had been hijacked and that I was going to be okay. That we were on our way to the hospital. I remember telling Mick that under no circumstances should she drive on her own to the hospital. I needn’t have worried; Liam’s parents Gavin and Kay rushed her over.
We arrived at the Emergency Entrance, and the security guard told us we could not park there. I was barefoot and bleeding. One of my eyes was totally swollen shut. When he saw that, he let us be. We walked through reception, with people staring. At Casualty, the Triage Nurse handed Mick a form to fill in. I thought that the sense of calm he had been displaying until now was going to completely dissipate. “Please can I just lie down?” I asked. “I just want to lie down.”
Claudia still had me firmly supported. A nurse asked if my face had been burnt. A woman with a small child took one look at me and turned her child’s face away. “Oh dear” I thought, “If I am too scary for children, what do I look like?” Eventually, there was a bed and I could lie down. Claudia noticed my pants – inside out and caked in blood – and started to cry. “I promise you,” I said to her, “I was not raped. He took my pants off and used them to cover my face.”
I remember a nurse coming in and taking over. She was calm, in control, and issuing instructions. I felt safe. She told the team to call the Trauma Surgeon and Trauma Counsellor. Mick had been dispatched to fill in forms, and Claudia stayed with me. Strong, confident hands moved me. The first doctor arrived and checked my eyes. The nurse explained that they were going to have to cut my clothes off. I honestly didn’t care, except for my bra. I loved that bra, it was my most comfortable one!
I was asked if I had been stabbed and my body was checked for injuries. X-Rays were taken. But it was all a complete haze. I remember Alessia arriving, crying, being so happy to see her. I remember not being able to see out of my right eye at all – the doctor couldn’t even open it to examine it – and asking people to stand on my left side. I remember the trauma counsellor – kind and gentle. I remember the nurses talking quietly to one another, angry at what had happened to me. I remember the Trauma Surgeon, gently introducing himself and talking to me in his lovely accent. My head and neck were put into a stabilising block. My face was cleaned and gel was applied to my face and lips. It felt so good, so soothing. I remember the CT and the nurse wanting to remove my daith piercing, but there was no way.
I remember people at my bedside; Mick, my girls, Kay and Liam, Robyn and Tanya. I remember the shock on everyone’s faces. The tears, the anger. My people were ushered out at one point, and I lay alone. I didn’t want to be alone. I was so thirsty. My mouth was dry, and my lips cracked. The trauma counsellor brought me water. I broke all my no-plastic rules and asked for a straw because I was unable to drink from the cup. I was alone, and I wanted my people. I heard a nurse and tried hard to sit up (my ribs had taken quite a beating). I asked her to call my husband. “I am just some random nurse,” she said. I thought that was funny.
The young doctor came to stitch my foot, from where the broken bottle had pierced the arch. I asked if he could please call my husband. He asked if I could wait until after he had completed the stitching, but I said no. He asked a nurse to call my husband. He advised that there would be a slight stinging from the injection and then I would feel nothing. He needed to check for glass and debris in my foot. I told him to be gentle, as I had had more than enough pain for one lifetime. As he stitched my foot, I asked him to be sure not to leave a scar. He didn’t get that I was joking.
I waited and was eventually wheeled up to ICU. I told the doctor that I was prepared to stay for one night, but that I would be going home the next day. He offered me something to help me to sleep, and I went with it willingly. I asked if the nurses could please clean my hands, which were caked with dirt. Zee was my nurse, and she introduced herself. She told me that she was going to wash all of me, as I was so dirty. She said that if I was clean, I would be able to sleep. With strong and compassionate hands, she washed me, gently rubbing and drying as she went, working quickly because I was shivering and cold. I remember her paying special attention to my belly button; how on earth did so much dirt get into my belly button? My lips were so sore, cracked and bleeding, and I was desperate for lip-ice. I asked Zee for some, but she had none. The other nurse, a male nurse, hauled out his Zambuck – Cherry flavor, he told me – and gently dipped my finger in and guided it to my lips. The relief!
Clean and feeling somewhat human, meds coursing through my veins, I knew I was safe. Mick and the girls were allowed back and I was so happy to have them next to me. They said that the Josephs were also in the waiting room and that so many people were sending messages of love and support. The sleeping tablet finally took effect and I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep….
I spent two nights in ICU, and received outstanding care from the nurses at The Union. I even met someone from Walkerville! She had recognised my name but not my face. I “knew” her from the We Love Walkerville Facebook Group.
This morning, as I started to write my story, Dr. Sam asked if I was writing him a love letter. I told him that if he let me go home, I would mention him in my story. Thankfully, he discharged me and all was well with my world.
I am so thankful for the outpouring of love, compassion, support and kindness I have felt. For the messages, flowers, cards, chocolates, visits. I am so blessed to have two daughters who have cared for me and managed everything, communicating and letting people know that I am okay, being fiercely protective and hugging me close.
I am so grateful for Mick, who has sorted everything out; the police, the bank, the car, which was found. For waking up at 03h30 and making me tea. For listening and understanding. To my brothers, Mark and Michael, for being at my bedside with Kate and the children. To my brother, Matthew, for jumping on a plane and flying up from PE to check on me. To my brother, Bryden, and new sister-in-law Leigh for phoning and phoning (and I know he hates to phone) and for flying my dad and Liz up from East London to care for me. To Maria for making me pasta which is all that I felt like and for being here. To Giovanna. To Adriano and Alderet and the boys. To Dr. Bert and Dr Ashleigh who came to check on me.
Thank-you to you all for caring enough to ask, to message, and to pray. I hope that you may take a few things away from this:
I am home, I am healing. One foot in front of the other. One step at a time. This will be a journey.
Karen is an honoured member of the Dignity Dreams Board.
We are grateful she is alive to tell her story.