At the beginning of September 2020, my Aunt’s nine-year-old went missing. She was playing outside when a man wearing blue work overalls approached her.
Sadly, missing children are not unusual in South Africa. Missing Children South Africa’s statistics indicate that while 77% of children are found, this still leaves us with at least 23% being either never found, or they are trafficked or found deceased. These children are among the most vulnerable victims of gender-based violence.
Community members in the area worked tirelessly to search for my cousin, dividing themselves into day and night shift groups. The story was broadcast on Television and Radio news, but still there was no sign of the little girl. People in the community kept searching, but couldn’t find her anywhere.
From the onset, when I heard the news that my nine-year-old cousin was missing, it really affected me in a way I cannot explain. I also have a nine-year-old daughter and I put myself in my aunt’s position. I felt as if I was also losing my mind. I became highly stressed and anxious.
We posted the story on social media, with pleas for her safe return, but with no luck. I checked social media about her first thing in the mornings and last thing in the evenings, with the hope of positive news. As weeks went by, our family arrived at a point where we just wanted closure. Personally, I feel that the pain of a missing child is perhaps even more unbearable than the pain of a dead child.
After a period of three weeks, some children who were playing outside alerted the community leader that there was a bad smell coming from one of the nearby shacks. When they searched there, the leader and some of the community members found my cousin’s decomposed body inside of a cupboard. This shack was three streets away from her home, where she had lived with her family and played with her friends. This discovery was truly heart-breaking.
When the owner of that shack returned home later that same day, he was killed by a mob of angry community members. When I think about this incident, I feel conflicted and ambivalent about what happened. I understand the anger that community members were feeling – I myself was outraged and angry – but I am not sure whether our anger justified the murder of the perpetrator. I feel that they should not have attacked him, especially because as a family we still have so many questions and now they will remain unanswered.
I had some strange thoughts and feeling after the discovery of my cousin’s body, and the subsequent murder of her killer. I sat and wondered if this cruel individual had also helped the community to search for her? Had he seen her mother crying and pleading for the safe return of her daughter? Why had he done this, and how could he have kept quiet for so long? I thought that perhaps he had been struggling with mental health issues, but also cast my mind to the statistics around gender-based violence in our country and wondered if my cousin had been just another victim.
Since the incident, I find myself really scared – terrified even to go to the shops with my children. The fear of them being snatched from me or just going missing is overwhelming. Recently I wanted to go to the grocery store. My older daughter was at school and I was home with my nine-year-old. I asked myself which option would be best – to leave her alone in the house or to take her along with me. I felt that she would be safer alone in the house.
Eventually, I decided to take her along with me, and I realised that what happened does not only affect me, it also affects her. When we were in the grocery store, if someone came close by to take something from the shelf, I noticed my little girl holding my hand tighter. When I was not holding her, she would grab onto my clothing and squeeze herself closer to me.
We live in a cruel world. A few years before this terrible incident, my partner had suggested that we buy our children anti-lost straps/ leashes and I had refused. Now, I am the one who vouches for them.
Every day, there is a post of a missing child on social media. In our case, social media has been helpful in the sense that we had been able to reach great numbers of people with the story, and with messages pleading for the safe return of my cousin. To be honest, I have been avoiding social media posts of missing children because I find that I really get anxious and feel guilty when I don’t repost.
It is difficult to draw straightforward and/or clear conclusions from my experience of losing someone so close to me. It is especially challenging to achieve a sense of closure when I have so many questions that remain unanswered, and so many feelings that remain unresolved.
I also think this experience has made me think about what kind of society we live in, and whether Covid had brought us closer together or has opened more divisions. In a “normal” society, communities care for each other, but perhaps Covid has shown that this care is not as deep as it could be, and it is often the most vulnerable who are the first victims.
As a way of coping, part of my daily process is to work towards tackling gender-based violence and other drivers of child kidnapping in my own spaces, so that I know I’m making a contribution to the struggle against these types of violence.