Rescuing Child Rape Victims In South Africa: Two Letters Of Courage, Compassion, Love & Hope

Susan notes: Patty Melnice went to South Africa as an independent volunteer to work for six months for Bobbi Bear, a small non-governmental organisation which rescues and supports children who have been raped.

patty__two-year-old_rape_victimShe worked directly "in the trenches" with the Zulu women who are Child Safety Officers at Bobbi Bear. She rescued children, took them to the hospital for anti-retroviral drug treatment if appropriate, and followed their cases through court.

She also worked with the police, hospitals, schools - to educate them about child abuse, HIV, and the court system.

If these two letters don’t speak directly to your heart, nothing will. Read more at Melnice’s website Tough Angels .

Mid-December 2009

Dearest Friends,
I am flooded with a range of emotions . . . elation, fear, anticipation . . . I am fatigued, but grateful. Always grateful.
For the past month, the sun has taken leave. It is as if someone ran off with the sky and left this thick, heavy, low-lying ceiling that is suffocating at times. It is void of any color, texture, or light variations. It is just blank. We have had pouring rains and everything is soaked and muddy, including our attitudes.

It is supposed to be sunny, beautiful summer weather now so few are coping well with the unexpected climate. The weather has put a hold on the construction of Lady Fair’s house, and I have had to let go of any hopes that I will see even the walls go up before I leave. I have no doubts though that it is left in good hands and will advance quickly, as soon as the ground dries up. (Click here to read more about Lady Fair, who cares for 11 children, only two of which are her own).
Yesterday, I decided to take the day to begin organizing myself for packing and tying up loose ends before moving back to America. A lot has to happen before I leave and no sooner had I begun than I received a call that I would be picked up for a call-out on a 15-year old rape victim...

The case involved a serial rapist for whom the police had been searching for months. His crimes had rapidly escalated in violence, and he had repeatedly stabbed this victim in the left breast, moved a huge rock on top of her and left her for dead.

Incantations & Car Chases

We got to the hospital and met the mother who is a “sangoma”, common and revered in traditional Zulu culture. Sangomas are "doctors or healers" of sorts and are trained for years before they assume their role. They primarily believe in the power of ancestral assistance from the spirit world, along with the help of herbs and incantations. She was in her full regalia, which was interesting against the backdrop of the government hospital, which had gurneys lining the filthy, crowded hallways with casualties and fatalities.

In Sangoma teachings, it is believed that the child will absorb the feelings of the Sangoma (her mother in this situation) and therefore it was important to get her settled down and strong before she went in to see her daughter. Her pain was gut-wrenching as she lost complete control and slid down the wall into a heap in the hallway outside the operating room. In time, she gathered herself, and never showed any other sign of emotion other than that of strength and love for her daughter.
I left the hospital around 11 a.m with the police commander to find the child’s best friend that could help us make a positive ID of the perpetrator. Things began to quickly develop and before I knew it, I was in the backseat of the police vehicle, holding onto a 13 year-old girl on a high-speed chase through rolling hills with no actual roads, only paths. They called in attack dogs and backup and the area we were in spanned miles and miles of hills and lush green bush and a forest at one end. Dilapidated shacks and outhouses dotted the countryside.

They left the child and me in the car, hidden behind bush, as they set out on foot in search of the man. The girl spoke not a single word of English, and was shaking and crying while I held her tightly against my body and tried to instruct her to take deep breaths. Suddenly, I saw the expression on her face change to that of terror and she was scrambling to climb over the top of me and get out of the car, all the while speaking hurriedly in Zulu.

I opened the car door to get out and just as I did, the perpetrator raced passed me so closely, I could feel the breeze of his passing! He had the look of a crazed animal and ran barefooted through the weeds. He raced down the hillside next to where we were parked and within seconds, the police emerged following on foot with guns drawn. Shots popped off from several guns but they missed hitting him. He disappeared into the bush and soon we were back on the road, sliding around corners and trying to head him off before he made it to the forest.

We parked the vehicle and hid behind another bush and the commander left on foot, again leaving the child and me in the car. By now, there were 7 cops and 2 attack dogs running through the expansive green hills. The girl had been given a cell phone from someone in her family and the community was now involved in trying to help locate him. They knew the child was with the police so called her to tell her where he’d been sighted.

I had no radio or means of communication with the police so told her to stay put while I went running in search of the commander. I found him and immediately, we were back in the vehicle speeding through the countryside, hitting hills at such high rates of speed, we were airborne. (If you know anything about me, you know I did not mind the adrenaline rush of all this!)
The little girl was so brave and had calmed down but kept a tight grip around my waist and buried her face in my chest. This pursuit went on for hours. We would have sight of him, then lose him just as quickly in the thickly bushed countryside. The perpetrator was initially wearing a bright yellow t-shirt, but had stolen a blue t-shirt off someone’s laundry line, which was another tip that came into the girl’s phone. Dusk came and it was difficult to make out anything in the shadows of the hillsides. The police decided it was senseless to carry on the manhunt past dark, although I still held hopes of finding him last night.

Be Thankful

We returned to the hospital and the victim was out of surgery and the cop and I helped the nurse push her gurney up these steep dark and circular outdoor passageways to the ward. It made no sense . . . it was like I was part of an anomalous movie unfolding in realtime.

To give you an idea of the hospital conditions, the victim was lying on a stained and bloody pillow from some previous patient. There was no pillowcase or sheets on the metal gurney; only a plastic garbage bag laid beneath her naked body. She was covered in a thin blanket, which was covered in worms. As soon as I thought I had them all picked off, more would appear.

Please, once again, give thanks for all we have! Even though many of us see our healthcare system as one that is marred and in need of serious reform, we can still expect far better conditions than what I’ve witnessed here.
All in all, it was an electrifying, albeit disappointing day. I am being tested on different levels as I come to the conclusion of my stay here. We lost two very important cases last week that I have followed closely and taken part in since I arrived. They both were ironclad cases that should have resulted in stiff sentences . . . one of which we thought would be a life sentence. It was regarding the case I mentioned in previous updates where the 8-month pregnant woman was doused in gasoline and burned, eventually dying from her injuries. (Her boyfriend did this.)

In short, the case was thrown out because the investigating officer failed to complete his report. Just in case I didn’t make myself clear . . . the man walked free! The family of the woman sat in disbelief, as did I.

I talked to the prosecutor and asked him if we could appeal the case or what could be done. He said at this point, we would need a new witness to come forward and he would gladly reopen the case. Really? I was so cynical and angry that he apologized for “the system”. I am not finished! I have met a journalist that wrote a piece on Lady Fair and me, and I have contacted her about doing a story on this case. I have also been asked to be a guest on a talk radio program so I am hoping to bring it up there as well. The problem is partially due to lack of public outrage when it comes to the Zulu people. There is rarely, if ever, media coverage of cases involving the black people.

Uncertain Future

I suppose my frustration is palpable. I don’t understand why it has piled up so heavily as I am trying to make my transition out of here. It is likely a way of keeping me angry enough to continue doing the work to bring about awareness and thus change.

I don’t know what I’ll do when I come back to America. I will be in search of a new job, new home, a new beginning. When I made the decision to come to Africa, it was after my divorce of 24 years of marriage. I needed my life to be about something bigger than a divorce, and felt like that could best be realized by helping others. This journey has helped me to heal many areas of my own life. Additionally, it has led to so many other avenues where I see I could do more to help others. It is overwhelming at the moment.

I have so many things to consider, and I’m still trying desperately to stay in the present moment so I don’t cheat anyone of my time here, including myself. My mind wants to speed forward and have a plan in place upon my return. I promised others and myself that I would take the month of January to decompress, refocus and reintegrate into a completely different world and lifestyle.

I have a great deal to contemplate and it will take some adjustment time, to be sure. I will rely on your prayers and support and trust that things will unfold exactly as they are meant to. I have such incredible friends and connections that I believe the right opportunities will present themselves in due time.
I arrive in Denver on Christmas Eve, after 40 hours of traveling. There are farewell parties planned here for my departure and that may be one of the hardest things I will have to do.
I will try to write again before I leave South Africa. In the meantime and during this holiday season, please be mindful of all we have, our beautiful country, and the freedom we take for granted to walk from point A to point B with reasonable safety. Please be kind to others; sometimes it is impossible to understand the impact of gentle eye contact or a sincere hello or thank you.

Ubuntu At Work

Human compassion is so powerful, and I have seen first hand how so little can do so much to heal broken souls. It costs us nothing. The little girl that I spent holding yesterday through high-speed chases, guns being fired, and hiding in the bush, spoke to me with her eyes when we said goodbye. Even though we didn’t speak the same language, I know she was grateful, and comforted by my touch and we didn’t need words to feel the sincerity of one another.
I am tired and bleached out from lack of sunlight, but I remain moved by what can be accomplished with only the desire to do so and a lot of help from my friends. The following picture is a success story. This little one was one of my victims 2+ months ago. She had to go on the anti-retroviral drugs to prevent the contraction of HIV after her attack, which would be enough to level the strongest of us. She is now a different little girl. No one took her spirit away . . . her body may have been raped, but not her spirit. She sparkles and is proof we can heal!

In sincere humbleness, I thank you for your support and love. This has been a journey of “UBUNTU” for all of us . . . love and respect for others . . . I am who I am because of those around me.
Signing off on a cloudy Monday afternoon,
Peace and blessings, amen.

December 26, 2009

Merry Christmas Dear Friends,
It is 3:00 AM and I would like to sleep but my body doesn't seem to understand it’s not 12:00 noon, South African time. I safely arrived in Denver early Christmas morning after a few delays and minor obstacles.

My mind is still processing the final two weeks in South Africa, which seemed to be the most intense of the six months I was there. I'm having difficulty grasping the idea I’m back in America, which is such a different reality.

The last update you received from me was regarding the little girl that was in the hospital with the stab wounds. Her condition plummeted and she ended up on life support for a few days but in the end, lost her battle to stay alive. As you may recall, her perpetrator had escaped police custody. He was recaptured, and within the same hour of his capture, the little girl let go of her struggle to stay alive and quietly passed on. It knocked the wind out of all of us.

Meaningful Media Attention

Fortunately, her case gained (generally absent) media attention. Her death came during the “16 Days of Activism”, an annual event that focuses on women and children’s rights. “Nunu” has now become the face of 16 Days of Activism and her story became national news. Because of the media attention, the Dept. of Ministry, Dept. of Social Welfare, and other dignitaries seized the moment to speak out about the problem of rapes against women and children. In addition, the government paid for the funeral of little Nunu.

Zulu culture is rich in tradition and there is strict protocol to follow for such occasions. The funeral was last Sunday under an enormous white tent in the middle of the impoverished rural area where her family lived. Hundreds of people attended, including the police officers that I worked with on the case. The crowd sang and prayed, the dignitaries spoke, we spoke and after four hours, the funeral process was finished. We said our goodbyes and left.

All the TV stations were there, in addition to newspapers. I guess I can agree that her life served a purpose to bring about awareness and public outcry about crimes against children. She was so strong and brave to stay alive long enough to give details of her perpetrator so that he could finally be stopped from hurting more than he already had. The police have been trying to solve several of his rape cases for over a year.

A Day In Court

The perpetrator’s court appearance was the following day whereupon he was filing for bail application. We organized a demonstration outside of the courthouse. People from her rural area, Red Cross, African National Congress, teachers, and others joined us to protest. We packed the courtroom and hallways to attend his hearing.

The man was brought up from his cell underneath the courtroom and it was a poignant moment for me to see him shackled around his ankles with such heavy chains that he found it difficult to raise his legs to climb the steps. I leaned over the half wall and watched him struggle slowly upward into the courtroom.

Here was the man that I had previously witnessed outrunning the cops with such speed that he seemed to be flying. Now he could barely raise his legs from the weight of the shackles. As he slowly climbed the stairs, only the sound of the metal chains could be heard in the dead-silent courtroom. When his head became visible to the crowd, there was a collective gasp and muffled sounds of outrage, and then the perpetrator looked with shock out into the crowd. I don’t believe he had any idea there would be such an outcry over his actions and from the look on his face, I thought he realized for the first time, his life was forever changed.

He had hurt so many women and children in the past and had never been caught. He appeared on four additional counts of rape, one murder charge, and one attempted rape. The police believe he is linked to many more and though not publicly released, they believe he is also connected to more unsolved murder cases. The judge denied bail and the courtroom rose up cheering. That was the first step toward justice in this case and the moment in which I had to release the outcome, since I was leaving the country in only a few days. I had invested so much in this; it was difficult to walk away from it.

Random Violence

On Monday after court, I returned to Amanzimtoti where the police picked me up to make a positive ID of yet another incident that had taken place the prior Saturday night. I was in a pub with a staff member from Bobbi Bear. It was my final weekend in SA and we'd made plans to go out and hear some music. It was in a pub on the beach of a neighboring town and my friend had gone to the back room to play pool. Another friend of mine had just left my side to go sing on stage and I was waiting for him on a barstool.

There was a man standing about two feet in front of me whom I had noticed earlier in the evening. He struck me as someone that didn't fit into the crowd. It was such a happy evening and people were dancing and this particular man stood solemnly at the edge of the crowd.

Suddenly, without provocation or warning, the man took a gun out of his pocket, and shot another man directly in front of him in the face at close range. The man dropped to the ground. I carefully climbed off the barstool behind him and slid around a sliding glass door, to my immediate right, which led to a balcony. I was the only one on the balcony and stood silently in the corner. I could hear pandemonium inside the bar . . . people screaming.

The man then walked out onto the balcony where I was standing and aimed his gun at me. I stood still and looked him in the eyes. I knew I was protected. In fact, while I was standing in the corner, I heard a voice tell me “you are not going to die, and if he shoots, it won’t hurt that bad”. I know this sounds crazy, but it’s what went through my mind and because of it, I never panicked. I stayed calm and steady.

The police later told me it is probably why he didn’t shoot. If I had screamed or begged him not to shoot, it might have escalated the situation. We stood there looking at one another, and then he very slowly turned around, lowered his gun, and walked out of the bar.

Once I knew the man was gone, I walked back into the pub, and went to the man that had been shot, now lying in a river of blood. Everyone was frozen and screaming. I knelt down by his side and checked for a pulse, of which there was none. I shouted for them to call the ambulance and my friend and myself began CPR.

Soon another man stepped forward and took over chest compressions and they worked on him for no less than 25 minutes. Slowly, his color began to return and after 45 minutes, an ambulance arrived. The man is still in ICU but will be OK in time. He's alive! The bullet miraculously missed his brain and is lodged behind his ear. His face was shattered and the damage to his eyesight is still undetermined. He will be hospitalized for a very long time, and the reconstructive surgery on his face will be extensive. 

Judicial Imbalance

I made the positive ID of the shooter on that Monday afternoon, at which time he broke down and confessed to the shooting. This was a club of all white people; the shooter was white and had apparently had a long history of unbearable depression. He snapped that night and his victim was totally random. They’d had no argument or previous contact and no one in the pub had ever seen the shooter before. The police told me I was lucky because he fit the profile to take a hostage or shoot others as he had nothing left to lose, and I was a perfect target for that.

There are different laws for white people. This man will be justly punished and it was in the newspapers by daybreak the following day. Under no circumstances will this case fall through the cracks. It will get the attention it deserves and all t’s will be crossed and all i’s dotted. This is the way the law should work . . . my only wish is that crimes committed against the black people would receive the same justice and attention.

A Whole New Reality

I am sitting now in front of a lit Christmas tree in a warm cozy house in the mountains, where it is lightly snowing outside. I am surrounded by a family that loves and treats me as one of their own. I am blessed beyond measure. I am not fully present. I have a great deal to process in the next few days . . . weeks . . . and I feel like I’m between two worlds. Part of me is still in South Africa where I had finally adapted and now my sleep-deprived body is sitting in America where I must now readapt to a different reality.

I am so grateful for this journey. I have learned so much about myself and others and how we are so carefully connected and interwoven and how this world is one big tapestry of beautiful colors. When one string unravels or is broken, it affects the big picture. We have a duty to help mend the broken and frayed threads because at the end of the day, we’re all in this together. It’s our piece of work.

I don’t have all the answers but I do know that one person can make a difference. It doesn’t have to be a six-month stay in a third world country. We can make a difference today and every day, and it costs nothing. Kindness, compassion and respect for others . . . it has an enormous impact.

Now that I’m back stateside, I haven’t a clue where my life will lead me next, but I do know I can’t stop here. There is a lot of work to be done and maybe that’s what my life is about. Helping others. Showing others how to believe in themselves, to protect and stand up for their rights as a human being. Maybe I am here to point out other people’s worth when they have been falsely made to believe they have none. I don’t know yet.

But I do know that what I have given to others has been returned to me tenfold. It is I who have received more than I dreamed possible. I went with the intention of serving others and in the end, I received so much more than I gave.

My prayer is that through my journal notes, I have shared a thought or experience with you that inspired you to see things differently . . . to love more deeply . . . to drop prejudices . . . to be grateful for the little things that in the end are so huge.

Some Gifts Are Only Visible Above The Clouds

When I left Durban, it was a cloudy gray day. I sat in a window seat on the plane and watched as we left the runway. As we lifted above the cloud cover, I saw the sky was bright blue and I could see the approximate location of where I'd spent my time for six months beneath the layer of clouds. The most magnificent rainbow formed right above the cloud cover. It wasn’t just any rainbow; it was an enormous block of radiant color that reflected prisms all over the white fluffy clouds. I was awestruck. The rainbow was only visible above the cloud cover.

Tears overflowed onto my face and I knew that rainbow was symbolic of all the love I had received. It was "Grace".  The colors shifted and colored the clouds and I looked around at other passengers, wondering if they were seeing the same thing, or was this only for me.

It doesn’t matter . . . I saw it and I knew I was part of something so much bigger. It was a gift of such magnitude . . . that scene will never leave my memory. I stared out the window and gave thanks. I am so very grateful for all of you and the love you have shared . . . the prayers . . . the encouragement and support. I have been given gifts that I never anticipated receiving. There was no possible way I could’ve foreseen what this journey held but I trusted I would be led and protected and indeed I was.

Thank you for being with me. I have said many times, I did not do this alone and I couldn’t have done it without the help of all of you. I am a lucky lucky girl and I am who I am because of those around me.

I am humble and grateful. Thank you with all my heart.

Signing off on a snowy Colorado morning. Amen!

Love, Patty

Related links
Tough Angels
Ubuntu: Compassion Brought Into Colourful Practice
Sex Trafficking
Violence Against Women