Hijacked in Mozambique

Text: Danie Botha

Fear. I know about fear. It was there when I stood next to my father’s hospital bed in an intensive care unit after an accident, telling him that he would be okay, and knowing he would not be okay. That was fear.

Or lying in a godforsaken ditch next to a mountain road in Mpumalanga, with a broken body, after a motorcycle accident. And realising I may never see my young children again. That was fear.

But when a man shoved a gun in my face, and shouted “I kill you! I shoot you!”, it was not fear I felt.

It was anger.

Anger aimed at this complete stranger, for putting colleague Jannie Herbst and myself in this unpleasant situation. Raw, unbridled, rampant anger.

It happened on a Sunday, in September. We had entered Mozambique a few days earlier, armed with photographer Herbst’s cameras, a laptop computer, a BMW X5 3.0d, and on a mission to do a travelogue article in Mozambique.

At this point, though, we have to clarify: modern Mozambique is a truly wonderful, remarkable place. After visiting the country on several occasions since the devastating 15-year long civil war ended in 1992, we have seen how Mozambique has steadily picked itself up from the ashes.

Today Mozambique is a friendly, vibrant place. New buildings and businesses are shooting up all over the place. Crime exists, but according to locals, the, mostly petty, crime is quickly and efficiently dealt with, either by police, or the local chiefs in rural areas. South Africans living there tell how they sleep with their doors and windows open.

Sure, it’s still far from being the ultimate paradise, but compared one-on-one to some South African provinces, it is paradise. And with the way things are going at the moment, it may become one of the world’s most exclusive, idyllic destinations. Really, it could.

On our last trip there, in March 2008, we had some run-ins with the bribe-seeking authorities. This time round though, we were not stopped by the police. Not even once.

So all in all, we were left mighty impressed with modern Mozambique. That is, until that Sunday in September.

On that morning we headed out early from Maputo to Macaneta “island”, north of the city, in search of the “Delarey man”. A local entrepreneur and artist realised that Afrikaans singer Bok van Blerk’s Delarey song has huge appeal amongst the many South Africans visiting Macaneta. So he transformed himself into the Mozambiquen version of Bok van Blerk, singing the song for a few meticais.

We found him, photographed him, and interviewed him. Soon, with our Moz Mission completed, we headed towards the main EN1 highway, which would have taken us past Maputo, and on to the Komatipoort border. And home.

But, when we arrived at the main tar road, a warning message flashed on the BMW’s display screen, indicating tyre pressure loss. We also heard a familiar click-click-click as we drove – there was obviously something wedged into a front tyre. So we drove on at 40-50km/h, as the tyre was not deflated yet. From experience, though, we knew that the object could dislodge from the tyre as the rubber heated and expanded – and a spacesaver sparewheel and the potholes on Mozambique’s EN1 highway wouldn’t get along very well.
15km later we found a tyre repair shop, next to the main road, and immediately pulled in. There are no Hi-Qs, Tiger Wheel & Tyres, or similar outlets. The staff quickly set to work, and plugged the hole.

But, just as we got back in the X5, and after starting her up, Jannie saw a suspicious person approaching the car from the rear. But split seconds after his warning came, the driver’s door was opened, and a man pointed a .38 special at me.

“My friend, I kill you! I shoot you now! Get in the back seat!”

So I obliged, while his colleague climbed in the front with Jannie, sitting on his lap. But the man with the gun, now positioned behind the steeringwheel, could not make the BMW go. So
we played dumb, pretending that we didn’t know what was going on, and hoping for divine intervention. Like a policecar pulling up.

Meanwhile the second accomplice moved to the back seat too.

But, of course, divine intervention didn’t arrive. The man with the gun only got more and more aggressive, threatening to shoot us. So he ordered me back behind the driver seat, and he got in behind me, with loaded gun at the ready. He ordered me to drive slowly on, on the main EN1 road. A few hundred metres later he ordered a left turn and, shortly afterwards, another left. He ordered me to stop, and leave the car in “Drive”.

For a moment they were both out of the car, and we were in, and I thought about flooring it. But a quick peek to see where the man with the .38 was, scuppered that plan. He was right at my (now open) door, with gun pointed very directly at me.

So I was ordered to the backseat again, and the man with the gun ordered us to hand over all money. Jannie handed over the R2400 he had, and the man asked for my wallet. He went through my wallet, but there was only about R20 cash in it, so he handed that to Jannie (with all my credit cards still in it!).

The biggest surprise of the ordeal came when the jacker behind the wheel asked where our passports were. We showed him, and he told us to take them with us. Why? Heck, maybe he was one of the more gentlemanly type of hijackers. Who knows.

We were ordered out of the vehicle, and off the two bastards went, with all our possessions.

Unbelievably, they had missed Jannie’s sleek phone, which was still in his pocket. He immediately contacted Johann van Loggerenberg, our late colleague, in South Africa, to get in touch with BMW South Africa’s security company to activate any tracking device.

Meanwhile I ran up the road, shouting at the locals for the location of the police. They pointed me around a corner and off I went, to be faced with a Frelimo political party convoy – with two police bakkies loaded to the hilt with shotgun-brandishing policemen!

I jumped into the road in front of the leading bakkie, nearly getting run over, but they stopped. I explained what had happened, and luckily one of the policeman spoke some English, and understood the situation.

So, with the locals giving added impetus, the two police bakkies and their armed cargo went in pursuit of the BMW.

Of course, two heavily loaded Nissan Patrol diesel bakkies were no match for a new BMW X5, capable of in excess of 200km/h.

So there we were, in the middle of a Frelimo political convoy, in the middle of, well, we didn’t really know what. And we felt a lot of things, like confusion and shock. But most certainly, we felt anger. Lots of anger.

What followed next was seven hours of waiting, of meeting up with a representative of the SA High Commission in Maputo, of more waiting, of translation, of police statements, of police intimidation. Finally, after 7pm, Dino Estevao, our saving grace from the SA High Commission, dropped us off at the Southern Sun hotel in Maputo.

We still felt lots of anger.

We went out for dinner at a restaurant next to the hotel. We enjoyed a lovely dinner and red wine. But still the anger lingered. We did not sleep very well.

The next morning we were dropped off at the Maputo International Airport. After another four-hour ordeal, trying our level best to buy plane tickets from the totally and utterly inefficient South African Airways representative, we finally boarded an Airbus jet, bound for home. With our passports, my wallet, Jannie’s cellphone, and the clothes on our backs.

A couple of days later we heard that the BMW had been found – parked at a reputed Maputo crime boss’ house. Police suspect that it was him that ordered the hijack. All that was found in the house was the Garmin Nuvi 720 we had used on the trip. Whether we will actually get the Nuvi back remains to be seen. All our other gear is still missing in action, and presumed to be already sold to some unscrupulous buyer(s) in Maputo. We will most probably never see it again.

So, how do we feel about the hijackers, and the situation they placed us in?

Well, if we came face-to-face with them now, we would tell them the following:

“Damn you! Damn you, you cowardly bastards! May you rot in hell!”

Oh yes. That feels (slightly) better.

A modern plague. What to do?
The first car hijacking in South Africa was recorded in 1984. Over the years, as vehicle safety systems have become more complicated and tamper-proof, hijacking at gun point has become the preferred, and normally only, method of bagging expensive machinery, since these vehicles have become virtually theft-proof.

Today the vast majority (more than 50%) of all hijackings take place in front of victims’ own residences. But in South Africa it is a common fact that senseless violence goes hand-in-hand with crime. Innocent victims are killed for a cellphone, never-mind an expensive vehicle.

So, if you land up with the ice-cold barrel of a firearm against the head, what can you do to walk away from it unscathed? Inspector Riaan Steenkamp from the South African Police Service compiled a comprehensive hijack awareness guide, with sponsorship from Netstar.

When you are faced with a hijack situation, Inspector Steenkamp suggests the following:
* No matter how outraged you may feel at the time, your prime objective must be to look after your personal safety, and that of your passengers. The preservation of human life must take precedence over material assets.
* Do nothing that is going to alarm the hijackers. Never initiate any movement yourself. This may give the hijacker the impression that you are reaching for a gun or panic button. Remember: the hijackers will be as nervous as you, if not more so. Do not motion with your hands. Rather tell the hijackers where they can find the items. Keep you hands clearly visible and as still as possible, ideally at chest level. Do not raise them above your head as the hijackers may interpret this as you trying to attract the attention of a third party.
* Answer any questions truthfully, especially with regard to firearms. If the hijacker finds out or suspects that you have lied to him, he is more likely to turn violent and unleash his frustrations on you physically. Even in your shocked and terrified state, try to listen to and understand exactly what the hijackers want from you.
* Try to concentrate on the possibility of identifying your attackers at a later stage. But remember, this does not mean staring at your attackers, making it obvious that you are looking for a means of identifying them. Stare openly at them and they will be less willing to release you, as they will think that you have incriminating evidence against them, should they be captured.
* If they abduct you, co-operate with them fully. If you have a baby sleeping in the back seat which they may not have noticed, tell the attackers. Tell them that driving away with your child is only going to make things more difficult for them. Ask them if they can fetch your child. Do not move towards the car without their explicit directive. Tell them that a baby means them no harm and is no threat. Do the same if you have a pet in the car. But do not push the issue to the point where your life may be threatened for the sake of a pet.

The complete document is available for download on www.leisurewheels.com.

On the lighter side
Sometimes hijackers unknowingly mess with the wrong customer. Like when a team of Mpumalanga jackers decided to get in a tangle with former African rally champion Schalk Burger.

It happened in 2007, just outside Nelspruit.

Schalk Burger was in his Toyota Land Cruiser 100, and his friend Hans Wessels was driving his Mitsubishi Pajero. JP du Plessis and Willie Bekker were in the Cruiser with Burger, while Piet Wydeman travelled with Wessels. The men were on their way to Mozambique, on holiday.

Just outside Nelspruit they stopped for a breather at a scenic picnic spot, next to the N4 main road. A Ford Laser drove past, turned around, and also parked at the picnic area, between the two 4x4s.

Then, just as the holidaymakers were about to continue their journey towards the Komatipoort border post, slightly wary of the new arrival at the picnic spot, the guns came out.

“This guy came up to me and demanded money. I told him in proper Afrikaans what I thought about that idea, but then I turned, and stared into the barrel of a 9mm pistol. We had no option but to co-operate,” says Burger.

While the four criminals rounded up cellphones and money from the victims, small scuffles and arguments began to develop.
“It happens so fast. I remember that, at one stage, one of our attackers became extremely agitated with Willie Bekker. I actually asked my “custodian” if it was okay if I went over to try to defuse the situation, before someone got hurt. He agreed, and stood there, waiting patiently for me to return! Fortunately, no-one was injured,” explains JP du Plessis.

Meanwhile one of the attackers took off in Hans Wessels’s Pajero, leaving his colleagues with the Cruiser and the Laser.

“When the guy who was looking after me was briefly distracted, I grabbed the opportunity. Hans and I jumped into the Cruiser, and sped off. This unsettled them, and they jumped into the Ford, following the Pajero towards a local township. I wasn’t feeling like just giving up, so I swung the Toyota around, and set off after the Ford,” says Burger.

The attackers in the Ford, obviously not knowing that one of their victims is a former FIA rally champion, were soon faced with a very large Land Cruiser in the Laser’s rear-view mirror.

“My plan was to bump the Ford sufficiently hard so that it rolled. So I gave it one good shot. But then the guns came out again, and they fired on us. So I sped past the Ford, and went after Hans’ Pajero,” explains Burger.

Wessels, sitting in the Cruiser’s passenger seat, was seething with anger at that point.

“I told Schalk to take him out, to hit him as hard as he could!” says Wessels.

But when push came to shove, if you’ll excuse the pun, and with Wessels’s beloved Pajero now in Burger’s crosshairs, the Pajero owner had a slight change of heart.

“Ag Schalk, don’t hit it too hard, okay?”
Burger attacked, but out came a firearm again.

“We decided to rather head to a police roadblock we had seen nearby, to get some backing. Backing that could also shoot back. Soon afterwards we found the abandoned Pajero, hidden behind a tree. JP du Plessis and a local farmer, who had come to his aid next to the N4 highway, were already there,” says Burger.

And in the Mitsubishi Pajero’s centre console they found all of the R30 000 Wessels had stored there.

Although the men could not continue on their holiday, as some of the party’s passports were stolen, they certainly showed some spirit. And, it should be added, came off rather lightly from a potentially very dangerous situation.

At least Hans Wessels’s beloved Mitsubishi was still in one piece too!