I Prayed for God to Take Me: South African Farmer Describes Family’s Torture, Father’s Last Moments
“I think it was adrenaline that lifted him up.”
“I think he heard the gunshot, heard his grandkids screaming, and everything that was left of him rallied for one last push. He went to the kitchen, he must have tried to grab a blanket or a towel to stop the blood, then he came to the garage to untie me and my wife.”
I felt his blood dripping on my palms as I lay face-down on the garage floor, my hands and feet tied with wire. I could feel his blood running into my palms like a tap and it felt cold, refrigerator-cold, and I knew it wasn’t good.”
Bernard’s dad untied his son, his daughter-in-law and his own wife – all bound hand and foot in the garage. Then he went to sit on the stoop outside the house.
It was the last thing he ever did.
“I told him to hold on. I told him we had new projects on the farm. I told him to hold on because we still had a lot to do.”
Ten minutes later Bernard’s father was dead.
Bernard and his father had come home from church earlier that Sunday to start the braai (fire pit) for a family meal together later that day. His wife, mother and three children were following along behind in a separate car.
They arrived home as normal, past the wires fencing off their farm, through the electric gates protecting their home, past the cameras that watch his house at night.
He dropped his dad at the door to prepare and light the fire for the braai, and went to fix the sprinklers in the field running beside the little house he still calls home.
It was his grandfather’s house, then his father’s house. Bernard was born there, as were his three children. They had farmed alongside the same generations of black farm workers for over 75 years.
When he made the short walk back from the field, he couldn’t find his father.
He knew something was wrong. His father was a commando, a military man of efficiency and precision. And a tough one still, at 75. If he said he was lighting the fire, the fire would be lit.
Three days earlier, his father had had surgery to place stents for his heart. He’d only come out of the hospital on Wednesday. Perhaps, Bernard thought, he wasn’t feeling so well. He headed for the garage door – partly open just as it always was to give the dogs shelter from the sun – to look for his dad.
He reached down to pull open the door.
That was the last thing Bernard did before life, as he knew it, would end. Before a gang of men desecrated everything he loved the most.
Eight men were waiting for him inside the garage. They threw him to the floor face-down into his father’s blood and a scattering of empty cartridges. Bernard thought his father must be dead. They bound his wrists with thick steel wire, tied his feet together and up behind him. They closed the garage door back to the usual level so no one outside would ever suspect what was going on inside the garage.
Then the men went to work.
They battered Bernard with a metal pole. They beat him with their guns, leaving holes across his torso, until his brain was unable to even understand what was happening to him – he assumed he was being stabbed with a knife.
He prayed to God to take him.
“I cried like a baby on that floor. I cried for God to take me, for them to shoot me, for me not to have to watch what was coming next.”
Bernard had read all the gruesome details. He had seen the pattern over and over: 82 murders in 2017, 423 gruesome attacks.
He knew the torture the men would inflict; knew about the wife whose kneecaps were drilled with a Black & Decker; the daughter raped by three men, the husband made to watch. The baby dropped into a boiling bath to drown.
He knew his own wife, his mother and his three babies were headed straight into this place of pain, and that the eight men waiting for them were capable of unspeakable things and would not flinch from executing his sons and making him watch.
“I knew I could not survive something like that,” Bernard says.
In the distance, he heard his wife’s car crunch the gravel on his driveway. He begged the men to shoot him, so that his wife might hear the shot ring out and turn away.
But still she came, onto the drive, straight into the madness that was unfolding in her home.
She stopped the car and the boys, eleven and eight, ran to the house as they always did, playing their game of who could get to the door first. The tiny baby was still in her car seat.
As the eleven-year-old reached the door, a shot rang out. (The bullet is still lodged in the wall today). The men had not expected this second car and were panicked into firing at the small running boy. The child fell down, unhurt. They dragged him across the yard, through the garage, and put him inside the door of the house along with his screaming baby sister.
The younger boy, aged eight, sat in the doorway and was forced to watch everything that happened in the garage.
He saw it all. Saw every time they kicked his father. Saw them string up his mother and tighten the ropes around his grandma – normal women who had been in church only an hour before.
Bernard takes me through the metal gate – the attackers cut their way through the bars, but they have been welded back in place – and into his house. He walks me through the room with the safe, the door still missing where they ripped it away, and into the bathroom.
It’s a room from a time gone by, decorated in orange and brown. Bernard points to the floor that had been covered in his father’s blood.
That day, his father had managed to untie himself and in a final fight for his family, had come to free them from their own ties.
Then his father had sat down on the stoop. His wife tried to stop his bleeding. She brought an umbrella to protect him from the sun. He laid down and within ten minutes he was dead.
“They weren’t here for anything,” says Bernard.
“They didn’t touch anything or take anything. Just a TV, which they threw away. They wanted weapons, a vehicle, and me and my dad dead.”
I ask him what happens in the bit just after. When your father is dead, your bathroom is covered in blood, your child has been shot at, and your wife and mother have been assaulted on the floor.
“For that first three weeks I can’t tell you where I was. I was here at home, but I know I wasn’t really here. The farm suffered because I didn’t even water the crops like I should have. I shut down.”
We sit on the step where his father died, and I struggle to ask him about the future. What future does he see, after everything he has lost and suffered?
“The world can say what it wants, but this is a racial thing. The blacks hate the whites. They don’t want us here.”
“Our farm workers are black, and I support them and they work well with me and we work close together, really close together, and they are angry as well. And THEY say it’s a race thing.
Some of the workers on my farm have been here for twenty years. We are battling to pay their wage. But they have stayed. Their grandfathers worked with my grandfather, and their sons work with me now. That’s how it worked.”
He looks away across his fields and seems resigned to a new way of things:
“They are taking all of us. All the Afrikaners are going to be gone. Everything is going.”
His mother has already gone. She couldn’t bear to be in the house any more. This October would have marked her 42nd year on her farm but she couldn’t stand to go back inside the place, couldn’t use the bathroom where her husband bled out.
I ask Bernard about his children. His eleven-year-old has talked of committing suicide so he can be back with his grandfather. He feels guilty because he thinks he was supposed to die. He says the shot, now lodged in the wall of the home, was meant for him. He is struggling with life.
But it is Bernard’s middle child who is not well. He cannot sleep. He can’t function. He is on antidepressants – strong antidepressants – and he is aggressive towards anyone trying to control him.
“He is really aggressive towards his teachers. He doesn’t have any friends at school anymore. He doesn’t want to fit in anymore. My son doesn’t want to go outside. You could say we lost my son that day, too.”
We are talking about his eight-year-old.
I ask who cares for Bernard while he tries to hold his family together, while they fall apart. Who is there for him to hold on to?
He looks out over the land his grandfather made fertile a time long before, clearing the bush with just hard work, an ox, a little plough and a mattress to his name.
“I have the dogs, the cattle and the land. They never let you down.”
“When I am struggling, my wife knows I will be with the fields. They can kill me – they will have to if they want me off this farm – but even when I am gone, the land will remain. My land will endure.”
And suddenly the rain comes, and all at once the whole of this terrible, majestic country is crying.
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