Prison helps victims to become victors

Victims of violent crimes share their stories. From left, Melissa Seegers, Tony Carlisle and Jennifer Chatburn.

Gersham Ward remembers it rained on Christmas Day in 2003 – the day he watched his father beat his mother to death.

He was 9.

Mr Ward, of Mitchell’s Plain, was one of the victims of violent crime who told their stories during a victims’ rights awareness session at Pollsmoor Prison on Tuesday.

Mr Ward told how his father, a drug addict and an alcoholic, had regularly beaten up his mother.

“When he couldn’t get his daily fix, he would abuse my mommy emotionally, physically, mentally – everything. It was the norm of the day,” he said.

“I would always take my mom’s side and try to fight back my dad, as little as I was, and he would fight me. It was like a man-to-man thing.”

Mr Ward said his mother had been a fighter: every time she had taken a beating, she had fought back and had then gone on with her day.

But that Christmas Day had been different.

“He was sober at the time and was very mindful of what he was doing,” Mr Ward said.

He remembers the blood all over the tiles. His father had beaten his mother’s head and body against them over and over again.

It hadn’t been the first time that he’d seen his father make his mother bleed, he said. In the past, his father had ordered him to fetch a cloth to clean up the blood.

“Every time I’d tell him, ‘no, daddy, stop hitting mommy, he would tell me to shut up or I will be next.”

On that Christmas Day, his father had told him to run a bath of cold water.

“This is something he’d do a lot, take my mom’s head and drown it in cold water, but for the first time my mommy couldn’t respond.

“I tried to wake her up, tell her, ‘Mommy let’s run away,’ like I’d always say, but she was unconscious,” he said, tears filling his eyes.

All the doors in their home had been locked that day – he’d been unable run or call out for help, he said.

“This time I couldn’t run to the police station like I normally would, and after he had done what he did, his friends came over to smoke mandrax with him and he pretended that everything was okay.”

His mother’s body had lain cold and dead for three days before a neighbour had spotted it decomposing, he said.

Mr Ward’s father was imprisoned for life, and Mr Ward’s years after that, were filled with hatred and anger.

“I was so suicidal, to the point where I tried to kill myself at 12 years old. I did not understand why this happened to my mommy, who went to church every Sunday and prayed for my dad. She was a loving mother of two kids. Sadly, she was hooked on my father’s false promises.

“I hated my father. I started planning how I was going to kill him after he came out. I planned that I would do it the same way he killed my mother.”

His teens had been hard years with him constantly getting in trouble and getting into fights, he said.

A decade after his mother’s death, he called Correctional Services to meet his dad for the first time after the incident.

“I was 20 going on 21. Victim support was arranged for me. My father came out that day; he was dressed in normal clothes. They took off his prison clothes, and I said to him, ‘Daddy, I love you.’ Even though he was the offender, and he did wrong to my mommy, there was no restoration without forgiveness. My father grew up in an abusive home too. I had to forgive him and also forgive myself. It took a lot of guts.”

Mr Ward said that after that his life had improved. Today he is married and is expecting his first child.

“You have to choose to become the victor and not the victim,” he said.

Renee Botha, is part of the Department of Social Development’s victim empowerment programme that works in 16 shelters across the province, helping victims of violent crimes.

“We also work with service centres within communities, and I’ll tell you healing is not a touch-and-go thing and then you’re better.”

Ms Botha said the department had to continuously follow up with victims of violent crimes and support them after they had witnessed traumatic crimes.

They also provided skills programmes and subsidised counsellors for victims.