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Breaking free

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iol lif april 2 ca Monique StrydomEtch

Tracey Adams

Strydom and her husband Callie were two of the Sipadan hostages after going on holiday in Malaysia. Photograph: Tracey Adams

The woman sitting across the table from me is thinking back to the day her life changed forever. Monique Strydom has told her story hundreds of times.

She and her husband, Callie, went on a diving holiday to Sipadan in Malaysia and ended up as part of a group of 21 people kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf rebels and held captive for the next four months in a Philippines jungle.

This was 12 years ago and, sitting in the sunny lounge of her Welgemoed home, the events of that day seem a world away from her current reality. She remembers the morning the rebels arrived. She and her husband had earlier planned to go diving with two Americans but then decided to stay.

An extract from their book, Shooting the Moon, describes the moment the rebels burst into their resort before loading them and 19 others on to a boat that took them to the jungle: “The first man burst in through the back entrance and almost immediately rested a mean-looking rocket launcher on one of the tables near the rear. ‘Police,” he shouted, followed by ‘Illegal immigrants!’

“Within seconds about five more heavily armed men scrambled on to the deck. Some were dressed in quasi-military uniforms with old T-shirts or vests…

“They were carrying M-16 assault rifles, handguns and had rounds of ammunition wrapped around their necks.”

After being captured, the Strydoms survived on a daily bowl of rice and half a glass of water, before they were set free four months later. Monique says they kept hearing rumours of their release but as time passed they started losing hope.

On the morning of August 27, 2000, Monique says she woke up after a dream in which God told her she should go out and help others. “I woke and took two pieces of paper. On the one paper I wrote ‘goodbye’ and on the second paper I wrote out a business plan. Then at 11am, Callie came in and told me that we were going home. I couldn’t believe it.”

They arrived back in SA to much fanfare and set up the Callie and Monique Strydom Charity Trust.

Although her husband still works for one of the major banks, Monique set up an NGO called Matla a Bana (Sotho and Setswana for “power of the children”), an initiative of their trust.

With offices in Cape Town and Joburg, the organisation creates child-friendly rooms within police stations for children who have been victims of abuse. They have more than 20 facilities across the country and opened their fifth facility in the Western Cape on Thursday, at the Khayelitsha police station.

“The facilities are meant to be child-friendly places, like a home. There is a waiting room, an assessment room and, in our new Khayelitsha facility, we have a two-way mirror where parents can sit on the other side. And we also have audio-visual equipment.”

She explains that they record what the children say to use later as evidence in court.

They also train police staff in the soft skills needed to deal with children who have been abused and facilitate the training of doctors in certain forensic skills.

Between the work and the travelling, Monique is also raising her 10-year-old son, Luc. She explains that the diving trip that changed her life was supposed to be the last one before she and her husband settled down and had children. She was 36. Doctors told her it would be difficult for her to conceive, “but I fell pregnant… It was a blessing”.

Monique has not let her hostage experience curb her love of travel. She has since been to Thailand, Mauritius, Singapore and Mexico.

She says she does not want to let that one bad experience determine the rest of her life.

“If you allow things like that to influence your life, you remain a hostage to them forever.”

Providing a new future for abused children

Matla A Bana is a charity project initiated and managed by the Callie and Monique Strydom Charity Trust.

The trust was founded by the Strydoms after they returned from their hostage ordeal.

At the end of 2002 Monique Strydom was asked to chair a task team that investigated child rape in SA.

A need for an organisation which could address all the grey areas in the child protection system in SA was identified and the Strydom Trust undertook to address this need.

Today, Matla a Bana is a national organisation, with a predominant focus in the Western Cape and Gauteng.

It also runs an adoption project, gives incentive awards to those who have gone beyond the call of duty in helping child victims and supplies comfort packs to police officers and rape clinics, to give to young victims when the crimes are first reported. - Cape Argus

l For more information visit: www.matlaabana.co.za

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