On a visit to Thailand, Colleen Dardagan visited Bangkok’s Lard Yao prison where she met Henk Vanstaen, a ‘guardian angel’ to seven South African women jailed for drug smuggling.
Bangkok - AS we sit down at a restaurant overlooking Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River, 69-year-old Henk Vanstaen makes it clear – “I am not religious and I am not a missionary”.
This businessman – born in Rwanda to Belgian parents – is the only link seven South African women jailed in Thailand for drug smuggling have with the outside world.
For two of them, Nolubabalo “Babsie” Nobanda and Thando Pendu, he’s the go-to man in a long bid to get a royal pardon.
Nobanda was arrested in 2011 when cocaine was found wrapped inside her dreadlocks, and Pendu in 2008 at Bangkok’s international airport. The drugs were reportedly strapped to Pendu’s waist and also “stuffed” inside her vagina.
The women hail from Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape and the Free State respectively.
“Thando and Babsie have written letters to the (Thai) king asking for a pardon,” said Vanstaen. “I have written a letter in support explaining how they are victims of human trafficking. I also got their families to write letters and their schools to send their matric certificates. If we succeed it will be the first time a South African will get a royal pardon.”
He said it was time the authorities in South Africa started to work on prison exchange treaties.
“The inmates want to serve their time close to their families. It is terrible in this prison. It’s hell. I can read people. I know some of them use me, but they have to do everything and anything just to survive.”
Every Wednesday, Vanstaen makes the long journey to the city’s Lard Yao women’s prison. At 10.30am he visits an inmate and at 2.30pm another, and in that way gets to see all seven every few weeks.
During each hourly visit, he listens to their stories, collects letters or messages to send to their families and deposits money sent from home into the prison bank accounts.
Vanstaen also posts and delivers assignments for Nobanda, who is studying communications through Unisa.
“Everything costs money in prison. If they can afford coffee they must pay for the hot water to make the coffee. In the embassy’s ‘service delivery’ document they are supposed to get funds sent by families to the prisoners within 24 hours. I know of a family who sent their daughter money a month ago and still she has not received it,” he said.
Vanstaen has made this journey for six years and spends three days a week attending to business for the women. Vanstaen is not allowed access to the two South African men also serving time in the facility.
“You would expect empathy from your government for these women, but there is nothing. Last year one of them died of Aids. The embassy said it was TB. That’s bulls***. Most of them have Aids and, no, they didn’t get it in prison. They used to get ARVs supplied by a South African NGO, but there are no more funds.”
Vanstaen said the embassy promised to send the Aids victim’s body home. “They never did, though. The family are still waiting. Who knows what they did with her body.” Services to the prisoners by the embassy depend solely on the largesse of the incumbent ambassador, he said.
Qualified as a microbiologist, Vanstaen first worked for a Swedish company in Thailand. When the company was sold, he left and set up his own enterprise. Three years ago he was granted permanent residency in Thailand. Six years ago he sold his business and stopped working.
So why the involvement with South African prisoners?
“Looking back at my life so far, I have had it quite good, so there’s nothing wrong in giving back. I now choose to visit inmates from Africa because I was born there. I started to care about the people who should not be in there (jail). More should be done for Thando and Babsie. They are victims of human trafficking.
“Coercing naive, but innocent people to do things they actually refused to do is trafficking. I know it, you know it and your government knows it, and yet they do nothing. The rest are punishing their families, but it is not for me to judge, I help them all,” he said.
The South African women were all in their 20s when arrested, said Vanstaen. The longest serving was arrested 15 years ago and the most recent, four months ago.
“Some are professional drug mules, and they are quite open about it, but Thando and Babsie are definitely victims of human trafficking.
“All the women here can name their handlers, they can identify them. They (handlers) are all Nigerians. Based on the information from the inmates I have tracked them down on Facebook. They brag about all their money, but they seem untouchable. The inmates have never been questioned by the South African police.”
Vanstaen shakes his head. “Thando and Babsie – they really are special girls. They are from rural places. They were so naive. Babsie was asked by a friend if she wanted to go with her to Brazil to buy hair products. Thando was offered a job by her mother’s best friend to drive ambulances in Bangkok. She didn’t even have a driver’s licence.”
He continued: “When they arrived they were locked up in a condo and a hotel room by Nigerians. The handlers force them, train them, to swallow drugs. They cut whole carrots in half and make them swallow them in one go to get them used to it.
“Babsie refused, Thando said she couldn’t. When they have a ‘difficult’ mule the handlers ‘give them up’. They force them to carry drugs to countries such as Thailand or Vietnam where they know they will be arrested and either get death sentences or long jail terms. The handlers do that so they know the girls won’t ever get out and identify them or talk,” said Vanstaen.
“Babsie had just 600g on her, that is not even worth their trouble – it wouldn’t even cover the cost of an air ticket. The handlers then tip off security at the airports. They simply give them up. They admit they have done wrong. All they ask is to be allowed to go home and serve their sentences near their families.”
Thailand has signed international prisoner exchange treaties with countries including the US, Britain and European countries. South Africa is reportedly one of three countries, with Ghana and Nepal, who refuse to enter such agreements.