Durban - It was eight years ago when convicted rapist and kidnapper Johannes Mowers entered their home, lit a cigarette and told her stepfather, at gunpoint, to get under the bed.
It was the beginning of a horror ordeal for the 20-year-old, who was just 12 at the time, setting off a massive hunt as Mowers held the girl in an underground cave for 15 months, as his sex slave.
Her ordeal is similar to that of three US kidnap victims snatched in separate incidents around 10 years ago and found alive this week.
In the latest news about the Cleveland kidnappings the Ohio attorney-general said on Friday that DNA tests showed kidnapping and rape suspect Ariel Castro is the father of the six-year-old born while he allegedly held the girl’s mother, Amanda Berry, 27, and two other women, Gina DeJesus, 23, and Michelle Knight, 32, captive for nearly a decade in a “private torture chamber”.
Attorney-general Mike DeWine said that “forensic scientists worked through the night to confirm that Castro was the father.”
Castro, 52, was arrested on Monday after Berry called out to a neighbour who then kicked in the door to the suspect’s home to rescue her and the girl. Police arrived on the scene and entered the house, finding other women.
Castro has been charged with kidnapping and raping the women. He was ordered held on an $8-million (R72m) bond and prosecutors say they plan to charge him with the aggravated murder of unborn babies the women lost during beatings.
It was further revealed that Castro would buy his captives a cake to mark the anniversary of their abductions. His twisted “alternative birthday party” would also involve him serving them a special dinner.
Psychologists say to survive a 10-year ordeal of beatings and rapes, his three victims may have shut down mentally on a form of “auto-pilot” to dull the trauma. Police have reported the women are in good physical condition, but they need peace and privacy.
With the women now free, grim details have begun filtering out about the rapes, beatings, forced miscarriages and periods of starvation that they endured at the house on Seymour Avenue.
Meanwhile in the Cape, following the freeing of the Cleveland women found on May 6, the young South African woman feels ready to tell her story.
The cave was in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley: “I remember everything. Sometimes if I tell the story, the whole thing feels like it just happened yesterday,” she said.
After bursting into the home, then forcing the girl outside, she remember Mowers telling her stepfather: “If you don’t turn around I’ll hurt her, and it’ll be your fault.”
Her stepfather turned back.
Before they even reached the cave, where she would be not only his sex slave but also his punch bag and a mother to his then four-year-old daughter, Mowers raped her. When she first saw the hole in the ground, the young woman says, she saw the child lying there.
“He said it was his daughter.”
The two girls were together in that underground cave for 15 months, before finally being freed.
Major-General Jeremy Veary, who was provincial police director at the time, said the pit was about two metres by three metres wide that Mowers had dug out of a bank using sheets of corrugated iron to support the roof. Veary said the girls were so afraid to leave the hole they had to be coaxed out.
Describing her time in the pit yesterday, the apparently calm and confident young woman said: “I was like a dart board. He’d throw knives at me, and when I ducked he’d tell me not to blame him if I got hit. I thought about running away, but his daughter held me back emotionally cause she was small, I couldn’t just leave her there.
“And I didn’t know how I got there. He raped and beat me all the time,” she said.
Like with one of the Cleveland women, Gina DeJesus, this young woman’s abductor was known to her family.
“He knows my whole family but I never knew him. People have told me he was a good man, and that he went to the same school I went to before,” she said.
And that’s the only sign of anger she shows.
When the two girls were finally freed, they spoke only in whispers because Mowers had forbidden them to talk.
At the time of his trial supporters set up the Whisper Fund to raise money for the girls’ rehabilitation and education, and remain close to its founder Jennifer Mackenzie.
And what of her relationship with the little girl she cared about too much to escape alone?
“Last year I met his daughter at Jenni’s house. She walked through the gate with her bushy hair, and I was so happy to see her. She was so big and what really shocked me is that she only spoke English.
“We just sat and looked each at other, we were shy.”
The younger girl asked her about Mowers, and what he’d done.
“(She wanted to know) what he did to me, how old she had been, and if I knew her mom. We were smiling a lot.”
Mower’s daughter did not remember much of her past, and she was flabbergasted to hear what her father had done.
“She said: “Mom, how could someone do something like that?” She had so many questions we couldn’t answer, which is is why we got the two of them together.
“A lot of her questions have now been answered,” the guardian said, adding that she hoped it would allow the girl to move forward in her emotional development.
“We go for counselling once a month to work through things. She’s quite okay with her history. She works exceptionally hard. She loves her sport, she’s a beautiful ballet dancer,” she said.
Meanwhile, the young woman who was her carer in the pit is studying to be a teacher in Hermanus, and dreams about being able to help children with her skills, via the Whisper Fund.
“I want to become a Grade R teacher. I want to give other children what I got from Jenni. When I’m with Jenni I feel safe, no one will touch me. People support me, I talk to my psychologist about everything.”
She doesn’t feel sad or emotional now, although she is always vigilant around older men. - Independent on Saturday