20 years later St James horror endures
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Cape Town - She is convinced that when the door swings open, she will still find dead bodies and debris scattered around the church’s ruined nave.
It has been 20 years since Lisa Robertson ran from St James Church in Kenilworth – a frightened 16-year-old girl in a blood-spattered jersey with gunshots and explosions ringing in her ears.
She has not been back since. And when more than 1 000 people fill the Kenilworth church this evening to mark 20 years since 11 people were killed and another 58 injured in the massacre, she will not be one of them.
She will not go back to the place where her best friend died protecting her.
On July 25, 1993, the church’s 1 500-strong congregation, including a group of Russian seamen, gathered for a Sunday evening service. Outside, trees swayed in the strong winds as dark clouds pelted Cape Town with rain.
Robertson and her schoolmate Bonnie Reeves had coaxed her friend Richard O’Kill into joining them.
He was hesitant at first, tired from an earlier church service. But while he protested, Robertson noted with some satisfaction that her 17-year-old friend was enjoying himself as he listened to a duet rendition of the hymn More than Wonderful.
Robertson felt safe and warm inside the church, so when four men wearing balaclavas and brandishing rifles spilled in through the door just in front of her, she thought it was a joke.
The sharp report of gunfire swallowed her confusion and the last strains of the hymn turned into screams.
“That was when Richard pushed me down. He was so quick he didn’t hesitate for even a second,” said Robertson.
Around her people dropped to the ground as bullets tore through the pews, sending splinters of wood spinning into the air.
“Bonnie was still standing up, she was hysterical – laughing at the men. Rich got up again to pull her down… that’s when the bullet hit him.”
The matric pupil collapsed on top of her, blood seeping from his head where the bullet had struck him.
Robertson said the acrid smell of gunpowder and blood, the sight of O’Kill’s maimed and dying body and the sounds of the M26 hand grenades exploding were still burned into her memory.
“One of the men was shooting people on the ground. He turned the gun on me. I thought it would all end there, lying between the pews. Time seemed to stand still. But that was when someone started shooting back at them, and the man started running.”
The man shooting back was Charl van Wyk. He had unstrapped the .38 special revolver from his ankle and, kneeling, was firing over the pew in the fourth row. The former salesman and now full-time missionary would later be lauded by police for retaliating.
He was credited with being responsible for forcing the Azanian People’s Liberation Army soldiers into an early retreat, preventing them from carrying out orders to expend their ammunition and set off a petrol bomb.
But for weeks after the massacre he was wracked with guilt.
“I thought I could have done more. That I could have acted sooner… When they walked through the door I thought it was a play, it was only when I saw the bullets tearing through the wooden benches that I realised what was happening.”
When Kenilworth resident Peter Hammond arrived at the church 20 minutes after the attack he ran through the double doors, the same the attackers had burst in from. All he saw were bodies scattered on the ground and paramedics working on the injured.
Hammond saw Gerhard Harker’s dead body: “He had leapt on a hand grenade and someone had put a jacket over him.”
There was a leather Bible lying in a pool of blood, pews were at crazy angles, there were holes in the ceiling, and people were crying.
He said the incident shocked him: “In the days following I would just break down because these were people we knew.”
Dr Mervyn Eloff, current rector of St James Church, said the attack was no different from other acts of terror that happened in the country 20 years ago or in more recent years like 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombings.
“We don’t consider ourselves to be different in any way. I suppose the fact that it was a church created a certain amount of horror in people’s thinking.”
Eloff said what the incident did was to remind people that they lived in a world full of tragedy, that God was good and they could trust him.
The congregation did not respond with hate and vengeance. “Instead of bitterness, rage and anger there was grace, mercy and forgiveness.”
Eloff said that what had always been strange about the attack was that the church had a diverse congregation. “The young guys who attacked the church didn’t know it was a church until they got here.”
Eloff said the church had extended its forgiveness to the attackers who received amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s amnesty committee in 1997.
“A lot of people criticised us for being forgiving, but forgiveness doesn’t mean people don’t have to face the consequences of their actions.”
A remembrance service for the victims of the massacre will be held on Thursday night at 7pm.
Van Wyk, who will attend the service, said it would be the first time many people had visited the church since the attack. Many of the survivors still saw the church as a dark place. He had been able to shed the psychological scars of what happened that night, there were those whose injuries were a constant reminder of that day.
For Roberston, 36, the massacre still haunts her. She often finds herself wondering where O’Kill would be now if he had survived.
At the same time, that night in church had made her treasure every moment of her life.
“I got married, and I have a wonderful baby boy. People often tell me I’m the happiest person they know, but that’s because I was given a gift – I was saved.
“When I see Richard in Heaven, I want to thank him for what he did for me and Bonnie. I want him to know what he gave us.”