… and then they were swal­lowed

Sunday Tribune - - FRONT PAGE - KARINDA JAGMOHAN

ACOAL-BLACK snif­fer dog briskly nosed around a rot­ten tree in Dundee where the body of a young girl had been found hang­ing al­most four months ago.

Watch­ing the dog, the child’s grand­mother held her breath. She was wait­ing for a sign of an­other miss­ing grand­child.

It was a sunny Thurs­day in Dundee, in­land Kwazulu-natal, this week. Streams lead­ing into the Buf­falo River glit­tered and tin­kled. But the small, his­toric town has be­come a place of dark­ness for Ren­nie Khu­malo. The 53-year-old watched po­lice and strangers dig in the river banks.

She knows, in her heart and mind, that 9-year-old Ayabonga Steele is no longer alive, but she needs some clo­sure.

On the evening of Jan­uary 25, in the midst of tor­ren­tial rain, Buf­falo “Blood” River raged, over­flow­ing its banks. Hail­stones smashed through the roof of Khu­malo’s home.

“I just heard that sound ‘cr­rrk!’ and there was no roof any more. The kids and I tried to run to a neigh­bour’s house for shel­ter, but the path out­side was flooded,” Khu­malo re­called.

Only one of her grand­chil­dren, 13-year-old Mally Steele, sur­vived that night.

The body of Melokuhle Steele, 11, was found on a river bank on Jan­uary 28, not far from the Khu­ma­los’ home. Five-year-old Kholeka Khu­malo’s body was found the next day, kilo­me­tres away from her sis­ter. But no trace was found of Ayabonga.

Then an­other freak storm struck Dundee in late March, claim­ing the lives of War­rant Of­fi­cer Anesh “Jakes” Jug­gan, wife, Molly, and friend, Ashoak Ra­joo, who had been trav­el­ling in a po­lice van when it was swept off a bridge crossing the river.

The trio were buried in Dundee this week.

The next day, an ex­ten­sive three-day search be­gan for Ayabonga’s body.

It in­volved SAPS units from Dundee, Lady­smith, Pi­eter­mar­itzburg, Port Shep­stone and Umh­lali, and the metro po­lice.

The Pa­tri­otic Al­liance com­mit­tee in the area had pushed for the search after meet­ing Khu­malo.

“We wanted to help her find clo­sure,” said An­dré de Bruin, a PA rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Went­worth, Dur­ban. He said the En­du­meni Mu­nic­i­pal­ity had ig­nored Ayabonga’s fam­ily.

Five K9-unit dogs were de­ployed to the search party, which in­cluded an SAPS div­ing team and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the bomb squad.

Stand­ing at the tree where Melokuhle’s body was found, Khu­malo gazed at po­lice on horse­back as they scanned the fields where the river had bro­ken its banks.

“I need to leave this place. The only thing hold­ing me back is that Ayabonga is still here,” she said.

Melokuhle’s mother, Stephanie Steele, 32, was too emo­tional to talk about the fam­ily’s suf­fer­ing. The fa­ther of Melokuhle, Ayabonga and Mally was nowhere to be seen. He no longer lived with the fam­ily, said Khu­malo, who re­ferred to her grand­chil­dren as “her kids”.

But Kholeka’s fa­ther, Sihle Mdunge, had joined the search, and was soon waist-deep in the murky river search­ing amid slimy branches.

Recol­lect­ing the night of the storm, Khu­malo re­counted how she had seen Kholeka stand­ing on the banks of the swollen riven, hold­ing hands with Ayabonga and Melokuhle be­fore they were swal­lowed by the river.

“I tried to run after them, but the wa­ter caught me too.” She said she had been tossed and rolled about in the river un­til she man­aged to clutch hold of a neigh­bour’s fence.

“I just clung there and screamed. My chil­dren had been washed away,” said Khu­malo.

She said her el­dest grand­child, Mally, was the last per­son to see Kholeka, Melokuhle and Ayabonga. She told her grand­mother: “Ma, I saw them float­ing in the wa­ter. I called for them but only Ayabonga an­swered.

“He was cry­ing out: ‘Mally, come take me out of the wa­ter. I’m cold’. Then the wa­ter pushed him down. I never saw him again.”

Khu­malo, who is a Sun­day school teacher, fol­lowed the search party with the snif­fer dogs from bridge to bridge.

The river, which dragged Kholeka’s body away from her home, is now a stream dot­ted with sand heaps.

With no trace of Ayabonga’s body, Khu­malo in­sisted that a search party re­turn to the site where Kholeka’s body had been found.

Khu­malo said she had washed Kholeka’s body for two hours. The 5-year-old girl’s scalp was cracked, her hair had been ripped away and her ribs jut­ted out. Her face… not even her eyes were recog­nis­able, said Khu­malo

She said she could not wash away the im­age of worms eat­ing Kholeka’s body.

“There were all over her.

“Melo’s body was bet­ter, but Kholeka’s body was… ” Khu­malo was un­able to com­plete the sen­tence.

Spe­cial­ist foren­sic pathol­o­gist Dr Reg­gie Peru­mal said after four months the body of a young child would be in an ad­vanced stage of de­com­po­si­tion as its pro­tec­tive mech­a­nisms no longer ex­isted.

“This is a small body that has been tum­bling in the wa­ter, as in a wash­ing ma­chine. The body may hit rocks, be­come dis­mem­bered and bones may break.

“Scavengers such as fish and crabs will nib­ble at the body, and ul­ti­mately it will be­come un­recog­nis­able.

“You will need DNA sam­ple test­ing or cloth­ing to iden­tify the body,” Peru­mal said.

Nick­named up­haphile (mis­chievous), Kholeka had been a very pop­u­lar girl in the com­mu­nity. “Even if you saw her for the first time, it’s as if she knew you long ago,” said Khu­malo.

Melokuhle had been a lead singer at the Sun­day school.

“She just loved her Chris­tian songs,” said Khu­malo.

“On the day (she was lost) she was singing a song that Babo (a South African gospel artist) sings,” Khu­malo said.

The girls were buried after Khu­malo was dis­charged from hos­pi­tal fol­low­ing treat­ment for in­juries and hy­pother­mia.

Four months on, Khu­malo still has Ayabonga’s clothes. She wants to leave Dundee, but not be­fore bury­ing her grand­son.

By noon on Thurs­day, the sun scorched the Dundee veld and tempers flared among mem­bers of the search party.

“At the end, we have to say we did what we needed to do for this baby,” a po­lice of­fi­cial said to his ar­gu­ing col­leagues.

Ayabonga, said Khu­malo, had dreamt of driv­ing a ve­hi­cle.

“I used to tell ev­ery­one one day he will drive us,” Khu­malo.

“And, true to my word, I once found him on his bed pre­tend­ing to drive the baby by his legs. He was a very play­ful boy.”

Tears stream­ing down her cheeks, Khu­malo said she could still hear the voices of her grand­chil­dren as they had stood on the banks of the flooded river.

“They were pray­ing, ega­meni like­jesu! ega­meni lika­jesu! (In the name of Je­sus),” said Khu­malo.

“Then they

(by the river).”

There are three empty spaces in the Sun­day school class­room where Khu­malo teaches.

Those will never be filled, said Khu­malo, cry­ing. creepy-crawlies were that said swal­lowed

Sihle Mdunge, Kholeka’s fa­ther, and PA rep­re­sen­ta­tive An­dré de Bruin search for the bod­ies of miss­ing chil­dren. Right: Melokuhle Steele, Kholeka Khu­malo and Ayabonga Steele. Bot­tom: grand­mother Ren­nie Khu­malo.

A three-day mas­sive po­lice search for the body of a 9-year-old boy, Ayabonga Steele, took place in Dundee this week. He went miss­ing dur­ing a flash flood in Jan­uary that also claimed two of his sib­lings.

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