The yachting dream that turned to nightmare

Review: Vivien Horler

Not Child’s Play, by Dave Muller (MF Books/ Jacana)

Seth Muller’s fifth birthday is a day his parents will never forget.

Living his dream, architect Dave Muller and a friend have spent 10 years building a yacht on which to sail around the world. In the Easter holidays of 1990, Dave, his wife Sandy, Seth and 8-year-old Tammy have sailed north from East London, planning to meet up with a friend on Seth’s birthday in the Bazaruto Islands of Mozambique.

It’s been a pretty good voyage so far, and with Arwen well out to sea, Dave settles down to sleep. He feels content – he’s finally achieved his dream of sailing to a tropical island.

He is woken by a thump, to realise Arwen has run aground on the beach. He starts the engine, but the yacht is heeled over at an angle of 45 degrees, and her prop spins uselessly in the air.

Dave is shocked and disbelieving. The tide is in, which means as it recedes Arwen will be left high and dry. The only thing to do is to try to walk the anchor into deeper water and hope the yacht will float free at the next high tide.

The children are delighted to get on to the beach and chase crabs while their parents do the hard work with the anchor.

Seth remembers it’s his birthday and demands to open presents. His exhausted parents agree. While the children sit in the shade of the hull, David and Sandy walk up the beach a little way.

Coming towards them in the heat haze appears to be a family, two adults and five children. Dave assumes they are fishermen from the family’s destination of Magaruque, just 20km away.

Oddly the children, who appear to be teenage boys, are carrying walking sticks. The boys head inland slightly, as though they’re going to bypass Dave and Sandy. Then they kneel down in the sand, and the walking sticks, pointed at the couple, resolve into AK-47s.

Understanding comes like a punch in the stomach, writes Dave. He and Sandy, wearing just T-shirts and shorts,are 100m away from their unaware children, while strangers are pointing guns at them.

And so begins Dave Muller’s extraordinary story.

The Mullers are taken prisoner, and forced at gunpoint to walk scores of kilometres back south down the scorching beach, Seth carried on his father’s back. The elderly couple appear to be fellow captives. That night Dave hears the boys bayonet the pair to death

Eventually – days later – they reach a camp and discover they are prisoners of Renamo. The family had previously been assured that while Frelimo and Renamo were fighting a civil war, the action was hundreds of kilometres inland from the coast. This was patently not true.

While international efforts swung into gear to get the family home, the Mullers spent seven weeks in the camp, a time of terror, incomprehension and despair. Communication with their captors was difficult; they spoke no Portuguese and only one of the guards had a smattering of English, picked up in the Joburg mines.

During their imprisonment, the camp was twice attacked by Frelimo. The Renamo captors indicated Frelimo’s objective was to kill the South African family and then blame the murders on Renamo.

Dave writes: “Our time with Renamo was defined by constant paradox. The young boys who in cold blood killed people also played games with our children… we struggled desperately with a lack of information about our status. However the kindness shown to us, in sharing what few resources they had, transcended the brutality of the war in which we were all trapped, and required no translation. Every day held terrors, yet I was mesmerised by the innate innocence of our captors.”

Twenty-three years to the day after Seth’s fifth birthday, Dave is in Burundi, part of a group of building volunteers restoring a hospital. One evening he is asked to describe what made him volunteer for this project, and he finds himself telling the story of his family’s capture.

Repressed memories pour out and he ends up weeping. Back home he digs out the diary he kept of the seven weeks in the camp, and begins to write this book.

Dave Muller tells his story with sensitivity and grace, but it is also a griping page-turner. My only gripe is that it needed another chapter. What happened when they got home; how did the children cope; and how did the family rebuild their lives? What happened next?

Thoroughly recommended.




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