Saffas Abroad: perilous travels and distant dangers

Saffas Abroad: perilous travels and distant dangers

Saffas Abroad: Perilous Travels and Distant Dangers

True crime has become a hot topic in the past few years. We’re not talking about your average news, of course, but of blogs, podcasts, YouTube channels, Facebook pages and the like which have popped up all over our feeds.

While most people are well aware of international crime and investigation shows and podcasts, South African series like ‘Vermis’ (featured on DSTV’s VIA channel and Showmax), the True Crime South Africa podcast, Huisgenoot: Ware lewensdramas, Strangers You Know and Kriminele Meesterbrein have truly brought local crime and investigation into the spotlight.

Crime and catastrophe abroad

While true crime has always fascinated the world, the fact remains that these are true stories of true people – and while they may entertain our inner sleuths the stories resonate with us because any one of us could fall victim to the same circumstances and fates.

In this article, Rand Rescue will showcase stories of South Africans who have disappeared or died outside their country borders. There are certainly far more cases of South Africans who have met with foul play abroad, but we could not cover them all.

John Bothma (missing) – Vietnam

John Bothma (23) disappeared from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) on 18 May 2019. Bothma had been teaching English in Vietnam for six months when he decided to do a tour of Vietnam before visiting South Africa for his birthday. Bothma’s travels started in Hanoi and took him along the coast to Ho Chi Minh City, from where he was to fly back to Hanoi. He disappeared on the day he checked into his hostel in Ho Chi Minh City.

What seemed rather strange to his family was that Bothma was reported missing by a woman named Jody Kurash – an American teacher who had been Bothma’s secret girlfriend. Up until that point John’s family had been unaware of the relationship; his mother, Colleen Bothma, was under the impression that he was in a relationship with a Vietnamese woman, Thanh.  According to Colleen, John and Thanh were in a committed relationship and even had wedding plans.

On the evening of Bothma’s disappearance he left his hostel (9 Hostel) to enjoy an evening out. That was the last time anyone saw him. Kurash would later share texts between John and the CouchSurfing hosts where he was to stay that evening. These texts indicate that John was supposed to leave 9 Hostels to stay at other hosts, yet he cancelled his bed with these hosts at 18:19 since he was at a party. His passport would later be recovered from 9 Hostel.

John had tried to phone his aunt, Santjie Dixon, five times on the night of his disappearance, but since her phone was on silent she didn’t answer the calls. While she didn’t speak to him that evening, the previous time the two spoke he told her,  “he’s going down”, which she understood as his mood being low (note, Colleen Bothma quotes his message to Dixon as, “something’s going down” on the South African reality docuseries, ‘Vermis’). Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of Gift of the Givers, stated that John had also indicated to Dixon that his relationship with the American woman was a mistake.

Jody Kurash was the last person to have contact with John. According to Colleen, Kurash (57) had seen John on the day of his disappearance and reported him as missing before flying. Other sources state that the two parted ways on the 15th of May since Kurash was attending a Syracuse University reunion in Europe. According to Kurash the two had travelled together to Ho Chi Minh City – and there seems to be a lot of photographic evidence to support this. John had told his mother that he was travelling alone. A 51-year–old woman from Knysna who’d befriended Kurash and Bothma in early 2019 stated that the two were very happy together and that Kurash would not hurt a fly. Strangely, the woman would cite the same type of text sent to Bothma’s aunt, saying that he sent her a message saying “I am going down” in reference to Cambodia where he was applying for a new job. He also needed to make a visa run there to ensure that he could return to Vietnam after visiting South Africa.

Colleen had sold most of her possessions to fund a trip to Vietnam. In September 2019 Colleen and Thahn set off to travel through Vietnam in search of John. His passport had already expired during that time and Vietnamese officials were adamant that he’d never left the country.

In 2020, a body was discovered in Hanoi. Thahn’s family who are in law enforcement informed her and she went to Hanoi to see if she could identify him. The body too far decomposed to identify, but Thahn was sure that the clothing and tattoos resembled John’s. When Colleen tried to ask more about the tattoos, Thahn stated that she couldn’t say any more and didn’t want to be involved.

Gift of the Givers founder Imtiaz Sooliman later stated that they believed John’s disappearance to be linked to an organ harvesting network after a ‘criminal ring’ was busted earlier that year. They are convinced that Bothma’s disappearance is linked to that of Mushfiq Daniels who vanished later that year. Kuresh and the unidentified woman from Knysna both stated that John had joked about ‘selling his kidneys’ to get money. Bothma’s aunt rejects the idea that an organ trafficking ring was involved.

Mushfiq Daniels (missing) – Vietnam

Mushfiq Daniels, like John Bothma, had been teaching English in Vietnam. Daniels was last heard from on 3 July 2019. On 5 July 2019 Mushfiq’s mother received a message from an expat telling her that her son had had a breakdown at an Airbnb in Ho Chi Minh City. The person who contacted her said that onlookers tried to assist him, but he ran away into the street, barefoot and shirtless.

His family immediately flew to Vietnam. While Mushfiq had told his mother he was tired and planned to come home, she said nothing else was a miss and he wasn’t suffering from any mental health issues.

Gift of the Givers stated that Mushfiq, like Bothma, had acquainted a mysterious older American woman. While the woman had not been identified it seems that both her and Kurash had paid for the two men’s flights around South East Asia and lavished them with gifts.

In Episode 1 of the True Crime South Africa Spotlight Minisodes, host Nicole Engelbrecht notes that Mushfiq had visited Indonesia in May 2019 – but Indonesian officials claimed that they had deported Mushfiq back to Vietnam following a disturbance.

Late September 2019 a shop owner in Ho Chi Minh City claimed to have spotted Daniels riding a bicycle at a local bridge, but the witness account was based on a facial reconstruction which indicated what Daniels would look like with a beard.

No traces of Mushfiq or information about his whereabouts have ever been found since his disappearance despite concerted efforts by authorities, his family and private investigators.

Wayne Lotter (deceased) – Tanzania

Wayne Lotter was a renowned elephant conservationist and founder of the PAMS Foundation who worked tirelessly to counter poaching of elephants and stem the trafficking of ivory in Tanzania.

His foundation in cooperation with Tanzania’s National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit (NTSCIU) had managed to arrest nearly 2000 poachers and traffickers, including the Chinese kingpin Yang Feng Glan, known as the ‘Queen of Ivory’. In the award-winning Netflix documentary, The Ivory Game, Lotter states that he believes the combined efforts by anti-poaching and anti-trafficking teams had curbed ivory trafficking by 50% by 2016.

In the months leading up to his death Lotter had received numerous death threats from individuals who didn’t like his meddling in the poaching and illegal trade ‘industry’.

On 16 August 2017 Wayne (51) was returning from the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere airport to his hotel when the taxi was stopped by another vehicle on the junction of Chole and Haile Selasie roads in the Kinondoni district. Two men got out of this vehicle and one opened Lotter’s door and shot him before fleeing.

Tanzanian officials were quick to reveal that they believed Lotter had been tracked and that the crime was committed by a syndicate. They even suspected that his killers had been the first to circulate news of his assassination.

Given Lotter’s prominent role in the Tanzanian community, police were under pressure to find the culprits. When no arrests had been made by January 2018, Tanzanian politician Hamisi Kigwangalla accused law enforcement of dragging their feet and indicated that he would escalate the matter to President John Magufuli.

By February 2018, three arrests were made, with a further five arrests later that month. This brought the tally of culprits to 8. But that would not be the last of it. More arrests were made in 2018 and 2019. By January 2020 prosecutors were in the final stages of bringing a total of 18 individuals to trial for Lotter’s murder. In October 2020 the number of conspirators had grown to 22, with 4 additional culprits fingered by prosecutors.

Most of the accused had been businessmen and women from Tanzania, Burundi and Somalia at the time of Lotter’s murder. Prosecutors claim that the group of conspirators had hatched their plan to assassinate Lotter between 1 July and 16 August 2017.

While many have been brought to trial in the murder of Wayne Lotter, the extent of the criminal network involved in his death has not yet been established.

Kerry Winter (deceased) – Dubai

36-year-old Kerry Winter went missing in Dubai on 20 August 2008. Her body was discovered in March 2009.

Dubai law enforcement would later reveal that man had confessed to her murder and disclosed that he had beaten her to death with a stick, taken her out to sea in his boat, and thrown her into the sea – with weights tied to her to weigh her down.

Reports on the matter are quite divergent, which makes it hard to establish facts.

The suspect (and convicted murderer) in the case is Mark Arnold –  a British national from Stoke-on-Trent who had a five-year relationship with Winter which ended in March 2008. Dubai law enforcement stated that Arnold had confessed to her murder and charged him with premeditated murder. The BBC and other British media would maintain an air of mystery around the matter, even after his conviction. While the absolute truth around her murder will never be known, it seems odd that British media would maintain such vague stance given:

Winter’s family claims Arnold had stalked and threatened her ever since their breakup. Dubai law enforcement indicated they will never have discovered Winter’s remains had it not been for Arnold’s confession. Arnold booked a sudden flight to the UK two days after her disappearance and returned three days later.

Arnold received a 15-year jail sentence for the murder of Kerry Winter. While awaiting the verdict, Arnold told reporters that he’d had an argument with Winter but that he didn’t know what had happened to her thereafter.

Winter’s family have mixed emotions about the verdict. Her brother claims to be relieved by the verdict while other family members believe his status as British national allowed a more lenient sentence than generally allowed under Dubai legislation.

Deborah Calitz & Bruno Pelizzari (abducted, released) – Somalia

Deborah Calitz and Bruno Pelizzari were sailing off the coast of east Africa in October 2010 when they were kidnapped by Somali pirates.

The two had sailed on their own yacht for quite some time, but had spent all their money by the time they ended up in Tanzania. They did loose jobs here and there and thought they’d struck luck when a fellow South African, Peter Eldridge, asked if they would join him as crew as he sailed back to South Africa. On 26 October two motorboats pulled up to the yacht and 12 pirates armed with AK47s and RPG rockets boarded the ship. They took all the crew’s possessions, but despite the crew stating that they didn’t have any money and were from South Africa, the pirates wouldn’t budge. A third ship delivered food and drinks to the yacht.  According to Debbie Calitz, the pirates had treated them fairly well until a French warship appeared on the horizon.

Eldridge had managed to send a mayday signal before the pirates boarded, prompting French and Norwegian military to seek the vessel. Helicopters from the ships hovered around the yacht which angered the pirates who then shot at them with their weapons. The pirates then fled on the yacht, eventually running it aground on the Somali coast. While Debbie and Bruno were forced to shore, Eldridge had decided to go down with his ship. The pirates could not remove him and although one shot at him, he was unharmed. The pirates fled with Debbie and Bruno. From there they would be moved time and again to different locations. They were hardly fed and became extremely malnourished and ill, even contracting Malaria which went untreated for months. They were only allowed to wear what they had on the day of their abduction – Debbie had worn a bikini and thin cotton dress. Within months the dress had turned to tatters and her bikini was stolen at one point – which meant she was naked most of the time. The couple weren’t allowed to speak or go outside – so they spent most of their time in darkness. They were moved approximately 17 times, supposedly in an attempt to avoid rescue.

The pirates had asked for a ransom of $10 million – something which Debbie and Bruno’s families could certainly not afford. The South African and Italian governments both refused to pay a ransom. However, at one point a Somali negotiator had made contact with Italian authorities to arrange their release. The couple was finally freed after 20 months in captivity.

A leaked document would later reveal that the Italian intelligence agency AISE had paid a ransom of $525 000 for the release. While many governments refuse to pay ransom money for kidnappings, such payments have been made in the past – although governments clearly want such information to remain under wraps.

Lindani Myeni (deceased) – Hawaii, USA

A killing which shocked South Africans all over is undoubtedly the brutal gunning of South African rugby player and South African Idol contestant Lindani Myeni in Honolulu, Hawaii. While the trigger-happy gun culture of the USA is well known, it seems unfathomable that a death caught on camera and indicating no wrongdoing by Myeni would carry no penalty for the officers who killed him.

Then again – while South Africa is aware of the brutality and unfairness in our ranks, Myeni’s death was treated in much the same way as most other police slayings by US law enforcement.

While US authorities were quick to release the 911 call by a purported hysterical ‘victim’, Shiying ‘Sabine’ Wang, claiming that Myeni was trying to break into her home – the subsequent security footage shown after showed a man who was calm and not acting aggressively.

The footage shows an unarmed Myeni wearing a traditional Zulu Umqhele head dress casually following two people into a residential property, and casually removing his shoes before proceeding. While Sabine’s husband, Da Ju ‘Dexter’ Wang, enters the home, she seems to be waiting for Myeni who bends down to alter the hems of his pants before he removes his shoes and leaves them outside. Sabine claimed that Myeni had ‘chased and followed’ them – which seems an irrational statement given his casual composure and the fact that neither Sabine or Dexter seemed unaware of his presence, nor fled from him.

Sabine would claim that Myeni rummaged around the house for six minutes to ‘hunt down’ the cat who lived there. She claims to never have seen him before, despite looking back at him and casually entering the house before he gets inside. In her 911 call she stated clearly, however, that he wasn’t armed, wasn’t acting confused and wasn’t threatening them. The full report has never been disclosed by the FBI so it is unclear what US nationals Sabine and Dexter claimed.

Myeni’s attorneys state that Myeni’s traditional headdress and removal of his shoes indicate that he believed he was entering a religious venue and that he had been lured there by the Wangs who had planned to extort him in some way. The pair had perhaps been unaware of his status or financial wellbeing and thought him an easy target as an ‘African’ living on US turf. The family and attorneys further believe that his murder, the lack of proper investigation into the conduct of the two US citizens and the brutal gunning of Myeni without consequence was facilitated by US authorities.

Myeni can be heard on the footage introducing himself – stating that he is Lindani from South Africa as he enters the building. Sabine is heard acknowledging this. The footage then shows Lindiwe exiting the property in less than 40 seconds – even asking what is wrong and apologising – clearly refuting Sabine’s claims that he was rummaging through the establishment for minutes. As he exits it is clear that Sabine has started her 911 call stating that someone had broken into her house and asking Lindani who he is as he apologises once more and puts on his shoes as he leaves. The Wangs, apparently fearing for their lives, swiftly follow Lindani out after he has left, casually walking around the entry to their home while Sabine becomes increasingly hysterical on the phone. she even ran outside and pointed in the direction of Lindani’s vehicle to show authorities where he was.

Law enforcement rushed to the scene and surround Lindiwe who was walking away, they shine mag lights in his eyes and order him to get down. Lindani asks the gun-wielding persons who they are but no one confirms as they force him out of his car and

You can view the breakdown of the footage and SABC correspondent Sherwin Bryce-Pease’s analysis of occurrences below.

Leon ‘Lion’ Orsmond (missing) – Rwanda

Leon Orsmond was 60 when he disappeared near Kigali in Rwanda on 17 February 2018. Working in advertising, Orsmond had been highly critical of Rwanda’s President Kagame and his government in the months leading up to his disappearance and had canvassed for the opposition leader Diane Rwigara on social media at the time. The first and last sentence in an unpublished book written by Orsmond reads, “Happy birthday, Mr President, so when would you like to kill me?”

In the months following Orsmond’s disappearance his phones were disconnected. His visa and passport had long since expired as he’d entered the country eight years before on a 30-day tourist visa.

While Rwandan officials claim that they have made many efforts to find Orsmond, his family state that their contacts in Rwanda believe he was arrested and detained. Sources note that the national police wouldn’t have any luck in finding him if he was detained by executive security forces. A friend and colleague of Orsmond, Philip Botha, launched a Back-a-Buddy campaign in 2018 which received R59 921 in donations – the funds were intended to acquire the services of private investigators to look into the case.

Those who knew Orsmond in Rwanda have been tightlipped about his disappearance – whether due to their own involvement or for fear of persecution from those who may have kidnapped him.

Orsmond’s last social media post on the day of his disappearance lamented the struggle for freedom of the Rwandan people and called the president a corrupt dictator who had gone rogue. While most believe he had been abducted for his political stance, some believe that he may have gone so far as staging his own disappearance to draw attention to organisational inefficiency.

Orsmond remains missing to this day.

Sheila Seleoane (deceased) – UK

It’s hard to believe that anyone could simply fall off the face of the earth, as with so many unusual disappearances. What happened to Sheila Seleoane seems almost more tragic and confounding. Seleoane, who hails from the Eastern Cape, worked as a temp medical secretary in London.

Sheila’s body was discovered five months ago in her third-floor Peckham flat in London, lying on her sofa. By that stage Sheila had been dead for approximately two and a half years. Despite several requests by neighbours begging law enforcement to do a welfare check, it seems her complete absence from society didn’t much bother police. The neighbours weren’t merely concerned about the tenant in flat 16’s absence, but also alarmed by foul smells and maggots crawling out from under her door.

Sadly there was no one else to report her missing, as Sheila only had one family member – an estranged brother. None of the neighbours knew her and very few ever laid eyes on her. 61-year-old Sheila had not been reported as missing by the temping agency which employed her as medical secretary (nor the business or businesses where she performed these duties. In fact, the UK housing association didn’t connect the dots even after 89 failed attempts to contact Seleoane.

It was only when residents heard her balcony door slam open following Storm Eunice in February that law enforcement finally broke her door down.

The Peabody Trust, one of London’s oldest housing associations with 55 000 properties investigated Seleoane’s case and published a report with their findings.  Chief Executive for Peadbody Ian McDermott also gave a public apology for the Trust’s failure to investigate the matter further, and stated that they would henceforth employ customer-facing agents to investigate matters and not rely on solely on electronic communication in communicating with clients.

Anita Swaak & Delarey McWilliam Smith (missing) – Greece

In 1992, South Africans Anita Swaak and her boyfriend Delarey McWilliam Smith left South Africa for a tour of Europe. After travelling through various European countries, the two arrived in Athens, Greece in May 1993 where they spent time with Swaak’s mother.

The couple then continued to the island of Naxos while Swaak’s mother went on to Santorini. Given the time – people weren’t used to communicating frequently, but when family hadn’t heard from them by 13 July, they filed missing persons reports with law enforcement.

Only one person in Naxos ever recalled seeing the pair in Naxos, and this eye witness account was never deemed a positive sighting. The couple was supposed to travel to Italy after Naxos, but never made it there.

Searches by private investigators and law enforcement alike revealed absolutely no information – it’s as if the couple vanished into thin air. Anita’s parents believe that the two met with foul play. After so many years with no trace of the missing South Africans, it’s unlikely that the case would ever be resolved.

Laura Vanessa Nunes (deceased) – Dubai

South African born Laura Vanessa Nunes moved to Dubai in 2007 to work in the Madinat Jumeirah Resort in Dubai. Two years later Laura met an Emirati man and fell in love. While Laura had clearly been smitten with her new beloved, her family would never get to know the mysterious man who tethered Laura to Dubai.

On 16 November 2014 Laura would jump to her death from the 148th floor of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai –  a mere month after the deck was opened. Her death was deemed a suicide by law enforcement, but her mother, Leona Sykes, would leave no stone unturned in trying to unravel the puzzling trail of events and circumstances around Laura’s death.

On 18 November 2014 Leona received a call informing her of her daughter’s death in Dubai. She was told that Laura had  dined at a restaurant Burj Khalifa, left her purse on the table then walked to a sliding door, opened it and walked out – falling to her death.

Luis Camara, Deputy Head of Mission and Consul for the Portuguese Embassy in Abu Dhabi Luis had tracked Laura’s family after two days of enquiries. Laura was a dual Portuguese-South African citizen, so it made sense that Dubai CID would contact Portuguese authorities…at least for a moment.

Luis’ had stated to Laura’s family that law enforcement had informed him Nunes had jumped to her death from the 38th floor of the hotel. In later emails he updated details to indicate she had jumped from the 148th floor observation deck – repeating information given to him by CID. Her handbag, which was first reported to have been left at her table in the restaurant, was later found on the courtesy desk on the ground floor by CID Dubai. While the floor from which she had purportedly committed suicide moved from 38 to 148, the 148th floor had no restaurant and Laura could therefore not have dined there.

While CID contacted Luis after discovering Laura’s South African passport in her bag it seemed highly odd: they never indicated that they’d found her Portuguese passport which she used for her travels throughout the Middle East (and on her last entry from Qatar to Dubai), and Leona’s information as contact person in case of injury or death was clearly indicated in Laura’s passport.

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Had authorities found her Portuguese passport it will have made sense to contact the Portuguese embassy, Instead, authorities bided their time and prompted the Portuguese embassy to look for her next of kin, all the while knowing that they resided in South Africa.

CID had found invoices, envelopes and a bill folder from Abidos Hotel where Nunes had stayed in her bag while they’d claimed to Luis that they weren’t aware of where Nunes was staying or how to contact her loved ones. For reasons unbeknownst to Laura’s family (given what would unravel), they didn’t remove these items from her bag. CID did, however, visit the Abidos Hotel Dubailand and removed Laura’s Portuguese passport as well as two debit cards from her belongings.

Laura’s family attempted to make contact with law enforcement, but all efforts were in vain – Leona sent CID images to use for reference and identification, requested footage of Laura at the observation deck and merely tried to engage with authorities to find details of her daughter’s death,. All of her queries were ignored. Within two weeks police had closed the case, claiming that Laura had died of suicide.

Leona tried to sleuth from afar shared images of the observation deck and the restaurant on the 38th floor, indicating that it will have been virtually impossible for anyone to fit through the spaces. During this time an inspector from the CID phoned her and stated that Laura’s body had been found outside the Amal Restaurant on the third floor of the Burj Khalifa.

Leona subsequently resumed her investigation in Dubai with various enquiries with authorities and the hotel. She was ‘befriended’ by a man on entering the hotel who acted as interim translator for her. She subsequently got to view security footage of the moments before Laura’s death, and was shown a suicide note, leading her to  concede that Laura’s death had been a suicide after all, and that the hotel had subsequently closed up the gaps between glass panes Laura had fallen through.

That may have been the last of it, until May 2015, when online by Laura’s mother – thanking the Daily Mail for their assistance in the investigation – were removed by the Government of Dubai. The text replacing her comments on the platform stated that the woman in question had killed herself by jumping from a different building altogether – the Jumeirah Lakes Towers.

The coroner’s report by coroner Hazem Mitwali Sharif for the Dubai Police indicated that he had tended the body on a third floor balcony of the Burj Khalifa.

Daily Mail’s Rob Davies subsequently launched an investigation with assistance of Al Jazeera’s Will Jordan into the death of Laura Nunes. Nunes’s mother published the details of the case in a video published on YouTube below.

May 2015 Major General Khalil Al Mansouri stated that “the woman who jumped suffered from emotional instability that led her to make the decision to take her life,” as reported in The National News, a Middle Eastern news network.

In November 2017, 9 News Australia published a follow up on the story outlining a purported cover up of details around Laura’s death.

Thulani Cele (found, detained) – Georgia

It’s not often that a prominent corporation is involved in disappearances abroad, and yet that’s exactly what happened in the case of Thulani Cele. Nedbank’s Ke Yona initiative is aimed at finding and nurturing new soccer talent in South Africa. Tryouts take place nationally, after which players can compete in the Nedbank Cup.

Cele was such a hopeful and was approached by Collen ‘Baggio’ Mashawa, a soccer agent, via the Ke Yona initiative. Baggio had invited Cele to visit Georgia to take part in trials for Gagra FC. Baggio had paid for Cele’s travels, and Cele subsequently paid his accommodation costs to Baggio’s contact in Georgia on his arrival on 4 May 2022.

After several excuses about the delay in trials, Cele eventually learnt that the club had no trials planned at all, and that it was all a scam. He was understandably disheartened, and complained to his family that he didn’t even receive any food to eat. He planned to return to South Africa on 3 June 2022, but on this same day his grandmother got a call from an unidentified person in Georgia telling her that he was arrested. This could not be verified – all the family knew is that Cele had gone missing. There would be no reason for his arrest as he was planning on returning that day and had not created any trouble in the month before.

Later in June, ‘Baggio’ had told Power FM that Cele had been found, but his family stated that they were not aware of this. The Department of International Relations and Cooperations (DIRCO) had worked with the Polish government in enquiring about Cele’s whereabouts since South Africa has no embassy in Georgia.

To date there’s no information on the reason for his arrest, and Cele has not returned home yet. DIRCO had been assisting the family in legal representation – but the family has yet to hear from Cele himself. As for Baggio – he maintains his innocence, although it is unclear how he could have made an inadvertent blunder of this kind seeing as he’d arranged Cele’s travels and initial itinerary.

Adrian Nel (deceased) – Mozambique

Adrian Nel was a South African commercial diver who lost his job as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. He subsequently decided to move to Mozambique in January 2021 to join his father and younger brother in their construction business. The men were building workers’ accommodation camps in Palma.

At the time, an extremist islamic insurgency had been brewing along the east coast of Africa, led by the East African Islamic State (EAIS) networks and several well-coordinated attacks had occurred throughout villages in east Africa under al-Shabab. While a group with a similar name exists in Somalia, this al-Shabab is not linked to the Somali group, and has pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State (IS).

The goal, it seems, was not merely to spread terror and pulverise human lives and livelihoods, but to gain control of strategic locations and properties in order to acquire goods, take over supplies and manufacturing, monitor and control the flow of goods and people over borders and between territories, and expand the geographical reach for the group’s continued juvenile bestial savagery. The group had started systematically attacking certain villages and businesses in Northern Mozambique, with the first attack launched in 2017. Their modus operandi had always been simple – maim, kill, rape, plunder, steal and take whatever is available.

Between 24 March and 5 April 2021, the terrorist group launched an orchestrated attack on the Cabo del Gado region of Mozambique. On the 26th of March, Nel and several other people fled the hotel where they were staying, believing that the bandits had left the area. He grabbed an AK-47 which had been discarded by the terrorists, then the group jumped into cars sped away. Unfortunately they were led into an ambush. Nel was shot during the escape effort. While he would later die of his wounds, he nonetheless carried on – driving others as far away from safety as his body would allow before he could go no further. His father tried to keep him alive and resuscitate him throughout that evening, but it was to no avail – his injuries were simply too grave to treat and he succumbed to his wounds.

According to unnamed persons who were in Cabo del Gado at the time of the siege, militants had ‘blended into’ society in the weeks leading up to attacks – befriending people and purportedly gaining vital information which allowed them to carry out a mass siege of the region: taking over lodges, schools, businesses, factories and shopping centres. Many people were simply beheaded on the spot, while others were tortured or enslaved.

John Cliften Bullen (missing) – Botswana

John Cliften Bullen (80) was visiting Chobe National Park, Botswana when he went missing on 13 September 2011. Following an extensive search, no trace of Bullen was ever found. The Land Rover  which Bullen and his wife, Lorraine (78),  were travelling in had gotten stuck. When morning came and no help had come, Bullen subsequently took his GPS and headed off to find help. He also had an axe, water bottle and a bag of food with him. Lorraine spent five days in the car before being rescued by passing tourists – an indication of just how remote they were.

Rangers believe that he was possibly killed by wild animals as no trace of him has ever been found, despite extensive searches.

Although the likelihood is high that he was killed by animals, many believe that some trace of him will have been found had that been the case – either pieces of clothing or the electronic devices he had on him. Bullen was an experienced bush tourist who had travelled extensively throughout Africa. The search was extended to neighbouring countries, which had many people scratching their heads, as rangers were adamant that Bullen will not have been able to cross the river to other countries on foot. Given his age at the time Bullen is believed to be deceased – although the manner and location of his death has not been established.

Pierre Korkie (abducted, deceased) – Yemen

The murder of Pierre Korkie made worldwide news given the circumstances surrounding his death.

Korkie worked as a teacher in Yemen where his wife, Yolande, was a hospital relief worker. The pair were kidnapped by al-Qaeda operatives in May 2013. While Yolande was released without ransom in January 2014, Pierre was not released. His kidnappers demanded a $3 million ransom.

Gift of the Givers had managed to negotiate Korkie’s release with a $200k ransom payment but he was murdered a few hours before his scheduled release.

Korkie was murdered by his captors following a botched rescue mission by US operatives who’d sought to rescue British-born US photojournalist Luke Somers. Somers had been kidnapped by the same group detaining the Korkies in September 2013.

Three days before the two hostages were murdered AQAB (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) released a video of Somers telling the US government to meet their demands within three days else Somers would meet his ‘inevitable fate’. According to US authorities they weren’t aware that Korkie was kept at the same location as Somers. Gift of the Givers stated that the ransom and release negotiations were kept under wraps on instruction by Korkie’s captors.

US special ops and Yemeni ground forces executed their planned rescue on 6 December 2014. While advancing on the militants in Shabwah Governorate they were spotted as they came within 100 metres of the compound. Following a firefight between the two groups, US forces gained entry to the compound. While they found both men alive, they’d been gravely wounded. Korkie died en route to USS Makin Island where the two were to be treated, while Somers died shortly after arrival.

51 scammed SA youths (49 returned) – China

In something right out of a crime film, 51 South African youths who went to China to teach were detained by Chinese authorities due to contravening the stipulations of their visas.

The youths had been unaware of this contravention as they had been scammed into teaching jobs by a company called ‘Travel Smart’. While the youths were under the impression that they would be visiting China to work, the agency had arranged student visas for them instead.

Were it not for the sheer volume of youths scammed by this agency, it’s likely that there will not have been as much cooperation between governments and individual families will have struggled to find out what was amiss or where their loved ones were.  Luckily the combined outcry of family and friends got DIRCO moving post haste to get the matter resolved and Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Lindiwe Sisulu, had made several public statements noting the government’s commitment to returning the youths to South Africa.

The number of victims involved in the scam also made it far easier to prove that individuals weren’t willfully involved in undermining Chinese rule, and that they were unaware of their transgression.

The agent in question had informed them that their work visas would be available upon arrival, but this never materialised. Following some investigation and negotiation, China returned passports to 49 of the 51 youths. The remaining two are believed to have been aware of the visa scam.

DIRCO subsequently advised youths travelling abroad to acquaint themselves with the travel rules, culture and political climate of the regions they plan to visit, and to vet the providers who facilitate their travel, placement and other services.

Stephen McGowan (abducted, released) – Mali

Stephen McGowan was travelling with other foreign nationals in Mali in 2011 when the three men were taken hostage by Al-Qaeda militants and held hostage for six years. During the abduction, the wife of a Dutch national Sjaak Rijke (who was abducted with McGowan) escaped while a German national was killed. A third man was taken hostage – John Gustafsson from Sweden.

Al-Qeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for the abductions.

The release of Gustafsson and Rijke was negotiated by the Swedish and Dutch governments respectively, but McGowan remained in captivity as the South African government couldn’t manage his release.

Once more Gift of the Givers had sought to negotiate his release, leading to a proof-of-life video release where McGowan stated to his family “I understand that I may be seeing you soon”. Months later, in June 2015, another proof-of-life video was released showing McGowan with five other foreign hostages. In the video the narrator stated that no negotiations had begun, indicating that the hostages would not be released soon.

Though the details of Gustafsson and Rijke’s release has never been disclosed, many believe that their governments may have paid ransom for them – something which is common for other European nations such as France and Germany according to the NY Times. The US has been quite vocal in their disdain for ransom payments, since they believe nations who comply with such demands are bankrolling terrorist organisations.

It would be another two years before McGowan was finally released on 3 August 2017 after six years of captivity.

Gerald Abramovitz (deceased) – NY, USA

Gerald Abramovitz was a renowned South African furniture designer and architect who was attacked on a friend’s doorstep in a W. 89th Street building in New York on 25 May 2011.

Law Enforcement confirmed that Abramovitz suffered a subdural hematoma after being struck on the back of his head by a mugger. Despite emergency surgery Abramovitz lapsed into a coma and died two days after his attack.

His murder sent shockwaves throughout the art community, who revered his work – some of which has been part of permanent Museum displays the world over.  Abramovitz is said to have been the first person to design a true ergonomic chair. Abramovitz’s desk lamp which he designed for Best & Lloyd in the 60s was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1966 where it remains to this day.

On the day of his death, Abramovitz had told his friend, retired journalist Gene Koretz, that he would be stopping by his apartment. Abramovitz had purportedly walked the short route from East Harlem to West 89th Street (approximately 2 kilometres) and pressed the buzzer to Koretz’s apartment, but when Koretz answered the intercom he got no reply. He made his way down to the vestibule to investigate, and this is where he found Abramovitz lying in the vestibule. Abramovitz told him that he’d been attacked, but that he didn’t see anyone. He was still lucid at the time. The suspect had struck Abramovitz and rifled through his pockets. On discovering there was no money in his wallet, the assailant fled.

It seemed, at first, that Abramovitz had suffered only minor injuries which were treated at Mount Sinai Medical Centre. Two days later, however, he became dizzy after bending to put on his shoe and subsequently fell and hit his head. Tests revealed that he had bleeding on his brain .

Getting peace or answers

In sharing these stories, we hope that public awareness can reignite interest in unsolved cases and bring some peace and closure to the families of loved ones.

We also ask that our readers show empathy to the families and friends of those mentioned in this article.

If you’re interested in crimes from South Africa, feel free to follow the True Crime South Africa podcast. If you have any true crime stories or mysteries to share, feel free to mail – if the information is relevant to active investigations, please contact law enforcement in your area.

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