I am writing this email just to share with you what had happened to me an hour ago (Wednesday June 10).
I hope it helps others to be careful, and also so that I do not have to repeat the history many times.
At around 10:45 I went to PEP Stores in the Strand, next to Friedman and Cohen, looking for a pair of inexpensive winter boots to walk inside the house and keep warm.
The desk at the shop’s front door was not attended.
I asked for sanitiser, and a guy shouted to another “give the man the sanitiser” – then I went in.
The store is small, and I knew the boots I was looking for were at the far end.
As I walked between clothing and other items for sale, I saw about six or eight people kneeling down, a few of them were praying.
A couple of quick thoughts crossed my mind.
One thought was regarding images seen on the TV the last week, and the other was about religious people praying at lunchtime, but now it was mid morning…
A second later I found the stands where the boots were on display, and was looking at one of them when a man approached me, pulled over his sweater and showed me a big, black gun.
Again my mind was at full speed, thinking that he is telling me to feel safe in the store (ie, that he was a security guard). How stupid I was!
He immediately said something like… “relax this is a robbery, walk over there where the other people are”. He was referring to the ones praying.
The woman kneeling down next to me was very stressed, crying and talking to God at the same time.
The robber was getting agitated. I asked him if I could comfort her, and with his approval give her a hug.
Social distance was not an issue. At that moment she was getting more agitated.
Her husband just walked into the store, like me not knowing what was going on.
I hug her harder.The husband walked towards us, followed by the now-relaxed and gentle robber, and took his place at the back of the group.
The robber ordered all of us to go into the big store room, located next to where we were grouping together.
I let everybody go in first, but he was not happy with my gentlemanly approach, and showed me the gun again, saying with a very firm voice, “go in now”.
He didn’t have to repeat his instruction… I obeyed like a good hostage.
We were about 10 people locked in the room were clothing was hanging, and where the toilets were located.
The frightened but quiet group included two women from PEP, two men, and three other female customers.
One of them was murmuring out loud, then I realised she had a baby on her back covered by a blanket.
She was trying to keep the boy at peace.
The polite robber returned to the room and said something like “Don’t worry, we are not here to rob you, we are here just for PEP, they have insurance.”
He added: “We are going to treat you well… we don’t want you to complain later that we had mistreated you.”
If he had tried to reassure us, he had succeeded to do so.
The two women working at the premises were having an agitated conversation in Afrikaans.
I did request a translation (I am Argentinian), and was told that the older woman wanted to go out to check if the robbers were gone.
This created a bit of a panic, and after some persuasion she stayed put.
I had a bit of cash, my camera and all kinds of cards-ID’s and other documentation in my big bag.
Nobody had searched me. I left the bag in between other similar merchandise that was lying on the floor or in boxes next to me.
At that moment my mind was working even faster than 10 minutes earlier.
The windows in the toilet were perhaps too small to go through, and an accomplice could be outside checking that nobody left the building.
It was definitely not the right time to be a hero.
I started praying to all the gods in the universe and to my ancestors, thanking them as well for the good life I had, and intend to continue having.
I was the only white person kept in the store room, and if anything went wrong I could be a good hostage. My prayers become much louder in my brain.
Looking at the other victims I realised that at least half of them were not showing much panic.
I had the horrible feeling that perhaps where they live, this kind of event is not uncommon.
I decided to move back closer to the toilets, and carried a stool to put behind the baby and his mother.
I asked her for his name, but in all honesty have forgotten it.
Memories of my university days, when I was a rebellious agitator, were galloping in my mind.
At that time the dictatorship in Argentina was using hard repression to keep us away from political activities.
I had been in similar situations, hiding from paramilitary right-wing groups not happy with our “subversive activities”.
Our calls for a return to democracy were silenced by all means… In any case, I was much older now.
A few minutes later (in occasions like this, one loses the time sense), the door opened, and a female worker came in, very nervous and crying.
Another big hug was necessary. Don’t ask me how I kept so relatively calm, I can not give a true answer.
She suggested the robbers were gone, but that we must stay in the store for a while.
I was ready to listen and keep myself safe,but others hostages were in a hurry to go into the shop and put an end to the drama that had hit all of us.
We were united by fear and uncertainty, however, we went out and found no robbers, no more guns pointing and the shop doors closed from the outside.
Some women in the little office next to the tellers were crying but unharmed.
Everybody was safe but many were still shaking.
Eventually, a few minutes after we tested freedom, the manager came to the door from the sidewalk, and opened the big double glass doors.
She apologised for the inconvenience, and showed us the street where to go out. To be back in the street was a wonderful moment.
The heavy rain had stopped. A police bakkie with two policemen arrived; they didn’t know about the events that had unfolded inside the shop.
I walked away thanking the gods of the universe and my ancestors, for giving me the chance of having a glass of brandy tonight.
Bolander has sent this letter to PEP stores in Strand for comment, and will publish it in next week’s edition – Ed