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Frantic parents were among the crowd gathered in front of the police cordon at the scene of last weekend's hostage drama in Grahamstown. A gunman held six girls captive in an Extension 9 house for four hours in the early hours of Sunday. Grocott's Mail arrived while the police were still pleading with the man to let the children go, and stayed to witness their eventual release at 8am.
Keeping a brave face despite the horror of knowing her daughter was trapped inside the house in front of her, Thandiswa Mhlontlo* spoke to Grocott's Mail as she anxiously scanned the windows for a glimpse of 12-year-old Anathi* in the early morning sunlight.
"I became very worried when I woke up and saw so many police vehicles here, because we heard gunshots last night," she told Grocott's Mail. "Anathi goes to that house to play with the little girl who lives there," Mhlontlo said.
"My child has been there since last night, because a traditional ceremony was scheduled to take place at her own home that night," Mhlontlo said.
For another mother, the biggest heartbreak was not being able to comfort her child immediately after the ordeal. Bursting into tears as she saw her daughter emerge from the house, the mother reached out to embrace her, but was stopped at the police cordon. Instead she had to comfort herself with the sight of the little girl being shepherded into an ambulance with her friends.
She was distraught and Grocott's Mail was unable to record her name. Police explained that the apparently harsh action was in compliance with police procedure. Members of the public may not cross a police cordon and enter a crime scene, Grahamstown SAPS spokesperson Captain Mali Govender told Grocott's Mail later. This is to prevent an investigation being compromised in any way.
Adding to the parents' anxiety had been the fact that they didn't know the man. "He doesn't come around often, so we're not familiar with him," said Zikhona Motusi*.
Speaking to Grocott's Mail the next day, she said the incident had been extremely stressful. "I am thankful that the children came out unharmed, because anything could have happened while they were in there," she said, adding that she hadn't given her child permission to sleep over at the house.
Her daughter Babalwa*, 13, describing the incident to Grocott's Mail on Monday, said the most terrifying part of the episode was when the man said he would shoot them all. She said the ordeal began when the man entered the house around 4am on Sunday.
She and four other girls were having a sleepover with their friend, an eight-year-old girl whose mother, a policewoman, was away from home. They were asleep when the man unlocked the door, walked in and demanded to know where his girlfriend was.
"He went to sleep and woke up again and phoned [his girlfriend] and told her that he had found her gun," Babalwa said. He shot in the air and asked her if she had heard the gunshots. Later the girlfriend arrived with the police and begged the man to open the door. He refused to open the door.
He told the police he was afraid to open up because he had never been in prison before, Babalwa recalled.
Govender confirmed that six young girls were in the Extension 9 house when a man arrived around 4am and held the children captive. In a media statement she said the man, who is in his late 20s, the boyfriend of a policewoman, had managed to get hold of her firearm.
The police managed to convince the man to hand over the gun and release the children around 8am on Sunday, Govender said. The children were taken to hospital, where they were examined.
Govender said the incident was believed to be linked to a report received the previous evening. The suspect requested police assistance to go to the home of the police officer and collect keys to his house, as there appeared to have been a domestic dispute, Govender said.
Prior to police arrival, several shots were fired in the air after a neighbour tried talking to the suspect. Govender said the man was arrested and had been charged with attempted murder, kidnapping and unlawful discharge of a firearm.
More charges were expected to be filed in the course of the investigation. She confirmed that the female police officer works out of town, but within the Grahamstown Cluster.
* Names changed to protect the children's identity.