January 22 2008 at 05:24AM
In what has been described as "military precision", a gang of between 30 and 40 armed hijackers barricaded a main road between Durban and Pietermaritzburg in broad daylight at the weekend, stealing four cars in a matter of minutes and viciously beating some of their occupants.
One was a nun based at St Anne's Convent on the South Coast. She told The Mercury on Monday that although she was "grateful to the Lord" that she had survived, she was constantly on the verge of tears.
Another, South Coast property developer Ian Hardman, was equally traumatised. He only spoke to The Mercury to warn others of the danger of travelling on that stretch of road. He said his wife Maria, who was taken to hospital after being beaten and sjambokked, was struggling to deal with what had happened.
Police confirmed that a gang had set up the roadblock at Pitila on the R603, a busy link road between Pietermaritzburg and Amanzimtoti, apparently to hijack cars to burn at the funeral of a local gangster.
'They forced me out while they beat up my wife'
Hardman said that he and his wife were returning from Ladysmith about 5pm when they saw around 15 vehicles - taxis, a couple of bakkies and a Golf - parked alongside and in the road.
"We thought it was an accident so we slowed down. Within seconds, we were jammed in by vehicles. There were between 30 and 40 armed men; it was like a military operation," he said.
"They forced me out while they beat up my wife. They were pummelling her with their hands, hitting her with guns and tearing her jewellery off."
Hardman said his car did not use a key, but a card to start. He kept trying to give them the card but they didn't believe it could be used to start the vehicle. Eventually he started the car. They then threw his wife out and began beating her and sjambokking her.
The couple ran for their lives into the sugarcane fields. They walked until they came across a couple driving past who stopped for them.
'They hurt me, but not as badly as the others'
In the car was Sister Helena, who had been rescued after being hijacked in the same spot. She had been hit in the face.
The couple took them to the Umbumbulu police station. There they came across a third victim - a young woman who had been stabbed in her shoulder.
Hardman said that at Kingsway hospital in Amanzimtoti, where he and his wife were treated for injuries, he had been told by a trauma counsellor that another couple had come in for treatment after being hijacked on the same stretch of road.
In all the incidents, the vehicles were taken. But Hardman's car was found the same day in a nearby village pumped full of bullet holes.
"I assume it stalled and they didn't know how to restart it. So they just shot it up," he said.
Sister Helena could only say there were "many" cars and armed men.
"They took my car, the cross from around my neck and my watch. The only thing they didn't take was my ring," she said.
"They hurt me, but not as badly as the others."
The couple who had helped her and the police at Umbumbulu were "absolutely marvellous" and had restored her faith in people.
"The police even telephoned the convent on Saturday night to make sure I was all right," she said.
Another victim was correctional services officer Amelia Konstantopolous. She said the gang were wearing orange bibs and appeared to be attending an accident scene.
"As I slowed down, they used a vehicle to crash me off the road. They then assaulted me, hit me with bottles and stabbed me."
She managed to get away and ran up the road where she was rescued by an off-duty police officer.
Police spokesperson Danelia Veldhuizen confirmed that four vehicles had been hijacked.
"All were recovered soon after and are at the police pound."
Investigations had revealed that a notorious car thief had been shot dead and the gang had been intent on stealing cars to burn them at his funeral to "honour him".
This article was originally published on page 1 of The Mercury on January 22, 2008