Trauma Doesn't Just Evaporate by Yacoob Manjoo
June 1996. An ordinary afternoon in the car with my father, coming home from school – which was almost over for the term. We were oblivious to what was going on outside – probably discussing the Euro 96 football tournament that was on the go at the time. We had no idea that the next few minutes would be life-changing.
I was at the back, in the left-hand seat, where I always sat. As we pulled into the garage, we realised we were not alone. A man had followed us in. He stood at my father’s window, demanding that he open the door. My father froze. He refused.
Out came a gun. The man called over an accomplice, who came and stood outside my door – gun in hand.
My instinct – borne out of years of hiding from my older brother when we’d fight – was to duck down between the front passenger seat and my own. As one of the smallest kids in my class for most of my life, I was still small enough to fit into that little space. I didn’t know if that position would save me from what might follow. I didn’t think at all. It just kicked in – that reaction. I curled up to hide.
Meanwhile, my father still wasn’t co-operating. He could have been in complete shock – unable to act. Or maybe he was strategizing in his mind, weighing up his options and considering what would happen if he complied. Would they take just the car? Would they take me? Would they shoot one or both of us – to eliminate eyewitnesses who had seen their unmasked faces? Would they go forward into the house?
The first man tried to break my father’s window with the butt of his gun. Miraculously, the glass stayed firm and the gun broke.
My father finally snapped into action, starting the car then moving forward – ramming the bookshelf in front of us, before reversing out of the garage.
Somewhere in those few seconds, the second man fired a shot at my window. I don’t know if he was aiming for me or my father, but my window shattered and glass fell all over my head and into the back seat. The bullet ended up lodged in my door – thankfully not making it to either of us.
Both men fled.
We closed the garage and ran inside, but couldn’t call the police because the house phone was locked. There was no way to make a call – we didn’t have mobile phones back then – so the only option was to press the alarm button, triggering a deafening siren which was followed by a call from the security company. Security guards arrived soon after, as did the police. They took our statements and the police went searching for the perpetrators.
One was found – in a nearby park. He was nervous and sweating, with gun residue on his hands. They brought him back to us and I was asked to identify him – while he stood, restrained by the police – just a few metres away. It was terrifying – having to face this man who was so physically close, just a short time after the crime. I thought it was him, and tentatively confirmed that to the police, before they took him away.
There was no sign of his partner.
I slept on the floor of my parents’ room that night, as had been my habit throughout childhood when I was scared. I feared retribution. I worried that the one who got away would come back.
I got to stay home from school for a few days, which was a plus for me, given that we were rarely allowed to miss school. My headmaster came to visit, too. As he left, my dog – excited by his presence, but probably frustrated that he wouldn’t play with him – jumped up and bit his backside. It’s still one of the highlights of my school career.
A few days later, while walking outside, I thought I saw the man who’d escaped. He was sitting on the pavement, across the road from our house. I wasn’t too close, so he wouldn’t have spotted me easily, but I was terrified. I just kept walking – around a few blocks, trying to buy enough time for him to leave. It may or may not have been him…I really don’t know. I was still shaken up at that point, and I didn’t want to take any risks.
Later on, even though I felt okay, my mother forced me to go to a psychologist for trauma counselling. I answered her questions and listened to her stories, including one where her son was confronted with a home invader…her way of trying to connect with me around what, unfortunately, is too common in South Africa.
I’d done karate for years before that, and at the end of each lesson, our sensei would always remind us of the dangers in our country. He wanted to emphasise how important our training was. I don’t remember the exact figure, but he always said that, statistically speaking, at least one of us in the class would be a victim of crime. I never thought it would be me.
Anyway…I didn’t want any follow-up counselling. I was okay, I told myself. My father flatly refused to go. He didn’t believe in psychology. Still doesn’t. So the psychologist came home to speak to him, having just one session – as she did with me.
We moved on, and that was that.
For him, it was a life-changing event. But for me, it didn’t seem to have much impact. Or at least, that’s what I thought at the time.
At the end of that year, we went to court to face the man who was caught. We were to testify – me testifying in-camera, as I was still a minor at the time. However, the facilities weren’t available when it was my turn. A little girl who was testifying in a separate case needed it more, and I didn’t want to wait.
I faced him again – in court. I answered the questions put to me. He got off. There was some misunderstanding in my perception of the details and what happened after the attempted hijacking. Whether that played a role in his acquittal, I don’t know.
But I just wanted it to be over. And it was.
TRAUMA DOESN'T EVAPORATE
No fear lingered over me afterwards. I didn’t worry about whether either of them would come back for us. We still lived in the same house and went about our normal lives, though more cautiously.
It was just part of life. It was history.
I never believed it had a long-term impact. But I now realise it must have. The trauma doesn’t just evaporate.
For many, many years afterwards, one of my recurring dreams would be that I’d be at home – in that same house – and the garage door would be open, or unlocked. Either that, or the yard door would be unlocked or open. We would be exposed to danger. Anyone – any criminal – could just waltz in and harm us. And I always felt that those criminals were just outside – waiting to come in.
It gave me anxiety in my dreams. I felt the fear. I felt the vulnerability. But I would always wake up.
Until now, I never connected those recurring dreams to that attempted hijacking. I always felt I was okay. But I wasn’t.
I was just 15 years old at the time, so it left an impact.
It would have been a tragedy if I’d died that day. Not just because I would have left this world so young, but more so because of my own internal state at the time.
I was a self-centred teenager. I believed in God, but my religion was, to me, nothing more than a set of rituals. Rituals I followed simply to get my parents off my back. I had no deeper understanding, nor any will to understand. I simply lived for what I wanted. Did what I wanted to – as far as possible. I didn’t care about where I stood in the eyes of my Creator. I didn’t care about what happens after death.
And had I left this world in that state…I shudder to think what would have happened to me in my grave and beyond.
But my Creator saved me from that fate. He allowed me to survive, even though I cannot perceive the reason.
It would be another five years until I finally woke up. A sort of spiritual awakening that finally set me on a path of more consciousness. A path that’s taken me far away from who I was back then. So much progression…so much growth.
I don’t say any of this in the arrogant belief that I’m now a saint. That Paradise is guaranteed and I’m the best version of myself. Far, far from it.
But I write this out of gratitude. Gratitude that I was given another chance. That my life was not taken in that state – where, in my view, it would have been a life wasted…one where I contributed nothing to this world.
THE THINGS WE DON'T SEE
The common cliché is that “everything happens for a reason” and in this case, I see the wisdom behind the event for my father. But beyond that, the experience shows that no matter what the physical world looks like – however threatening the danger may seem – there’s always an unseen reality at play.
It was no stroke of luck that the gun broke. In general, a car window – a fragile piece of glass – does not make a gun fall apart. But that’s what happened. Yet it wasn’t the strength of the glass that broke that gun. It was an unseen force that God used to protect us in that moment.
Sceptics may scoff at the idea, and atheists will deny it, but people of faith know that there’s more to this world than what our earthly eyes perceive.
The ultimate lesson is that no matter how desperate our challenges may seem, we should look beyond the outward appearance and remember Who is in control, and how easily He can change our circumstances.