Lindsay Jones, her 12-year-old daughter Kiara-Leigh and her 52-year-old mother Penny Jones may never fully recover from the trauma of being overrun by bandits wielding AK-47s in the middle of the night on an African safari.
“I can’t get the vision and the sound of the knife slicing through the tent out of my head,” said 30-year-old Lindsay.
The nightmare happened last Wednesday. They were on Day 9 of a three-week trip Penny had dreamed of since she was her granddaughter’s age.
Since her daughter had just been accepted into nursing school at TRU, Penny wanted to share the experience with Lindsay and Kiara-Leigh before another four years went by, so she sprung for the $30,000 cost, she now says with head hung low.
It had been everything she dreamed of up to that point, “and more,” said Penny. They’d been awed by the animals and exotic sights, sounds and smells of the jungles, lakes and plains of Africa. All amid the comfort and safety of a large number of tourists and guides.
Then on June 20, the trio was in a tourist camp with about 40 other visitors in the outskirts of Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. They were going to head out to Kenya the next morning.
Around 11 p.m., they were bedded down in their cabin-sized tent when Kiara-Leigh heard gunshots.
At first Lindsay tried to convince her daughter it was nothing.
“I know that they’re not allowed guns in the Serengeti. So I lied to her and said, ‘It must be a truck coming in and it just backfired.’”
Even the security guards carried just bows and arrows.
But as she suspected, that wasn’t the noise. Bandits had raided the tourist camp in the Wildlife Management Area, according to a press release from the country’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism.
About 15 minutes after hearing the shots, they heard men yelling in Swahili and a voice in the neighbouring tent yelling: “Don’t take my passport! Don’t take my passport!”
Then they heard boots on gravel and steps on their porch. A hunting knife punctured the tent wall and ripped it open, and a head poked through before three men walked in carrying AK-47s and machetes, pointing flashlights in their faces and screaming in Swahili.
Strangely, they were also all wearing the same uniform.
Lindsay pushed her daughter down into her bed in the corner of the tent and huddled with her mother in an adjacent bed.
The men wanted money, cameras, phones, wallets, passports — anything of value.
They got everything the women had and then one of them saw Kiara-Leigh and ran over to her bed with knife raised. He sliced through her mosquito netting and yelled at her in Swahili.
Kiara-Leigh, who already had “safety issues,” according to her mother, had made sure the tent was zipped up and locked, and hid the key under her pillow. She was holding the key, but the bandit thought it was a phone so she threw it at him.
Apparently satisfied they had everything, the men left.
Lindsay rushed to the back of the tent and unzipped the panel leading to the shower and ushered her mother and daughter in. They huddled and prayed. Lindsay became cold as the showerhead dripped down on her so she snuck back out into the tent, petrified, to grab a blanket.
They heard more gunshots. She thought: “We’re going to get killed, they’re going to come back, we need to leave.”
They continued to huddle and pray for an hour, she said, repeating the same prayer over and over.
“Please God wrap your arms around us. Protect us. Please God, help these men find kindness in their hearts and stop hurting people.”
An hour went by. At one point they could smell cigarette smoke. Lindsay thought: “That’s it. They’ve come to finish the job.”
“I prepared myself for me and my mom and my daughter to be killed,” she said.
More time went by and then they heard a name called. “Lindsay!”
She ignored it. Then “Penny!”
Lindsay recognized a German man they had met during their tour, leaving the tent and hugging him.
The park security guards gathered the tourists in the large restaurant that’s part of the camp.
At some point they found out two people were dead.
“The deceased tourist is Mr. Eric Brekelmans, a native of the Netherlands. A Tanzanian who was killed is Mr. Renatus Benard, an assistant manager of the camp,” stated the Tanzanian news release.
Dutch media reports state 57-year-old Brekelmans was shot in the back and died in hospital before he could be helped. There were fewer details on Benard’s death.
The Joneses had met Brekelmans briefly the previous day, exchanging a few words. The tourist was travelling with his wife who returned uninjured to the camp two hours after the gathering at the restaurant.
“Police and wardens of the Department of Wildlife and Tourism, Tanzania National Parks Authority, have jointly strengthened security in the tourist areas, and a search has begun to seek the bandits,” stated Khamisi Kagasheki, minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, in the release.
What Lindsay didn’t know was the nightmare wasn’t over.
First there was the police interrogation. They brought her in but refused to let her write out her own statement.
They spent half an hour asking her about herself — what religion are you? Are you married? They balked at her response when she said she isn’t married.
They couldn’t tell her why the men all wore the same uniform.
She was asked if she had found the bodies of the Dutch tourist and the Tanzanian guide. She repeatedly said “no,” but the policeman insisted she did.
She watched him write the lie down on “her” statement and when done, asked her to sign it. She did just to get out of there.
Then began the process of getting home eight days early. The Joneses were the only victims who had lost their passports. Even with Canadian embassy staff working arduously day and night to get them out, it was an ordeal.
“You try remembering four phone numbers of (passport) references that are not relatives,” said Lindsay.
It took three days, but they finally landed in Canada on Saturday.
On Monday, the Joneses started picking up the pieces, replacing the stolen ID and a camera, and buying new phones.
But as a nursing student trying to make ends meet by working in home support for four developmentally disabled adults, Lindsay can’t even afford to replace her driver’s licence.
Meanwhile, TIC Travel Insurance is telling them the guiding outfit, Jenman Safari Partners, is responsible for the cost, and the guiding outfit points to the travel insurer. There was no response to requests for comment from either organization.
One of Lindsay’s greatest regrets is she didn’t remove the card from her camera so all her photos are lost.
She plans to get victim counselling with her daughter, who is mostly OK but gets spooked at night and crawls into Mom’s bed.
Somehow, though, through it all they still retained their love of Africa.
“They were all so kind,” said Penny of the locals’ reaction to their ordeal. “They seemed so ashamed.”
Lindsay even hesitated telling the story because she doesn’t want to confirm typical Western fears associated with that part of the world.
Canada Foreign Affairs warns travellers away from the northwestern part of the country, near refugee camps on the border of Rwanda and Burundi where banditry may occur. The Serengeti is in the northeastern part of Tanzania, however the Canadian government website states Tanzanian violent crime is on the increase.
Nonetheless, all three say they would return to Africa.
“It was amazing,” said Kiara-Leigh of the sights she saw.
But, she adds, she wouldn’t stay in a tent.
At press time the family had heard from the Tanzanian government that the bandits were caught. No further information was available by press time.