Township blanks out its horror: John Carlin finds that life in Mitchell's Plain, near Cape Town, is back to normal only three weeks after the discovery that a serial killer is at work

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The Independent Online
A YEAR ON, Liverpool is still struggling to come to terms with the death of Jamie Bulger. Three weeks after the discovery that a serial killer had sodomised and strangled 22 young boys, life in Mitchell's Plain is returning to normal.

Gone is the talk of closing down the schools, of community vigilante action. Some children are already going to and from school unaccompanied, many roam the streets. And meanwhile the police are no nearer catching the 'Station Strangler' than they were three weeks ago, when the decomposing bodies of nine boys, average age 11, were found lying in shallow graves in a heath on the edge of this 'coloured' (mixed-race) township.

Then the reaction was hysterical. 'It was only by a miracle that someone wasn't lynched, there were so many rumours going around about the identity of the man,' said the Reverend Edwin Arrison, an Anglican minister in Mitchell's Plain. 'But now already a strange sort of complacency has taken hold. Some people remain concerned at an individual level but as a community you'd think the issue had been forgotten.'

Why? 'People get inured to horror here. They live with it every day. We have one of the highest murder rates in the world in the so- called coloured townships here in the Western Cape. A month doesn't go by without me having to bury a gangster or someone who's died a brutal death. You see it too with the animals. Everywhere you drive you see dead dogs and cats lying around. People don't pick them up. They don't give them a second glance.'

The official figures show that an average of three homicides are reported a week in Mitchell's Plain, a community of no more than 50,000 people. As for cases of sexual abuse, fathers raping and sodomising their children, these are legion, Mr Arrison said. 'And besides, such is the poverty of the parents, the stresses on them, that too little time is left for them to attend to their children's needs. They're just left to go wandering around the streets alone. There's little opportunity for normal family life.'

Which is one reason why he has called for a monument to be put up at the site where the nine bodies were found. A perverse idea, at first glance, but Mr Arrison explained that the purpose would be to provide parents with a constant reminder of the need to look after their children's safety. He has helped set up a children's fund and invited contributions from the Cape Town community to build the monument and to attend to the more immediate task of helping families pay for funerals.

One person who Mr Arrison hopes will benefit from the fund is Jane Swartland, 60, whose grandson, Jeremy Benjamin, was one of the strangler's victims.

A deeply religious woman who keeps two identical paintings of the Last Supper in her lounge, Mrs Swartland said Jeremy, who was 12 when he died, had come from a broken home and she and her husband had brought him up. He disappeared on 13 December, last seen by a friend at a video-games parlour. After he had failed to turn up by the next morning Mrs Swartland's husband scoured the local mortuaries and hospitals. They spent a deeply unhappy Christmas and found him on 25 January.

'I was very heartsore,' Mrs Swartland said. 'I didn't know that all the time he was lying just over there, so nearby.' The heath where the shallow graves were found is barely 300 yards from her home. 'He was a good boy. He laughed a lot. He made friends easily. I still can't believe he is dead. I still see him . . . This man, I pray that he will be caught. He probably doesn't work. He probably just catches children. I hope that when they catch him he suffers in the same way the children suffered.'

The police detective in charge of the investigation, Colonel Leonard Knipe, said he was trying to enlist international assistance, such was the difficulty he was encountering. 'We're negotiating to get a a man from the FBI, a Dr Robert Ressler who founded their profiling department, to come over and help us out. We're painstakingly shifting through a tremendous volume of information to see if maybe we can find hidden there the identity of the accused. But I'm getting impatient, as I know some of the people are.'

No one is more impatient, more desperate, than the family of a boy who is still missing. Baden Keet, 10, disappeared on 14 January. His photograph appears on posters on several shop windows in Mitchell's Plain. Only his father, whose telephone number is on the posters, entertains any notion that he will be found alive.