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Property owner shocked to find home turned into ‘prison’

13 Ethiopians held captive without food

Koena Mashale Journalist
A house where a group of 13 foreign nationals were found in Parkhurst, Johannesburg, last week.
A house where a group of 13 foreign nationals were found in Parkhurst, Johannesburg, last week.

A Gauteng property owner was stunned to discover that his family home of over 80 years had been turned into a "prison" where 13 Ethiopians were held captive without food. 

The captives, some as young as 14 years old, escaped from the three-bedroom suburban house in Parkhurst, north of Johannesburg, by breaking the windows and doors on Tuesday night. Some had their hands bound and had suffered injuries during the breakout. They were rescued by a guard from a local security company as they ran in different directions to look for help. 

The property owner, who does not want to be named, said he had been renting out the house to a tenant through an estate agent for the past seven months. He said the police told him the tenant had allegedly used fake documents to get the lease. The tenant has since disappeared after last week’s incident.

Police are investigating a possible case of human trafficking or smuggling. 

The property owner said he never imagined that his house would be turned into a prison when Sowetan found him outside the house on Friday as he was having it fixed. 

“They destroyed my place. I have to fix a lot of things like the doors and windows. We have been renting this home out for more than 10 years and I have never come across something like this. I have never ever had a problem, and this is the first time something like this has happened. My wife was born here and she’s 68 years old,” he said.  

The house on 11th Street has high walls with a solid big black gate, making it impossible to see inside the yard. 

The owner said the escapees went through the neighbour’s property and, in the process, damaged the electric fence.  

“They broke through the window, and they must have run around the property looking for an exit and managed to find it at the corner wall between my property and the neighbour’s. They bent the electric fence wiring and then proceeded to run down the road towards the river, but the security company had already been in the area and caught them before they could escape and rounded them up,” said the owner.  

He said the captives looked malnourished and seemed to have been kept in his house for days. 

Grant Moulder, a response team leader from 24/7 Security, said they were first contacted by a resident about a report of a break-in.  

“When our team went there, they caught them. Initially we thought it was a break-in, so the police were called and when they arrived, we were told to breach the place and go over the walls,” said Moulder.  

He said they used a ladder to get over the walls.  

“We found a broken window and a broken door, so we still thought that these guys had broken in, but we only realised later that they couldn’t speak English . They had to get a translator for them the next day,” said Moulder.  

He said initially four people had escaped, but they found nine more people in the house.  

“After discovering that there were more people in the house and the situation, the Hawks were contacted. They all looked fine but there was one injured, he cut himself on the window because it was quite a sharp jagged edge,” said Moulder. 

Hawks W/O Thatohatsi Mavimbela said among the 13 found, four were minors aged between 14 and 15 years.  

“Seven of them have been taken to hospital for treatment of injuries sustained while attempting to run away from authorities, and the minors have been taken to a place of safety. An inquiry has been opened to establish whether this is a case of human trafficking or smuggling,” said Mavimbela.  

The property owner said he had tried to contact his tenant on the day of the incident and arranged to meet but he did not honour the meeting and has since blocked the landlord’s cellphone number.

“Everything was fine when he was filling out the information for the estate agent. We were been in regular contact with him [before the incident]. We did not notice anything wrong. Our last call to him was in December, and even then, nothing was out of the ordinary. I didn’t think all of this could happen,” said the owner.  

A woman neighbouring the house said: "You’d never imagined that this type of thing would happen, they were malnourished and they were limping as well. It’s a very terrible situation, they also looked to be young, in their 20s,” said the neighbour. 

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