DURBAN – There are two portraits of Lu-Meri Kruger.
One is of a heroine, the other is of a lost teenage girl whose face was seen on posters and newspapers across the country. The heroine portrait doesn’t look like Lu-Meri Kruger and she is fine with that.
In fact, she had given the artist two requests. One, she didn’t want to be recognised from the painting and two, the portrait would have to be done in such a way that it would give others hope.
Lu-Meri’s portrait is part of a series that features 50 gender-based violence (GBV) heroes who were nominated by 15 organisations. The campaign is intended to recognise and honour those people who have fought GBV.
Lu-Meri was nominated by the Teddy Bear Clinic, the NGO that once saved her and to which later she would give so much.
Her story is one of hope and it is entwined with a policeman who 30 years ago worked to find and save her.
That story began when Lu-Meri was 14 years old. She had fallen in love with a boy and they had run away together in the late 1990s because her parents had forbidden her from seeing him.
“Like any rebellious teenager you know better,” recalls Lu-Meri.
When her parents realised their child was missing they contacted the SAPS Child Protection Unit. The man tasked to find the 14-year-old was Wickus Weber.
As with most cases he started working his informants, he also visited a notorious hotel in Hillbrow, which at the time was a favourite haunt of runaways. But he couldn’t find her.
Lu-Meri and her boyfriend weren’t in Johannesburg. They had taken a train to Cape Town. Appearing older than the 14 years she was, she was able to get a waitress job at St Elmo’s at the V&A Waterfront and she and her boyfriend stayed at a back- packers’ lodge.
It was an arrangement that worked for a while, until the day the teenager’s life changed forever.
On the morning of St Patrick’s Day, Lu-Meri was showering when an Australian tourist walked into the unlocked bathroom.
When she asked him to leave, he raped her in the shower. She was eventually able to escape after she slashed his left shoulder with a razor.
From that moment it was an ordeal she had to hide. She explained her bruises away by saying she had been mugged on her way home from work.
She later encountered her rapist at the backpackers lodge.
She recalled how he smirked when he saw her.
Meanwhile, in Johannesburg, Lu-Meri’s parents posted missing posters of her on boards and shop windows. Her mother was interviewed on Radio 702. This, while Webber continued his hunt for Lu-Meri.
Weeks later Lu-Meri decided she had enough and she caught a bus to Milnerton where her aunt and uncle lived. Soon she was back in Boksburg, in her parent’s home.
At first Lu-Meri didn’t tell her parents of her rape. She suffered terrible nightmares and felt unclean.
Then one day, Lu-Meri walked into the rain hoping the water from the sky would do what the soap couldn’t and finally cleanse her.
In that moment her mother had come to realise that her daughter had been raped. Lu-Meri was taken to the Teddy Bear Clinic. From a cupboard filled with Teddy bears she was asked to choose one. It is a ritual that thousands of child rape survivors have gone through.
“It is a hard road to recovery, and every survivor needs to know that healing takes time,” says Lu-Meri. “You need to make peace with your story.”
Time passed and Lu-Meri did make peace with her story. She even forgave her rapist.
She went to university and had a yearning to return to the Teddy Bear Clinic. “I first came as a victim, and they helped me find myself. I wanted to pay it forward.”
She started helping out, and her involvement in the organisation grew.
Not long after Lu-Meri returned home to her parents, Webber left the police. Years later he happened to be in a coffee shop when he overheard a conversation, about people wanting to help children. He felt that he needed to talk to them. Webber tracked down a cellphone number.
“So I phoned her and I said ‘look you don’t know me from a bar of soap and I am sorry that I listened into your conversation this morning’. I told her about my background and I said ‘you know you can’t make every child case your own personal challenge’.
“And she says ‘Oom Wickus I know you well. I am the young girl who you helped many, many years ago.”
Today Lu-Meri is the mother of two children, a miracle she says, as she was told it was unlikely she would have children because of her rape.
She is also a life coach and has counselled children who have gone through similar experiences.
She handed her teddy bear to one of those children.
“In the media you only see the sad side, the horror stories, you never see what happens afterwards. That she is okay, that she has survived.”
Independent On Saturday