Life in Zim prison: A pilot's story

South African pilot Niel Steyl experienced his release from Zimbabwean prison at the weekend as the start of a second innings, News24 reported on Monday.

“It feels as if I was clean-bowled out of my first life, but the second innings of my life started on Saturday,” he told reporter Erika Gibson.

Steyl and Hendrik Hamman, a pilot from Namibia, were held in the Chikurubi maximum security prison in Zimbabwe for 17 months before being freed on Saturday.

“I would probably have done better sleeping on the carpet in front of the bed rather than on the bed,” Steyl said after his first night back in a clean and comfortable room. The men slept on a bare concrete floor in prison.

Steyl and Hamman were arrested with 67 South Africans at the Harare airport in March last year. They had allegedly stopped to pick up weapons to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea.

Steyl said the Zimbabwean prison officials played games about when and how the two pilots would be released.

The pilots’ families bought airline tickets for them to fly to South Africa, but things did not go as expected.

“We were woken up fairly roughly at 4.30 that [Saturday] morning.
We were handcuffed and shackled and put on the back of a bakkie,” Steyl recounted.

“We did not know what was happening until we realised we were moving in the direction of the border.

“Before and behind us there were vehicles with armed soldiers. At Masvingo, the bakkie was low on petrol and we turned in the direction of Mutare before going to the border post.

“At Beit Bridge, we were still in chains until an official from the South African side came to fetch us.”

Steyl then flew to Pretoria with his brother Johan, and his father, also Johan. Hamman’s family came to fetch him.

Speaking about his time in prison, Steyl said his saving grace was that he remained fit.

“I stepped up and down on the toilet 900 times with both feet every morning. I made weights with water bottles and towels and exercised. When we were let out, I jogged.”

He also taught other inmates how to play chess.

“I was initially very scared. These are some of the roughest guys you can imagine and homosexual activities were the order of the day. Funnily enough, they left me alone. The other bad thing was the number of people who die all around you.”

Steyl said he would miss Philip Bezuidenhout, a farmer from Mutare who lost his farm in 2001 when war veterans started taking over the farms.

“He accidentally killed one of the veterans when he hit him with his car and was found guilty of murder. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but he is such a decent person who will probably not hurt a fly. He will have to spend at least another seven years behind bars.”

Steyl was united with his three brothers, parents and family on Saturday night and spent the day with them on Sunday.

Said his mother Rina: “I am so happy; I missed him terribly. He looks good and fit and has not lost his sense of humour.” - Sapa

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