Authors: Shani Krebs
Tags: #Thai, #prison, #Memoir, #South Africa
Sentenced to Die, Choosing to Live
JONATHAN BALL PUBLISHERS
JOHANNESBURG & CAPE TOWN
He didn’t fall in with a bad crowd; he was the bad crowd…
Shani Krebs endured a tough childhood. Born to a family of Hungarian refugees, he grew up in a succession of dreary mining towns and spent his teenage years in an orphanage. As a rebellious young conscript, he started dabbling in drugs, and it wasn’t long before he was supplying the Joburg party scene with marijuana, LSD, Mandrax and cocaine. It was a wild life, filled with girlfriends, narrow escapes and drug binges. His closest friend was his pistol.
Then, in 1994, Shani flew to Thailand, where he was busted for heroin trafficking. He was sentenced to death (commuted to 100 years) and locked in Bangkwang Central Prison – the notorious Bangkok Hilton. Thus began the greatest challenge of his life. Amid the random violence, the appalling diet and the filth and diseases, Shani not only survived, but also eventually earned significant respect within the prison system. After years of addiction, he put drugs behind him, and began a life-transforming engagement with art and his long-neglected Jewish faith.
Aided by his devoted sister Joan and by a network of supporters around the world, Shani tried for years to find a way to be transferred to a South African prison. Although his quest was ultimately a failure, his sentence was eventually reduced. After serving 18 years – the longest-serving Westerner in a Thai prison – he stepped off a plane at OR Tambo Airport in April 2012, a free man at last.
Dragons & Butterflies
is the riveting story of a man who endured unimaginable hardship but never gave up.
During my time in prison in Thailand, although I never formally mastered the Thai language, I learnt to speak it fairly fluently. The Thai used among inmates and guards was colloquial, regional and mixed with street and prison slang. I did not read the language, nor did I learn to write it. The mixture I have used in the book comes from my experience and an ear that is attuned to phonetics.
Everything I have described in these pages is true. However, for reasons that will be clear to the reader, some people’s names have been changed in order to protect their identities.
Although it was furnished, and nobody had made me feel in any way unwelcome, the room I had been shown into seemed desolate to the point of being menacing. The double window frames were barred. There was a security gate across the door. Already I felt anxious and confined, restricted, and yet there was also a sense of security and comfort. On the way, all that had registered in my mind were the high walls, the electrified fences, everything gated and closed off. Where was I? What was this place?
They had left me alone, to have some time to myself, probably to come to terms with everything that had happened over the past week. I looked around, but I felt weak and disoriented, and slightly dizzy. I realised that I must be mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted. The past days had taken their toll. I needed to give myself time to get to grips with my strange new circumstances. I went to the washbasin to brush and floss my teeth, looking for the ordinary routines that were familiar to me and felt safe. Then I forced myself to climb onto the bed. Although I couldn’t shake a clammy feeling of uneasiness, it wasn’t long before I slipped into a deep sleep.
It couldn’t have been more than ten minutes later when I woke up with a lurch of fear. My chest was tight. I couldn’t breathe. I felt the walls and ceiling closing in on me like a vice. I jumped up, startled, immediately on the defensive, blood pounding in my ears. For a moment I didn’t know where I was. Everything was strange. I felt panic rising.
Later, when I felt calmer, I allowed myself to drift off again, only to go through the same ordeal. I had barely fallen asleep when I woke up, drenched in cold sweat and gasping for air.
Once again I lay down, taking deep breaths, trying to slow my pounding heart. I told myself that I would come through this as I had come through so many difficult times in my life. I whispered the Master of the Universe prayer, the prayer that had given me strength to overcome so much adversity, and the very same prayer that I believed had saved my life: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One.’ I said the comforting words over and over.
The window in the small bathroom was slightly ajar. Although the bars across it were thick and sturdy, for some reason I became uncomfortable knowing it was open. Outside, in the shadows, I felt as if something or someone was lurking, an unknown force waiting and watching, biding its time. I don’t know what made me imagine this. All I knew was that I had to shut the window, and so I got up and went and pulled it firmly closed. I secured the catch and stood back. It wasn’t enough. I stood looking at it, barefoot, in the new clothes that didn’t feel right on me. I remembered that I had a few lengths of string in the side compartment of my travel bag. String had come in useful where I had just been.
I took a piece and tied it around the handle of the window, then looped it through and around the bars until I was satisfied that it was really tight and that the window wouldn’t budge. Then I took a towel and, using the pegs I also carried with me, attached it to the bars. Somehow, just doing this made me feel more at ease, and I could feel my breathing slowing down and becoming more regular. I did the same in the other room, attaching string to fasten the window closed and snug against the bars that kept me in and everyone else out.
A wave of exhaustion swept over me. I lay down on the mattress, but no matter what I did I couldn’t get comfortable. I stretched out my arms, straightened my legs, stared at the ceiling. Carefully I looked around, to familiarise myself with everything in the room, hoping that I would fall asleep while doing it. Would I ever get used to this kind of bed? Maybe that was the problem.
There was a bright light on the small bedside table. I switched it off and the room fell into an eerie darkness. I closed my eyes, but all I could see was a series of disturbing lights flashing against my eyelids. When I opened my eyes again, I was back in darkness, but the darkness scared me more. I switched the light on again, then switched it off. Then I got off the bed and went into the passage and turned the light on there instead. That felt a bit better. I tossed and turned, still wrestling with the bedding.
At 2am I was still awake, but so tired I wanted to cry. Finally, out of sheer exhaustion my eyes closed and stayed closed until 5am, when nature called. When I lifted my head I found that I was sprawled on my back, with a pillow, nothing else, between my body and the hard floor.
What I had been dreading most since coming here was using the toilet, and up till now I had successfully avoided having to face it. I couldn’t delay any longer. I approached the unfamiliar style of toilet nervously, uncertain how to use it or how I would keep my balance. I took a deep breath. Fortunately I managed and didn’t slip off. I felt quite pleased with myself, as if I had won a little victory. Perhaps I could learn to cope with it in time. Another foreign thing to master. There was so much I was going to have to learn in this alien world.
I looked out into the yard outside, with the early morning light filtering through the windows, and felt myself relaxing for the first time. I teased loose the tangle of string securing the bedroom window, pushed gently on the pane until it opened, and felt the cool breeze against my skin. I would have to come to terms with this place, no matter how hard it was, I told myself firmly. Nothing had changed; only the playing field was different.
In the street outside I caught a glimpse of the yellow ribbons that friends and family had tied around the trees that lined the route through the neighbourhood that was so strange and yet so familiar to me.
I felt a surge of emotion I couldn’t identify. But I knew one thing for sure: after 18 years in Thailand’s high-security prison, the notorious Bangkwang, I was home.
Adjusting was not going to be easy.
During the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, a young couple, Fritz and Katalin Krebs, with Katalin’s ten-year-old daughter Marika from a previous marriage and a group of 15 others, made their way by train to the Austrian border in the hope of escaping the Soviet invasion. For three hours they plodded through the heavy snow that blanketed the countryside until eventually they were picked up by a truck. They were taken to a nearby town where they were given shelter in a large warehouse together with hundreds of other refugees, all waiting to be relocated to other countries.
A few weeks later, Fritz, Katalin and Marika boarded a flight for South Africa. This was to be their land of milk and honey, a land of sunshine with an endless coastline waiting to be explored. Katalin was full of hopes and dreams for their sweet new life, the start, as she saw it, of their future as a family.