SMC student survived African attackPublished 5:08pm Thursday, February 21, 2013
Southwestern Michigan College nursing student Kavita Patel, 28, bears scars on her hand and neck to remind her of the day a mob murdered her grandparents in front of her and left her and other badly beaten members of her family for dead.
Her great-grandfather emigrated to Africa, so, although Indian, she was born in Tanzania, East Africa, where her parents farmed 1,776 acres.
That’s where the attack happened on Jan. 8, 2002, when hundreds of Maasai descended in a dispute over cattle grazing.
The youngest of four daughters, Patel said cattle came into their fields despite electric fences.
“It resulted in huge losses for us when corn and other crops were still small,” she told Dowagiac Rotary Club Thursday at Elks Lodge 889. “We asked the ranchers over and over to stop. The Maasai and my family fought over the issue for a year. My family enforced security measures to protect our farm. The Maasai were very angry we did not view the importance of their cattle, which signify wealth. As tension built, the ranchers did not comply and eventually began to attack the team that protected our farm with bows and arrows, forcing our security to use firearms.”
Patel said her father left to take care of an emergency in a small town an hour and a half from their farmhouse.
When “the Maasai finally had enough,” she said, “their numbers were 500 to 600 villagers. It took the villagers about an hour to get into the house after they stormed over our land, killing our livestock. Our house was built very well, so it took the villagers a lot to break down the walls.”
Her grandmother was shot in the arm with a poison arrow and bled to death in her daughter’s arms.
“On the other side of the house,” Patel said, “they entered where my second sister and I were hidden under the bed. We covered ourselves with blankets and it seemed they had not found us. When they left the room, we abandoned our cover and tried to look for our mother. The villagers set the house on fire. When we found our mother, she was injured, along with our grandmother. My mother begged them to take everything, but leave the children alone.”
Patel’s grandfather tried to protect his family by shooting attackers, but only got off a few shots before his gun jammed.
“By this time, smoke was too thick for us to see anything in the house and around it,” Patel said. “Villagers began throwing stones into the house. We found our third sister unconscious while we were running around because of the smoke. She was bleeding from the head since stones hit her. I tried to hide behind the bathroom door while my second sister tried to get my third sister, who was starting to wake up. They were able to fool the villagers into thinking they were dead by rubbing my grandmother’s blood on their faces and bodies. The villagers struck my sisters with clubs to insure they were dead. Though they were both alive, they did not move. If they had shown signs of life, the villagers would only have beaten them more. When the villagers were finished, they threw a blanket on my third sister and set it on fire. By the time fire got to my sister’s body, she managed to throw it aside.”
When intruders found Patel behind the bathroom door, “They dragged me on the glass-covered floor and kicked me back and forth, asking me where the money was. I have a scar on my eyelid and doctors thought I was going to be blind. I kept telling them I didn’t know because I was young and had only been home on vacation from high school for two days.
“While they were kicking me,” she said tearfully, “they pierced my grandfather with a spear, ending his life while I watched. They threw me on my back. One put his foot on my chest while another grabbed my head and slit a knife through my neck close to my jugular vein. They threw me into the bushes for dead and checked one last time to make sure we were all dead. Their main aim was to kill my dad because they were very angry we had security for their cattle grazing.”
Neighbors saw the fire and came to investigate. When an ambulance and air support arrived, rescue workers looked for Patel for 15 minutes before her mother found her.
“My mother tried to hold nerves hanging out of my throat,” she said. “My grandmother passed away on our way to the hospital. They claimed I was dead because I did not move, even after I got to the hospital. Doctors did all they could to bring me back to life. I was in (intensive care) for three weeks, still not moving or showing signs of life.”
Doctors wanted to remove her from life support, but her father refused.
“My mother refused to come into ICU because she was very afraid to lose me,” Patel said. “The first day, she entered and called my name, I began to show signs of life. Doctors thought it would take me a year to recover, but it took longer.”
She has been here three years and lives in Mishawaka with her other sister, who graduated from SMC.
“I am very fortunate to have survived my ordeal and blessed to receive a quality education at SMC,” she said. “I have an opportunity to make the most of my life. I moved forward, accepted the situation and left my past behind. Because I was the eyewitness for my granddad’s murder and saw the person who killed him, he is in jail for the rest of his life.”
Patel says she is not planning on returning to Tanzania.
“I would love to work for the Army in the U.S. They are fighting to protect us where we are today. They’re young, they lose limbs and lose hope. Yes, I will be applying for citizenship after I graduate.”
Her retired parents live elsewhere in Tanzania.
“It’s home, it’s where I was born, where I grew up and my childhood memories are,” she said. “When my father was brought to the hospital, he was completely in shock. He never expected such a tragic thing could happen. The president of Tanzania could not believe it, either. I don’t blame the beautiful Maasai culture, just those people. Nothing like what happened to us had ever happened.”