25 years ago I was sentenced to death 11 times for the murder of 11 innocent woman and children at Trust Feeds, near New Hanover. It all began at the 1988 height of the political war between the UDF and the Inkatha Freedom Party. The unrest spread to rural areas not previously affected by political violence. In these areas alternative structures were being established by the UDF, and KZN was gripped by a low level civil war. Trust Feed was decidedly affected by the power struggle. The UDF were petrol-bombing houses of Inkatha members and families of their security forces. It became an uncontrollable killing field.
As a counter measure Special Police Constables were deployed to Trust Feed to drive a wedge between the UDF and Inkatha. They would target and assist the Inkatha members to take out the UDF strongholds in the area. On 2 Dec 1988 a covert operation was launched against the UDF. On my orders, that evening the special constables launched their attack. During the operation the wrong house was hit and 11 innocent woman and children were killed. The mistake was discovered the following day and all efforts were made to cover up this enormous blunder. The blame was laid at the feet of the UDF in the area.
After the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, they called for investigations into allegations of 3rd Force Activities. I was arrested in August 1991 together with the Special Constables and other members of the security forces. I was a Captain at the time.
I was detained in the section allocated to political prisoners at Pietermaritzburg prison. We were only allowed out of the cell for an hours’ exercise each day. As I sat alone in prison, I started reflecting on my life. My freedom was gone! It was a most sobering thought that I could spend the rest of my life in prison. How did I ever allow myself to get into this situation? I was so indoctrinated in believing that what we were doing was for “my land en my volk’. Was my life’s purpose to be locked up forever? I saw myself as I had never seen myself before, and what I saw was ugly.
I began receiving spiritual counselling from a Baptist Minister, Jack Donnel, soon after my arrest. He was to play a major part in my spiritual walk. I gave my life to God at the end of August 1991. I accepted that Jesus died on the cross for me and that my sins were forgiven but I had to face the consequences of my actions. The night I asked God to take control of my life the devil wrestled with me. When I awoke, I had a peace I could not explain – it ‘passed understanding according to Phil 4:7! I had never before experienced such inner peace! I knew it was not an illusion. I was now a child of God!
Despite the emotional roller coaster rides of my trial and later years of amnesty hearings, I had calmness within my spirit. This gave me the courage to publicly declare my conversion. The newspaper headlines read, “Mitchell turns to God”. From then on I was to learn how God would lead me along an unexpected path, and that His ways are not our ways and His timing is always perfect.
I spent 2½ years on Death Row in Pretoria – a place with a heavy atmosphere of hopelessness and despair. During this time I just had to walk by faith. I was granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Amnesty Committee and released from prison on 10th Dec 1996. During my amnesty hearing I asked permission to return to the community to apologize for being party to the destruction caused during the 1980s. I undertook to assist in rebuilding the community and was assisted by the Truth and Reconciliation Victims Committee.
A reporter recorded the events as follows: “The meeting procedure was simple. It started with prayer and singing. The community were invited to tell their story and ask questions of Mitchell. In return Brian was given an opportunity to make a statement and answer the queries of the community. The reaction was varied from anger and grief to amazement that Mitchell even had the courage to face the community, and how rare it was to have a perpetrator actually ask for forgiveness.
“The meeting ended after 4 hours. An old man with a cane had been listening intently from the front row. He walked forward with halting steps, took the microphone and praised the TRC for setting up this meeting. He also thanked Brian Mitchell for his bravery in coming to the community. He said he felt relieved that the process of reconciliation had begun. People then dispersed peacefully.”
I was emotionally drained and despondent after the meeting. There seemed to be no way forward. I was mistaken. My incredible journey to relief and forgiveness all started when I was contacted by an incredible man, Thabani Nyoka, who was working for the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness. His mother had been murdered during the Trust Feed massacre. He told me how his mother appeared to him in a dream one night and told him, “Thabani, you must work towards reconciliation and not destruction”. Together we walked a path that eventually led to the building of a Memorial Centre in memory of the massacre victims.