I was young and newly married. After having grown up in New Delhi, I had moved to Nairobi, Kenya, to be with my husband Hassan, a 33-year-old Kenyan national, and was enjoying life as the wife of a young upcoming architect. We had made friends and felt established there.
Then one night in 2004, everything changed. We were getting ready to drive home after a dinner at our friends Deepesh and Sunila Sethi’s house. Deepesh offered to escort us to ensure that we got home safely. Although Kenya is a beautiful country full of warm and friendly people, just like many countries it has its problems, and is known to be unsafe at night.
Deepesh kept a gun in his car for personal protection as car jackings and robberies, although rare, do happen in Kenya. He offered to drive his car behind ours until we got home safely. When we were just moments away from home, we felt guilty about inconveniencing him, and so called him and persuaded him to go back. It took some convincing, but in the end he relented and drove off.
Our house was within a secure compound guarded by a night watchman. There were three families living there including us. The place was gated and the routine was that when you arrived back you tooted your car horn to attract the watchman’s attention so that he could let you in through the gates.
We did this as usual, but on that evening, the watchman took ages to appear. This should’ve aroused our suspicions, but we were tired and just wanted to get to bed, so we ignored what was the first sign that something was clearly wrong.
Usually Hassan would drive all the way around the compound so that he could park conveniently for the following day. This, perhaps, would have given us an opportunity to observe more, but as we were tired he simply drove straight to the house. We were soon to realise that this was a big mistake.
We got out of the car and I moved towards the door, fumbling for the keys in my bag. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement in the shadows just off to the left of us, and then in a second they were upon us. Three men, not masked or trying to disguise themselves, but all carrying revolvers and weapons. To this day, I can’t even recall their faces though they were clearly visible, and I put this down to the trauma I was about to undergo.
Having lived there only for a year and just getting to know the country, I was totally bewildered by the turn of events. You’d have thought the guns were enough of a clue, but I was so shocked by the men jumping out at me that I think my brain couldn’t quite process what was happening. My husband, on the other hand, having lived all of his life in the country, was acutely aware of the dangers and knew immediately what was happening. When I naively asked the men “What do you want?”, Hassan told me to be quiet.
The man who appeared to be their leader grabbed my husband by the throat and put a gun to his head. I froze, fear pulsing through me. Around his wrist, the leader was wearing a piece of wood with nails sticking out of it, and this now rested threateningly at my husband’s throat, so that if he struggled or shouted they could instantly silence him by digging the nails into his jugular.
One of the men sprang towards me with his gun trained upon my head and whispered, “Open the door and make sure you don’t make any noise or you’ll know about it.”
My hands were shaking as I tried to work out which was the right key. I was so panicked, I could not identify the correct one.
This was clearly taking too much time for their liking, so the thug grabbed me by the hair and told me to hurry up or they would shoot my husband. His breath was foul, reeking of tobacco and alcohol. As he drew me closer, I looked into his eyes and my blood ran cold. At that point I decided that for the sake of both my husband’s and my safety, I would do whatever the man wanted me to. Thankfully, I managed to find the key and I shakily put it into the lock and opened the door. They barged into the house, dragging me and my husband with them. Their filthy hands were clamped firmly over our mouths so we couldn’t scream for help. They were well aware that we had neighbours just a few metres away and obviously didn’t want to wake them.
The third guy was carrying a rope and it dawned on me they were going to tie us up. We were between the hallway and the lounge when he signalled to his accomplices to halt. They forced our hands behind our back and bound them together with a tight knot. My thoughts were clearer at this point and I had the presence of mind to twist my wrist in such a way that if I twisted it back the rope would become looser.
At this point feelings of indignation began to rise in me. I was disgusted that these men could push their way into our home and defile it with their violence and threats.
Hassan, sensing that I was going to put myself in an even more dangerous situation by doing something foolish, tried to convey through facial expressions that I should just do as they asked.
Quickly they separated us. This must have been agonising for Hassan as one of them dragged me off to the bedroom, all the time threatening to kill me if I did something stupid.
At the same time they roughly marched Hassan around the whole house, shouting vile threats at him, forcing him to tell them where all of our valuables were kept. I could hear the fear in his trembling voice. Naturally, he only wanted to protect our lives, so he told them without any hesitation.
While this was happening, I could hear my mobile phone ringing in my handbag. The desperation I felt to answer it was overwhelming, because I knew it would be Deepesh checking if we had got back safely. But there was no way I could ever break free to answer it, and at that point the man who was guarding me became so annoyed by it that he fished for my phone, turned it off and put it in his own pocket. I feared at that point that we were staring death in the face.
I had been right about Deepesh though. He had been calling, and when we didn’t answer he immediately became suspicious. He got back in his car and started to make his way towards our house. In Kenya, people who are very familiar with the country are hyper-aware of the risks, and he sensed straight away that something was wrong.
In the meantime the thieves gathered everything of value. All the money we had, my precious jewellery, were all unceremoniously dumped into large holdalls they had brought. Anything they thought they could sell, they stole. They even took the belt and shoes Hassan was wearing that night. It was utterly horrifying how calculated and highly efficient they were.
When something like this happens, it’s not really the things that are taken that matter. Possessions, though precious, are not as precious as the peace of mind that is ultimately violated by a violent robbery, and that is what I lost that night. The ability to feel safe.
The whole incident probably only lasted less than an hour, but it felt like a lifetime. Before they left they dragged us both to the bathroom and locked us in. They then took the keys to our brand new Audi, stashed their loot inside and used it to get away as quickly as they could.
After we heard the car skidding off down the driveway and into the distance, I managed to twist my wrist and loosen the rope. The bathroom had a big window, but it was high up towards the ceiling, so, after loosening Hassan’s hands, I climbed on his shoulders and with trembling hands, managed to open the window. I hauled myself through and climbed out. When we were both free, we ran to our neighbours and told them about what had happened.
They were shocked that something so audacious and terrible had gone on right under their noses, and offered us their phone so that we could call for help. The first person we rang was Deepesh as we knew he would be worried, but he was almost at our house by then. Thankfully, he didn’t arrive any earlier as if he’d disturbed the thugs I’m almost certain they would have killed us all.
Seeing him arrive was one of the greatest joys of my life. Somehow, it meant that we were alright and we had survived the ordeal. Instantly, Deepesh put two and two together and said that it must have been the watchman who let the thieves in. Sure enough, when we went to look for him, he was gone. He had obviously been working with the gang and had scouted out the best place to rob.
Deepesh took us straight back to his home, where Sunila was waiting for us, almost as shocked as we were that something so terrible had occurred. While Hassan and Deepesh went to the police station to report the robbery, I stayed with Sunila.
It was then that it all slowly began to sink in. At that time I must have been in shock as my body began to shake all over. I was physically sick and the events kept replaying over and over in my mind like a horror film. Sunila was so worried for me that she wanted to call a doctor, but I didn’t want to see anyone. I just couldn’t bear at that point to have to explain what had happened to anyone else. Looking back now I realise I was utterly traumatised, but all I could think of was ‘I need to get out of this country.’ I just wanted to be back home.
After spending a sleepless night thinking about the disturbing event, I came to a decision. I wanted to go back to Delhi as I felt I could no longer live without fear in Kenya, and if that meant I had to be apart from my husband, then so be it.
I rang my mum and told her everything that happened. “I’m buying you the tickets to come back home now,” she said.
Sitting down with Hassan, I managed to convey through tears my feelings that I had to leave. He was becoming firmly established in Kenyan business circles and his career as a much sought-after architect was on the rise. It is a testament to how much he loves me and his commitment to our relationship, that he said he would give it all up and come with me.
After weeks of discussion, we decided that while I would go to Delhi, Hassan would leave Kenya and go to Dubai, where with the help of his relatives, he would try to find himself a job and I would join him once he had found his bearings.
Luckily, he soon found a job as an architect and after just three months I joined him in our beautiful new home in Dubai to begin our new life. Putting the past behind us, safe in the knowledge that we were safe.
Or so I thought. I know now that it’s enormously difficult to put something so horrific behind you and carry on as normal. The trauma of that night had lasting effects on me and, though I hadn’t realised it, I was suffering from panic attacks and anxiety disorder.
This became increasingly apparent when Hassan announced the following July, a year after that dreadful night, that we were going to visit his parents back in Mombasa, Kenya. We had just had a little boy, Aasim, and his parents were as keen to meet their new grandson as Hassan was to show him off.
With a month to go until the journey, I started having flashbacks and became filled with panic at the idea of setting foot back in Kenya. I was filled with a sense of doom that something bad was going to happen, and this was compounded by the fact that we now had a little baby to protect. The men who had attacked and robbed us had never been brought to justice and I was filled with an irrational fear I’d see them again.
Out of love and loyalty to my husband and his family I made the trip, but every night when the sun went down I started to re-live the robbery, and fear gripped me like a vice. I didn’t know at the time that what I’d developed and was experiencing were full-blown panic and anxiety attacks. My heart raced, my head pounded and I felt disorientated when I had to leave the house. I felt I just had to get back, because I didn’t feel safe at any point. A feeling that something could happen at any moment left me in a state of perpetual terror and I couldn’t wait to leave Kenya and get back to the safety of Dubai. Even though the attack had happened several years before, I felt like it had just happened, and I was still traumatised.
Hassan was understanding, of course, but it made life very difficult for him and his family to see me in such a state. When we got back to Dubai, my feelings subsided a little, but the fear was present in the back of my mind. After that trip I then endured six more visits to Kenya and every time fear and panic overwhelmed me. My experiences had changed me as a person. I had become angry inside and it was affecting my family life. I was fighting with my husband over small issues and I also became irritable with my two children Aasim, nine and Faraz, six. I knew deep down something was seriously wrong and after another dreadful trip to Kenya, I resolved to do something about it.
That’s when I read an article in Friday about a woman from Pakistan who had suffered such terrible panic attacks that she had become agoraphobic. She had been treated by Russell Hemmings, the world-renowned hypnotherapist, and he had completely cured her.
This, I thought to myself, was exactly what I needed to help me. ‘He can sort my life out,’ I thought to myself as I stared at Russell’s smiling face in the magazine.
I plucked up the courage to contact him. He spoke to me personally and I knew, just from hearing his calming voice, that I was being thrown a lifeline. That this man could help me get my life back.
I didn’t really know anything about cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy apart from what I had read in the article, but when I met Russell I felt I could put my faith in him. From the very first meeting he began to get me to explore what I had been through, in a safe and sensitive manner. Then he used hypnotherapy to replace those feelings of anxiety with positive feelings that I could use to control and fight the fear.
Although Russell’s therapy systems are highly complex, he was able to explain in a very straightforward manner that he had enabled me to subdue the bad memories in my subconscious and replace them with positive responses to anxiety triggers.
After just three sessions with him, I felt like I was back in control. With his help I was able to sift through the painful memories and begin to make sense of what happened. Russell helps you to gain a new perspective on things so that you can minimise the anxiety and begin to start dealing with those feelings when they arise, rather than becoming overwhelmed by them.
Since seeing Russell I have been back to Kenya – and I was a totally different person while I was there. I managed to keep my panic in control using his strategies and for the first time we had a great family holiday at Nguuni Nature Sanctuary in Mombasa.
This was a revelation for me. I know if I hadn’t taken that step to contact Russell, I would still be cowering in fear whenever the sun went down, and in a sense this would have meant those thugs had won. They would have succeeded in stealing my peace of mind.
But thanks to Russell, I don’t have to suffer any more. The old me is back. Hassan and the kids are pleased to see that smile back on my face.