For 16 years, six months and 16 days, Vanessa Goosen, a former Miss SA semi-finalist, was incarcerated in Lard Yao women’s prison in Bangkok, Thailand.
Goosen claimed to have been duped into carrying four engineering books, which were found to have compartments in the front and back hardcover and spine containing 1.7kg of heroin. Aged 21 and pregnant, she was arrested and tried on drug trafficking charges. She was sentenced to death, but her sentence was commuted to life. Through two appeals – one of which was rejected – and a process of amnesty from the king of Thailand, Goosen eventually served 16 and a half years. On October 30, 2010, she was released, finally reaching Joburg on November 5.
Her daughter Felicia was taken away from her at the age of three and sent to South Africa to be cared for by her best friend, Melanie.
Her first year home was an “emotional setback”. She had come back to a family that had changed, grown older, with Felicia, 16, and an independent teenager.
Vanessa had to learn how to use a cellphone. She had to get used to taking warm showers, sleeping on a bed and wearing shoes. It was difficult getting used to eating supper late. Lockdown in the prison was 5.30pm.
Her stomach had to get used to digesting food that she hadn’t eaten for years. The first time she ate peaches, her favourite fruit, she felt sick.
“I wanted to eat everything in sight. I was overwhelmed with all these nice things. When I received a parcel in prison, with a slab of chocolate in it, I would eat one block a day, just to make it last.”
She had also forgotten that there were people she could call and talk to if she wasn’t feeling well. She wasn’t alone.
Often, however, she still felt alienated when in conversation with people.
The prisoners were allowed only two hours of television, with a choice of royal Thai news and Thai soapies. World news was kept from them.
“We only found out about the Twin Towers and the tsunami when the guard left the television on by accident,” she adds.
In the beginning she feared that she had very little to offer the outside world with her scant experience, despite the courses – massage therapy, make-up, fashion design and other educational programmes – she took in prison. But now she has become a motivational speaker, addressing churches, businesses and young people.
Her dream had been different before Thailand.
Goosen and her boyfriend, Felix, had owned a clothing business in the Carlton Centre. She had planned to study to be a social worker. It was Felix’s friend Jackson who had suggested that Goosen explore the fashion industry in Thailand. It was cheaper, he told them, and it would be good for them to get stock. When she was in Thailand, Jackson had phoned to ask if she would bring back some books for him, which his “brother” would deliver to her hotel. The drugs were later found in the books at Don Muang Airport.
The day the nation witnessed the world’s most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela, vote in South Africa’s first democratic elections on April 27, 1994, was the day Goosen went to court. It was also the day that she was taken to Lard Yao.
“For years I was very bitter. But it was because of that bitterness and anger that I suffered.” She fell into a deep depression for four years. She was overwhelmed by everything and she no longer had the energy to fight. Felicia had been taken away from her. Her mother tried to commit suicide. And her pardon was rejected.
The depression nearly killed her. She got so sick that she had to be admitted to hospital.
While lying on her hospital bed one day, a foreigner approached and reprimanded her. “She told me that I was very selfish for giving up, that I wasn’t thinking about my daughter,” says Vanessa.
The woman’s words hit home, bringing a realisation that she was forgetting Felicia, who was waiting for her to come home. “It broke me and I cried. I realised that the depression was destroying me.” She prayed, asked for forgiveness from God and her outlook on life changed. “I still get angry, but I will never let hatred and depression be a part of it again.”
She wants to give back to society through her experience, to listen to people’s heartaches and nurse their broken souls. “I can help people who are going through depression because I understand it. I can give hope to someone. I didn’t ask for my situation, I was put there but I made the decision to survive.”
During her imprisonment, Vanessa lost her sister Jacky, her grandfather, and her best friend, Melanie, who died three months before her release.
“I will never be able to ask her details of my daughter’s childhood.”
Felix is no longer a part of her life; she forgave him for not being there for her. She was scared of not being able to forgive him –”it would have been just too painful”, she says.
She found God in prison and gave her life to Him.
“God kept me through this and helped me. There is nothing in the world that can give you peace, strength and a fighting spirit like God can,” she says. “I’m not on a pity party. I survived and I’d like to share that. No matter the situation, you can survive it. I did.”