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Published: Monday November 19, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday June 2, 2013 MYT 6:31:17 PM

Saved by belief

Former South African prisoner of war Reon Schutte found a way out of his living hell and says he accomplished it with the power of his mind.

IF you take away all the people in the world, everything would be fine, believes Reon Schutte, former prisoner of war. Food for thought, certainly, with humans bringing such harm into the world – and all done by choice, too.

Schutte, a former prisoner of war, spent more than 12 years languishing in one of the most ungodly places on Earth – Zimbabwe’s notorious Chikurubi prison – and ironically enough, that’s where he found God. Even in the most desperate of situations, he says, we all have choices.

“When God answers our prayers, God exists. When He says wait, we say He’s not listening and when He says no, we say there’s no God,” says the 50-year-old Schutte, who was in Malaysia recently to share his life story in a talk entitled Power Of Choice, Power Of Change, together with Malaysian trainer and inspirational speaker Dr Billy Kueek.

Schutte was born in Brakpan, South Africa, and received his first firearm when he was six from his father, in observance of an Afrikaner tradition. By the time he turned 10, he became the sole breadwinner for the family of five. After completing the 11th grade, he enlisted in the South African Defence Force (SADF) and began his career as a covert intelligence agent, following intensive training.

In 1990, he was despatched on a seek-and-destroy mission behind enemy lines – the Zimbabwe border. Unfortunately, some of his own men ratted out the team and they were ambushed. Some of his colleagues were killed while Schutte was shot, arrested and prosecuted.

After spending two years in remand, he was then sentenced by the Zimbabwe Government to 26 years in Harare’s Chikurubi maximum security prison. Given that his operation was clandestine in nature, the SADF had no bargaining power and denied any knowledge of his actions.

Following public outcry and the intervention of South Africa’s then President, Thabo Mbeki, who struck a deal for his release with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Schutte walked out a free man on Oct 21, 2004.

He has spent the last eight years of his life sharing his experience and what life means to him today, reaching out to more than two million people across the globe. But nobody walks away from such an experience without any emotional (and physical) scars.

And if it’s true that everything happens for a reason, Schutte has definitely found his.

“Everything that happened has prepared me to be the person I am today. It takes a long time to find that reason ... it took me 12 years in Chikurubi to realise that I need to serve the world,” he says half smiling, intimating that at no point could he afford to play the victim if he wanted to stay alive.

Even if all of this has given him a higher sense of purpose, there must surely be a part of him that wishes life had panned out very differently.

“I was born a soldier, so that’s what I’d probably still be ... though I’m sure I would’ve been killed by now,” he deadpans.

Today, he lives vicariously and is often coaxing friends who are still in “the game” to quit while they can. “I Skype with a friend who’s serving in Afghanistan and I keep telling him that he can get out, but he feels there’s nothing else he can do with his life. These guys are fighting in wars that don’t involve them,” he laments.

Making that step into the unknown scares anyone, even a tough-as-nails soldier, but Schutte insists that can easily be the difference between life and death.

Like the Michael Jackson classic Man In The Mirror, Schutte suggests that we must start with ourselves for change to be affected. He says we are never willing to single ourselves out for blame, or admit to being part of the cause of anything bad. While he concedes that we are all influenced by our surroundings, making us a product of our society, that doesn’t mean we can’t change.

It’s quoted in the realm of psychology that admission and acceptance of a problem is 50% of the problem solved, and Schutte concurs: “Change your habits, change your attitude ... remove your ego.”

Even when all hope seemed lost for him in Chikurubi, he could still see the light at the end of the tunnel, hanging on to a sense of hope.

“Anyone can survive Chikurubi, but to come out of it with a positive attitude, now, that’s hard. But really, you can get used to the horrible things in prison, like being naked and having one meal a day,” he says, giving a glimpse of the harrowing conditions during his 12-year sentence.

Of course, there were times when his will wasn’t as strong and he even tried to commit suicide at one point. Schutte dragged himself out of despondency by practising yoga, waking up every day at 3am, no matter how daunting it seemed, because he decided to live.

“I saw big guys, six-feet-plus tall guys, who just sat down and willed themselves to die ... most of them were gone in three weeks. Hope must burn in your heart if you want to live.”

There’s the old saying about taking things one day at a time. Schutte brought that time-scale down dramatically to stay alive while in prison, just working on living for the next few seconds, acutely aware that the door of his cell could one day open for him to leave.

Ultimately, he knew, there was no past or future, there was only always the present, given his circumstances. And once he came to terms with that, he discovered the meaning of life.

“We were sent to this world (to) love others, not ourselves. Rewards are great, but we must do what we want to without the want for returns,” he says.

Upon his release, he took in the world in all its splendour and met many “beautiful people”. Unfortunately, many of them were trapped in the prison of their minds. “There are always choices in life, so don’t stay in a dead-end relationship, because no one is gaining from it,” he advises.

Today, Schutte still leads a life familiar to him from his days as a soldier – he lives out of a suitcase and travels the world to tell his story. He does not have much to his name apart from his personal effects. He lives with his wife and daughter in The Colony, Texas, in a house accorded to him by a Good Samaritan who was inspired by his story.

His ambition today is to share the wisdom he’s gleaned with the children of the world, and he expects no thanks for it.

“What amazes me is how my story has affected people’s lives, and that’s really the most awesome thing you can do for another human being,” he enthuses, revealing that his current outlook in life is reflected in his book Set Yourself Free.

His talks help raise funds which he channels to orphanages he has set up in Mexico, Zimbabwe, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Schutte readily admits that his life-altering experiences have changed him dramatically from the person he once was, but there are some principles in life he will always hold close to his heart.

“I grew up hunting and fishing to feed the family. I was taught that you work for what you want. You take care of your family first, and then yourself. That will never change,” says the keen diving enthusiast.

Life passed him by in those 12 years, and even if he has no regrets about all that’s happened, he is sad that his family never knew he was alive and incarcerated as he was “presumed dead”.

“My whole family died during that time, except for one sister ... because of the war and natural causes.”

Schutte looks frail and suffers from prostate cancer. It’s almost hard to believe that he could have such a voracious appetite for life, but look into his eyes and hear him talk about what this second crack at life all means to him, and you will be convinced that there’s so much worth living for. Food for thought, indeed.

Related Stories: Closing on a bittersweet note Hell on earth

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Lifestyle, Lifestyle, Reon Schutte

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