Fleeing for My Life

What just happened to my friend Paul and me still has my head reeling. It felt like I was living a movie scene… except they were real people chasing me, with real bullets flying over my head… and I was in some serious danger.

Always Walking
It all began as we were walking back to our home after visiting a church in the city. Our home is about three kilometers from the city limits, along a long and dark gravel road, a planned cluster of properties that form a suburb outside of the city.

As none of us have vehicles and the bus service only passes three times per day on week days, we tend to walk everywhere. This is not a great problem, and most of us enjoy this time if the wind is not whipping up clouds of dust into our face and the temperatures stay above zero degrees Celsius. Even so, walking takes a significant amount of time and we are always looking for shortcuts to the places we are going.
Wind whipping up the dust
Wind whipping up the dust along the roads of the Quintas.

Taking the Shortcut
It so happened that the shortcut that Paul and I were taking this night was a very remote area outside of the city. We were cutting through here to save ourselves an extra ten or twenty minutes of walking, and with Paul suffering some pain in his leg with every step, it seemed worth it at the time. Little did we know what was about to happen along this lonely dirt track.

When we had passed through here heading for the church at the start of the night, it occurred to me then, that I had foolishly brought everything with me related to both money and identification. My passport, credit cards, driver’s license and all of the information about my travels was stored in my mobile phone. There was nothing left at home that could identify me. How careless I had been, especially when my travels to Australia were in just two weeks. But nothing would happen to us I reasoned… after all, it never has before.

A different shortcut
Taking a different shortcut during the day, about the same distance from the city.

An Unknown Vehicle
Then, at around 11.30pm while we were wandering through the most remote section in this area, it happened. The place was littered with so much rubbish on either side of the tire tracks that we were following that it seemed like a public dump area.

There was another parallel track to ours, in somewhat better condition, on the other side of a deep ditch. It was rare but not unexpected that cars would use this other track, so when an old utility truck with only one headlight passed us by heading in the other direction, we both thought nothing of it. I did consider our isolation and susceptibility to danger at that point however.

Being Tracked
Then suddenly the truck stopped with a jerk and jammed into reverse. Trying to remain calm, but now somewhat concerned, I reasoned that the driver had mistaken a turn or something. This reasoning dissolved when the truck turned off the road, pointing its headlight toward us.

We both walked on. The concern had escalated to great worry now, but since the area was a dump area it was still possible that the occupants of the car were dumping something off and just happened to catch us in their lights. There was a tension in the air, and although we both said nothing, I knew that Paul was thinking the same things as I was.

The car pulled out and headed down the road. I felt relieved momentarily until I realized that they were going slowly… very slowly. They were tracking us. It was at that point that I realized that we were in a very dangerous situation, and far from any help. It was now obvious that these were most likely to be thieves and they had targeted us. There seemed no other reasonable explanation.

We walked on, hoping against hope, and praying like crazy. Suddenly the car accelerated and turned off the road towards us a second time, mercifully held at a distance by the ditch between us. Its sole headlight shone strongly upon us. By now I was considering what I was going to do.

Dump area near city limits
Another typical dump section on the edge of the city limit.

Deciding Upon an Action
If they grabbed my passport then there was no way I would be able to travel – I would lose the flight and being able to go to Chris’s wedding. In my phone were details of everything that I needed to do in Australia and address too – with no backup or way to recover the information. My wallet had the only remaining identification to prove who I was, and without this source of funds it would be hard to get to the airport.

Losing one or two of these items was not a great issue, but to lose all of them right now was the worst scenario I could imagine. (Now I can see ways around virtually all of these problems – but at the time I didn’t).

On top of this, there was the serious possibility that in this very remote section outside of the city limits that the thieves could leave us broken, bruised or even dead. Nobody would ever know. Scenes of movies and news reports flooded through my head.

What would I do? To my left was the car with its lights shining directly at me. To my right was open ground with lots of low thorn bushes… and darkness. Would I be able to escape if I ran? Should I stop and just let them take everything from me?

Fleeing With All My Might
While all of these thoughts were coursing through my worried mind, suddenly the car doors opened. Then one of the men yelled out, “Hey, rich boy.”

I ran.

I ran so hard that I did not know where I was going. I just ran, over bushes, around bushes, and deep into the darkened countryside. I ran hard and did not stop. Behind me I heard yelling and movement, but could not make out what was being said.

Shots From Behind
Then suddenly there were two soft bangs. I knew that sound. I had heard it before. What was it? Oh my Lord, they are shooting at me.

By now I was in the darkness and had a black jacket that worked to my advantage, but I needed to get rid of my stuff in case they managed to catch me. I whipped off my side-bag and held it in front of me as I ran. A big bush came up and with all my might I hurled it in underneath. It was on the other side of the bush, so hopefully they would run right past it and not see it. That was my passport.

Chased by Thieves
Behind me were more shots. My God, if they hit me I could be seriously wounded, even die. They were angry now, I had to keep going. Thieves with guns were a lot more dangerous than those without. Taking a random zigzag pattern, I knew that there was less chance that they could hit me, but every shot caused me great anxiety and huge surges of adrenalin.

Soon the fear and the adrenalin started to exhaust my energy, I was running but my speed was slowing. I could hear the men behind me, pounding over the ground and pushing through the bushes, their shouts of aggression spat out behind my back. I paid no attention to them, nor did I afford the liberty of looking behind me to see where they were. I just ran with all of my might, zigging and zagging, praying and panting. I had to keep going.

Unloading Valuables
Pulling out my wallet, I marked a point where it might be possible to find it again and dropped it there, taking care that it fell beside my leg unseen by my pursuers. The mobile phone also fell into another bush in the same way. I ran on, but was fading fast. My pursuers had guns and if I kept running like this they would catch me easily and be able to take me out with their bullets.

Beside me suddenly appeared a road. It was just another track like the one we had been walking, but it had me worried. They would be able to catch me with their car easily. Somehow I had left the field and returned to a road, how foolish I had been to not watch out for this.

Then out of the corner of my eye I saw lights. This could not get worse. The old utility truck was heading my way.

My energy spent, my strength gone, I was left shaking and trying to force my body to move. It was not responding. Even with the impetus of the guns behind me I could not find any more strength. My pursuers were closing in on me and I could no longer stop them. What could I do?

There were no options left to me but to stop running and hope that perhaps they would be lenient. But after trying to escape, what would they do now? Would they shoot me dead?

Shouts from behind ordered me onto the ground. I fell down, exhausted. Now I could not escape, so my only hope was to do all that they asked of me. I lay there silent, on the ground, unable to move even if I wanted to. The men shouted aggressively as they closed in on me.

Is This The End?
My thoughts wandered again. What if they killed me? I have just made them incredibly angry in trying to escape, but now they had caught me. Now I was even further from help and deeper in the darkness. They could just come straight up to me, point the gun at my head, and shoot. Nobody would know. Or they could take everything from me, even to the point of stripping me of all my clothes – something that I had heard done to many others in similar situations. Although nothing like that concerned me anymore now.

But money… they were after money. What had I done throwing it all away in the bushes? They will be expecting that I have something on me and if they don’t find it they may kill me instead. How thoughtless I had been in this whole thing.

Suddenly I remembered the church. Some of the people there had given me money for an event coming up this week, and I had put it in my back pocket. At least there was something for them to find now. I relaxed a little, but then started wondering again if they would still end up killing me.

There was no fear now, no concern about dying, and no worry anymore. It had gone. The only thing that I considered now was how my family would react, how it would impact them. Just before this trip home, just as I am about to start a new project – it seemed so very unfair. But then life often seems unfair, and now I had no choice but to face the consequences of what I had just done.

The men closed in, their guns trained directly at me, strong threats hurled my way. I waited in the enveloping darkness, unsure of my destiny. They were thieves; thieves with guns. My goodness, what have I just done?

The Quintas through thorn bushes
Looking through the thorn bushes to the Quintas, I was about three times further away when caught (click for a bigger image).

Suddenly they were upon me. One man pinned me down, while another pointed a gun directly at me. They shouted at me using a street language Spanish that I couldn’t understand. Each shout was clearly identifiable however as a threat.

Someone grabbed my arm and twisted it behind my back. Then I felt the cold steel of what I would soon identify as handcuffs. Were these thieves? Why the handcuffs? Perhaps they were more sophisticated than I had first anticipated. My other arm gets twisted and locked firmly into the cuffs. No escape now.

Confusion inundates my mind. What type of thief would be using handcuffs? I chance a sideways look to see who is doing this to me. Perhaps I will be able to identify them should I survive. A man sees my head move and yells at me. I quickly move it back to face the ground, but I had seen something at least.

Corrupt Police
It seems like many men, four or five from what I can see. All around me are big black polished boots, laced high. It can’t be… are they the police? But then why did they not identify themselves? Where is the official police car? Why did they call out “rich boy”? None of it made sense.

As I considered this, it seemed to me that they did not declare themselves police because they were corrupt, and were using this as a cover for robberies and other activities outside of the law. This had just introduced even more problems for me as here I was now without any form of identification, locked in handcuffs before a group of corrupt policemen.

First Questions
One of the police officers started interrogating me, cutting short my thoughts.

“What’s your surname?”

My mind was still reeling from all of the events that had just taken place, trying to make sense of each new bit of information that I was discovering. Who where these guys? Why would corrupt cops be asking me for my surname? I felt completely confused.

He yelled at me again, “What is your surname?”

Hoping that perhaps this had been a case of mistaken identity, I clung to the hope that revealing my foreign identity would be to my advantage. So searching for my strongest Australian accent, I replied and said, “Thiesfield.”

It caught the officer off guard, “Eh what?” He said. It was more quizzical than demanding. I repeated it, but this time with Spanish pronunciation. They still did not understand it. Perhaps this was because of my nervousness or that I was still catching my breath. Perhaps it was just my accent – or all three combined.

Then came the next, obvious question, “Where are you from?”

Being able to answer “Australia” seemed to change things, reducing the tension somewhat. I was still being interrogated, still on the ground face first and handcuffed, but the questions seemed less ferocious.

Passport Lost
Then I added, “But I threw my passport into the bushes while running.”

A number of the men surrounding me departed, presumably to look for my passport. When questioned as to why I did that, I explained to them my travels in two weeks and how I had wanted to protect my passport.

Stolen Car
Suddenly another voice barked at me, “Where is the car?”

I did not understand the question, and asked, “What car?”

The officer retorted, “Why are you lying? Where is the car?”

It seemed to me that they thought I had stolen a car and were still convinced that I was guilty. Between gasps of air, I explained that I did not have a car but rather walked most places, adding that I worked voluntarily here in Argentina and did not gain an income.

They seemed convinced that I was telling the truth.

Behind me I noticed a car had pulled up, and I heard some radio communication coming from it. It mentioned that I had been detained now and called for backup or something. None of it really made sense, but somewhere in my mind I started to consider that perhaps these police officers were actually genuine and not corrupt.

Continuing Interrogation
The man questioning me continued forcefully, “Why did you run?” I had thought that they were thieves and with my journey to Australia only two weeks away, had run in fear of losing my passport.

The hardness of the questioning seemed to stop at this point, and the questions became more informative. I answered as honestly as I could:

Q: “Where have you come from tonight?” A: “The church of pastor X.”
Q: “Where do you live?” A: “In the Quintas, in a mission base.”
Q: “What were you doing in this remote area?” A: “It was a shortcut home.”
Q: “Who is your companion?” A: “Paul”
Q: “Surname! What is his surname?” A: I needed to think a bit as I do not know all surnames. Fortunately for Paul, I remembered and was able to tell them.
Q: “Where is he from?” A: “Peru”

They asked me many times about who Paul was and where he was from. I could only presume that he was under more suspicion than I was, and that my answers were helping to exonerate him. I did not even know where he was, or what had happened to him. Obviously though, he was now in the custody of the police.

Good Cop or Bad Cop
After all of the questioning had finished, the remaining officers disappeared, leaving one or two men guarding me from what I could tell. Everything became quiet except for a radio that occasionally barked behind me and the movement and shouts of officers in the distance, presumably searching for my passport.

Still unsure of the intentions of these police officers, and under the impression that they were still corrupt, I dared to question those that remained. I needed to see just where I stood.

“Are you the good guys?” I asked him.

He replied to me, “We are the police.” That frightened me. It was a non-committal answer that did not help me, so I asked again, “Yes, but are you the good guys?”

The officer seemed a little exasperated. “We are the police. The P-O-L-I-C-E, I don’t know what you call them in your country, but we are the POLICE.”

This was not helping me, so I tried a different question, “Are you guys just and righteous?”

This time he understood my question. “Yes, we are the good guys. This is a small town,” he told me, “there is no room for corruption in our ranks like in the cities.”

Typical police car in Puerto Madryn
One of the typical police patrol cars in Puerto Madryn.

Genuine Police
This eased my concerns greatly, but I still remained confused. Why were they in an old car? Why did they not declare themselves as police? Was this an official operation? Perhaps the police had come after the thieves attacked us, and had arrested everybody. My mind whirled with the possibilities, trying to find an explanation as to what had just happened to me.

Nothing truly made sense just yet, so I pressed on with my questions, “Are you in a police car or an old car?” I asked. The officer assured me that he was in a patrol car.

“Then would I possibly be able to see it to know for sure?” I implored of him.

He obviously detected my continued concern over the validity of his statements alone. I wanted to believe him, but after everything that had just happened, it seemed extremely plausible to me that the car behind me was this beaten up old thing, and that they were still corrupt policemen. So in my best Spanish I asked him again.

To my surprise he said yes. He eased me up off my face and helped me to stand. Upon turning around I could see that everything was going to be ok. Before me was a genuine patrol car, and in the distance were a number of officers looking for my passport. Relief flooded my being, and I thanked the officer for doing this.

Once I had seen the car, the officer tells me that I need to return to the ground face first to which I comply, realizing that what he had just done was breaking police protocol. Now I was doubly relieved, sure not only that they were genuine police, but that also there was this good hearted cop right by my side.

Explaining Everything
With this assurance, I then explain everything to this officer; how my passport was in a green bag, how I had thrown my wallet and my telephone in other parts of the run, and how I had thought that they were all crooks. He calls over some partners and explains to them the other items that they also need to look for, and then turns his attention back to me.

Now that I knew that they were genuine police, another question surfaced that would not leave me alone. “Why?”

I ask him, “Why us? What had we done to attract their attention?”

The officer explains that there was a robbery this very night, and that they were looking out for two people. Because we were wandering through a very remote and somewhat dangerous part of town, they assumed that we were involved, and even more so when we both ran.

Things started to make more sense.

Moved to the Car
Just after he finishes explaining this to me, another officer presumably of a higher rank comes over and they both lift me off the ground. It is great to be able to breathe again without inhaling the fine dust under my nose. I notice that my clothes are covered in dust, dirt, and prickles as they guide me into the back seat of the nearby police car. Then I am left on my own.

Being able to see, I start looking around. There are two police cars behind me, and around ten officers moving around looking at the ground. Some wander over and point their flashlights in my face, but then turn to continue looking for the things that I had thrown down during the chase.

Searching for My Stuff
When an officer comes near I ask him what is happening. He explains that they are trying to find these items to verify both my story and my identity. Once again I explain where I had dropped each of them, but this time with even more detail.

What had just moments earlier been a frightening nightmare, hunted by criminals with guns, was now only bewildering as I watched so many police officers wandering around the countryside in the middle of the night looking for my stuff.

Large beams of lights cut into the darkness, flowing from floodlights mounted on top of each police car. Flashlights sparkled and flitted from various directions. It was an unreal scenario.

First they find my wallet, and upon revising it begin to confirm my identity. My mobile phone proves more difficult however, especially when I had forgotten the number. When I could finally remember what it was, its flashing lights quickly gave it away in the darkness.

The passport could still not be found yet, and my release hinged on this very important document. Without my passport, I would be spending the night at the police station.

After finding the first two items, all of the police officers started disappearing. Soon, three men squeezed into the small car with me and we headed off down the narrow track.

“Where are we heading?” I inquired.

“To find your passport,” they responded.

Paul’s Story
We returned to the point where it had all begun. It was here that they had detained Paul. Apparently he hit the ground the moment that he heard the guns shooting. The officer that had arrested him had placed the cuffs extremely tight, and pointed his pistol directly into Paul’s head until convinced that he had been secured.

During Paul’s interrogation, he was beaten over the head with a flashlight and kicked various times. Not enough to cause extreme pain, but enough to hurt. He had to fight to prove his innocence, showing his identification from Peru and his Bible as proof that he was a missionary here, and explaining that he had just come from a church.

Finally Released
Although I could not see Paul from where I was, I knew he was nearby. I was still in the car with the handcuffs cutting into my wrists. They made it very painful to relax. I could neither lean back on the seat of the car, nor move very much without the cuffs causing even more pain.

Suddenly there is movement outside. Two officers walk toward the car where I am detained. A sharp retort from one of the officers declares, “Get him out.”

That was my signal to freedom.

An officer opened my door and I was able to climb out of the car. He then grabbed my sore wrists in his hand and after a rattle of keys one of the handcuffs fell free from my arm. What relief from pain that was. He grabbed the other cuff and started working on it. This one took longer. I had twisted my arm inside of it and now it was harder for him to get the key into the lock. Soon though, it too fell from my wrist.

I was free, and freedom had never tasted so good.

Looking around I noticed that there were five cars involved in this whole scene. It seemed hard to believe that we had caused such a great trouble, but then there were many things about this night that seemed really hard to believe.

Back with Paul
They guided me over to Paul and asked me, “Do you know this guy?”

Of course I did, and it was a relief to see him in relatively good condition. We looked each other over to assure that the other was without injury, and I asked him if he was ok. He looked a little shook up but fine.

We then dictated our names and details to one of the officers. As we did, some of the vehicles left, and before long there were only two cars left. I never saw the old utility truck that started this whole thing, but Paul assures me that they were police officers who had been in it.

Main road to the Quintas
Looking down the main road into the Quintas.

On Our Own Again
A young looking officer came over and said sorry for the events that we had just endured. For me it did not matter. I was just so very happy to be alive after everything that had happened tonight.

Paul asks them if they can give us a lift home, but they all just smile, climb in their cars, and disappear into the night. Here we were, Paul and I, back in the very same place as when it all began.

We start walking. Home is almost an hour away, but we pass the time quickly, talking about what had happened and comparing our sides of this story. We are both so very thankful that they were not thieves. We were also thankful that no stray or aimed shots had hit us.

Every car that passes us, even on the main road, causes us both to tense up. Any car that slows down creates even more tension. We are glad that nobody stops to pick us up. Our confidence in the goodness of others has been shattered tonight. Over time it will be restored again, but right now, we prefer to walk the entire way.

Looking each other over, we see that our clothes are filthy from lying on the ground, and that Paul has hurt his arm when hitting the ground. But we are both happy… free men once again.

Paul and me covered in dirt
Paul and me, covered in dirt with Paul’s wounded arm.

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