‘I never felt the death of him’

Michael Ohlsson and his wife Michelle, sit in front of a portrait of their son Matthew, who disappeared from their home 21 years ago.

The family of Matthew Ohlsson, who disappeared from their Westridge home, almost 21 years ago, hosted an honouring celebration for his 30th birthday on Saturday February 24.

The last person to have seen him, older sister, Melanie, 31, saw him through a window, after he had asked permission to move the family bin, which was standing outside.

That was in 1997 exactly a month after his ninth birthday.

On the eve of his birthday, Friday February 23, his mother Michelle, 50, and father Michael, 53, told the Plainsman of their family tradition to wake the birthday girl or boy up at midnight, with a cake or ice cream in hand and to sing for them.

Just as Ms Ohlsson had known her son was alive inside her belly, when she went for a check-up at Groote Schuur Hospital in 1988, she knows he is still alive today.

“He is an adult now but he always loved and looked forward to his birthday,” she said.

“I never felt the death of him and that is what pushed me not to give up on him,” she said.

Mr Ohlsson said Matthew would have tried to stay up until midnight. But Ms Ohlsson ran a tight ship and her children – Melanie, Justin, 27, Jason, 23, and foster daughter Jessica, 30, would be in bed by 8pm.

Bedtime for her four other foster children remains the same.

Ms Ohlsson said her family used to tease her about holding her children close. But her daughter now realises the responsibility of having to be a parent to 11-month-old Alexis. And Jessica has a five-year-old daughter.

Matthew could walk at nine months and loved cream cake, his mother recalled.

“He was a very stubborn child. He was cheerful and joyful but don’t make him cross, he will show you,” she said.

Mr Ohlsson said Matthew was a little handyman. “He loved to fix things. He would do spare jobs, with me on weekends,” he said.

Mr Ohlsson described his wife as a “mother hen”, who kept her children close and that their children would not leave the house without permission.

Speaking about Matthew’s disappearance, she said: “This is not a nice journey. So, many people have things to say about you. How you should feel and you should leave it in God’s hands. Everything happens for a reason.

“But they have never been in my shoes. They do not know the turmoil in my mind and heart,” she said.

Ms Ohlsson said she thinks of her son and she wonders what kind of mother she would have been to him.

“He is a grown man and I want to know what really happened,” she said.

She said life does not go on and at first she was at loggerheads with her immediate family. “I thought they did not care,” she said.

Ms Ohlsson often went to the police’s Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences (FCS) unit to ask about the investigation of her son.

Ms Ohlsson said many people did not know what to say to parents, whose children had gone missing.

In fact, she said, they did not have to say anything. Their presence was enough. “There are many times that I feel I do not have a handle on things.

“If it wasn’t for the help of God. This thing can drive you nuts,” she said.

She said her son knew not to go with strangers.

“The person who took him must have known him,” she said.

Ms Ohlsson said until there is a body, she will believe her son is alive.

“I’m looking for the end, the outcome. Nothing and no one will stop me. I’m held back by not knowing what happened to Matthew,” she said.

“This book cannot be closed. This chapter cannot be closed,” she said.

In 1999, when the Cape Flats was plagued by a spate of child abductions, the Ohlsson couple started Concerned Parents for Missing Children, an NGO which helps parents cope after their children disappear and also looked for missing children.

They handled 400 cases and had an 85% success rate, which Ms Ohlsson attributed to them following their parental instincts and not as a routine case.

“Every family who has a missing person has his or her story so tell,” Ms Ohlsson said.

While the organisation no longer operates, the Ohlssons still do telephonic referrals.