I Was Burned Alive By An Angry Mob: Here's My Story
WARNING: This is the story of a real guy who was fucking burned alive by a mob. If you're sensitive to reading stories about real people being burned alive by mobs, you might want to skip this one because, and we can't emphasize this enough, it contains a story about a guy who was burned alive by a mob.
Our culture tends to love vigilante justice. Mainly because when we picture it all we see is Batman curb-stomping The Joker after he poisoned a bus full of children on live television or something. But down here in the real world, you know what we call people who commit acts of violence while maintaining an unwavering belief that they're in the right? Violent criminals.
Case in point: In mid-2015, "Jeremiah," a resident of Kenya, was mistaken for a thief by an angry mob who then proceeded to beat the ever-loving shit out of him before dousing him in gasoline and setting him on fire. He somehow survived, and now all he's asking for is a chance to tell his story. Here it is. You've been warned.
It All Started Over A Tiny Misunderstanding
The utter nightmare we're about to describe starts with a poor college graduate, not too different from lots of the people reading this. Jeremiah was fresh out of school and living in a dilapidated flophouse in Ruai, Nairobi (as bad as you think the job market is for recent grads where you live, trust us, it can be worse). His living situation is actually an important detail to keep in mind here, because when people have very little to their name, it can either bring out the absolutely best or the very worst in them, both of which Jeremiah got to experience firsthand.
"My room was a part of a 23-room block that we shared with 22 other diversified tenants (students, waiters, mechanics, etc.). One of the rooms was occupied by my best friend, Dennis. We exchanged keys so we could help each other with basic supplies (laptops, utensils, gas cylinders we used for cooking, etc.), because that's what friends do," he says.
In other words, day-to-day stuff that doesn't usually involve the threat of vigilante mob murder.
But on the evening of June 21, 2015, this arrangement would result in the minor misunderstanding that would quickly spin out of control. "I arrived at the house at around 9 p.m. My gas cylinder had dried up the previous night, and Dennis was inconveniently not in his room when I got there," he says. "So after buying some groceries, I went and used my copy of his key to borrow his cooking cylinder with clean intentions of returning it once I was done, a routine we had both done a couple of times."
That's when Jeremiah was spotted by one of his neighbors, who immediately concluded that he was stealing the cylinder. There was some fuss and a small group soon gathered around Jeremiah with vigilante fantasies dancing in their heads. "People asked me for my friend's number to confirm I had his permission to borrow his things. But Dennis, who was on his God-knows-which beer, thought it was a joke, so he said it was a wrong number, and that pretty much sealed my deal," he says.
Rrreeeaaalllyyy not a great time for a drunken practical joke.
"Wait," you're probably saying. "There's another part of this, right? Like, in the course of being accused of stealing a gas cylinder, he accidentally killed one of the accusers? They surely didn't burn a man alive over supposed petty theft!" They sure fucking did.
Once The Mob Got Going, There Was No Stopping Them
As soon as the self-appointed Neighborhood Watchmen decided that he was guilty, someone suggested that they should call the police. But the majority voted that idea down in favor of feeding Jeremiah a justice sandwich themselves, which mainly consisted of fists, metal bars, and bricks. Jeremiah tells us: "After about 15 minutes of serious beating, Dennis called one of the neighboring tenants back. After the whole escapade was explained to him, he clarified that it was all a big mistake and that he gave me a copy of his key out of his own free will."
It didn't matter. The mob concluded that the neighbor had faked the phone call because he suddenly grew a conscience like some kind of pussy. This is where you find out that righteous anger can be more addictive than crack, and inside every vigilante is a rage-filled person who's been just waiting to scratch that itch. For them it's a chance to inflict punishment, not just on the guy on the floor but on everyone who's ever wronged them.
Become a surrogate for a bad boss or cheating partner and all the exonerating phone calls
in the world mean exactly bullshit.
So, that brief pause in the mindless violence just gave the crowd time to realize that the beating wasn't killing Jeremiah fast enough, and that's when they decided to add fire to the equation. You know, because he might have stolen that one thing. And ironically, Jeremiah recalls, "To ignite the flame and to accelerate the process, they decided to steal some petrol from a pickup truck parked next to the block." We're guessing the cognitive dissonance just added to their rage.
You tend to lose your sense of irony once you're shouting for blood.
Oh, and before the mob took Jeremiah outside to burn him (hey, you can't start a fire indoors; someone might get hurt) they made a stop at his apartment and looted the shit out of it, because again how else will they teach society that stealing is wrong. "They took about $20 in Kenyan shillings that was on the table, a smartphone, my laptop, and another laptop which I was repairing for a friend," he says. Then, Jeremiah was dragged to an empty dirt road where no one would bother the mob with any misplaced calls for sanity.
Terror Can Keep You From Escaping
Most males under a certain age secretly believe that given the right set of extreme circumstances, they'd turn into an unstoppable, ass-kicking mix of Bruce Lee and the Hulk. Well, you can hardly get any more extreme than people threatening to burn you alive, but when Jeremiah found himself in that very situation, he could hardly move a limb.
"After I had realized that the mob justice was a go, some thoughts did close my mind about running for my life. But then it was already probably way too late, for the crowd had already formed a very solid circle around me, a very efficient mob justice carnage matrix," he says. "I also figured out that running would just strengthen their case by [making it seem like] I was as guilty as sin."
Because no innocent person would ever question the value of grisly, summary execution.
As ridiculous as it sounds, we're 100 percent sure he's right ("Trying to escape being burned alive? Only a guilty person would do that!"). With no other options, he just accepted his fate: "I was immobilized, but not physically, not held down nor tied down, but by the psychosomatic petrification, the apprehension of my acute levels of defenselessness, my futile search for dignity at my last times, and the inner feeling of powerlessness that whispers to you that you are past saving." Sadly, those whispers turned out to be right.
Once the mob gathered enough gasoline, they quickly moved on to -- let's call it what it was -- the execution. "Most of the gas was lost to the ground as I desperately rolled and slithered while one of the vigilantes poured it on me," Jeremiah says. And in a movie it would be right then, at the most desperate moment, that the hero's friend would storm in and shut down the mob. Or maybe the cops, or maybe some less crazy neighbors would come to the rescue. Or maybe the hero comes up with some clever, last-second escape plan -- the random item he slipped into his pocket in the first act winds up being an unexpected savior.
But here, in real life, they just lit a match. Whoosh.
The Beating Might Have Saved His Life
"The scariest part was the odor of burning flesh and the hard reality that that was my very own flesh," Jeremiah recalls. "Then I smelled some acrid smoky smell, am guessing it was from my clothes burning coupled with a choking smell of the burning petrol. That was followed by an unpleasant sulfurous-like smell; very disconcerting. ... And then it finally settled on some kind of sweetish porky smell, which, ironically, was the most nauseating."
To make matters worse, as Jeremiah thrashed around in agony, the fire slowly started to consume the oxygen around him, effectively suffocating him. This continued for two to four minutes. If that doesn't sound like a long time, try experiencing it while on fire. Or just stick your hand in a pot of boiling water for that long. It must have seemed like years.
Reminder: This living hell was over a half-empty cylinder of cooking gas.
Death for a few bucks worth of propane.
And Jeremiah remembers every second of it because, yes, he was conscious the entire time. Which also means that he remembers the police arriving and saving his life after being called to the scene by his friend Dennis. Still, by the time they got there, the damage was already done. "The final damage to my body included: eye trauma, one broken hand, third-degree burns [over most of his body], three broken front teeth, recurring acute headaches, swollen head, tons of wounds, aching joints, fully burnt hair at the back of my head, a dislocated ankle, a broken rib, and several other miniature injuries," he says. "Oh! And massive psychological trauma. Also, most of my skin was damaged, so there wasn't much left for grafts. Plus, there's also the very sensitive issue of insufficient funds and awful insurance plan, so only the very critical (cosmetic) places were lucky enough to receive grafts, e.g. my upper neck. The rest were left to heal on their own."
Which is another way to say "Experience pain consistently ranked alongside childbirth and actual torture."
But, oddly enough, the mob might have done him one unintentional favor, he says. "One of the nurses who was dressing my wounds at the ER said I wasn't fatty or muscular, and that he had seen worse damage for similar cases of burning. He argued that since I lacked any substantial body muscle or body fat to act as very momentary padding to my inner organs, that all the blood I bled during the beating acted as some sort of protective insulation."
Basically, the hospital reckoned that because all of Jeremiah's injuries were external, the earlier beat-down must have created a blood barrier that protected his guts from the fire. We have no idea if that's scientifically valid, but it's one explanation for why he was merely seared in the accident instead of cooked through. Also, it's the most gruesome silver lining we can imagine.
Stuff Like This Happens More Often Than You Think
Jeremiah tells us that, in his corner of the world, mob justice and burnings aren't a very common practice ... which is unfortunately just another way of saying that they do happen, even if they're infrequent.
And for a variety of reasons ...
It's next to impossible to get precise statistics, though we know that in Kenya there were 100 such cases in just a two-month span in 2011. In the spring and summer of 2013, the country averaged more than one vigilante killing a day. "Mostly, it involves pickpockets who are not very sleek or fast, some pedophiles, and every once in a while a rapist. This data isn't methodically/statistically very precise, but I'd say that one out of three of these mob justices end up in burning," Jeremiah says. And we doubt that the other two conclude with a stern talking to and the criminal being let go.
Admittedly, if it was just rapists and pedophiles experiencing this brutal mob justice, it'd still be a pretty horrifying thing, but at least you can sort of understand the mindless rage the sympathizers would feel in that situation -- lashing out in a moment of grief and extreme anger. But burning a petty thief seems like pure lunacy (or the act of people who just really want an excuse to burn somebody), and the lack of due process means random innocent people going up in flames on a regular basis. We're talking about elderly Kenyan men and women being burned alive for being "witches" and kids being murdered with fire for belonging to the wrong tribe.
In case you breezed past that last link, the kids in question were literally in the process of hiding
from violence. In a church. Not exactly our finest hour, Humanity.
And that, right there, is the problem with vigilante justice in a nutshell. The moment you decide it's OK for the mob to play judge, jury, and executioner, well, what are the boundaries? Who's to decide when the mob has gone too far? If they even try, that's when they'll find out it's not about justice -- it's about revenge and instant gratification. In the real world, you don't get Batman or The Punisher. You just get people like Jeremiah's neighbors, who to this day probably don't think they did anything wrong.
As for Jeremiah, he's now almost fully recovered and living in a different part of Kenya with his parents. He's working hard to regain his healthy self back and to exorcise the ghosts of the past. If you would like to help, he's currently running a fundraiser campaign on Indiegogo to cover the accrued mountain of medical bills.
Please feel free to pass by and DONATE to Jeremiah's cause.
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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