Editor’s note: This post is about sexual assault in Peace Corps. More specifically, it is the story of Kate, a PCV in the Republic of Moldova, who was sexually assaulted last year. She has graciously and bravely chosen to share this story so that you, dear reader, can understand what it’s like to experience sexual assault as a PCV, and (in this case) how Peace Corps handles those terrible situations.
This story contains profanity, and rightfully so. This post also could trigger negative feelings and memories in survivors of sexual assault or rape.
That said, this is an important story. Please have the courage to read it. Thank you.
Life is full of the unexpected. We try as hard as we can to prepare. We wear helmets and seat
belts. We don’t go out alone after dark. We don’t drink too much. We don’t talk to strangers. And yet, the unexpected finds us.
I would like to begin by saying that what happened to me can be explained no better than a series of unfortunate and unusual events. It was a Sunday afternoon in September. Like so many weekends before, I had gone to visit my boyfriend (another PCV) in his village about an hour and a half north of my site. My boyfriend and I walked to the main road so I could hail public transportation home. Where we live, you’re lucky if your site has an actual bus stop with a ticket counter. In most places, this is an anomaly. In my boyfriend’s village, there is a little makeshift concrete bus stop with the name of the village, a concrete bench and a slight overhang to shelter people from the rain. There is no ticket counter. You just wait for something to come by on the main road south from the capital. Some volunteers don’t mind hitch-hiking with locals; I prefer not to.
Around 4 p.m. we went to the stop for me to catch a bus or rutiera (mini-bus). This was our usual time for me to go back where there was still plenty of daylight to get me home safely. We waited for about an hour – much longer than normal. Several cars had gone by, along with several public transportation options. At the time we didn’t know that there had been a huge political rally by one of the largest political parties in my country that same day. They were gearing up campaigning for a very crucial election year. The party, we figured, must have paid for busses and rutieras to bring locals from villages all over the country to the capital for the rally.
Thus, everything that was passing that day had a giant green sign plastered across the front or side of the vehicle with the political party name, identifying the passengers as rally supporters. It seemed, due to this rally and counter-rallies, that even the public transportation busses not being paid for by the party were full. Two of these passed and didn’t stop, the driver shaking his head to indicate, “I am sorry, but there is no room”. We waited 20 minutes more, deciding that if nothing came after waiting a cumulative hour and a half I would just go home in the morning.
No sooner had we decided this, a big olive-green Soviet style bus pulled over. A sign in front said the name of my city in capital letters, but there was no political party sign that I could see. I assumed it was public transportation. The door opened and there was a quick exchange between the driver and I.
Driver: Where are you going?
Me: (city name)
Driver: Okay, but we only have room for one. (I am assuming he was saying he couldn’t take
both my boyfriend and I if we were traveling south together.)
Me: It’s okay, it is just me.
I quickly kissed my boyfriend goodbye and jumped on the bus as it pulled away. This all takes place in roughly 10-15 seconds and is not uncommon when hailing a bus to site. Public transportation stops along the road both to pick people up and drop people off and it is recommended you do not take your sweet time.
Just a heads up – what happens next is both hazy and vivid in parts.
I was hustled to the very back of the bus. The last four seats across the back where one was vacant. Someone in the back had offered to stow my bag for me. I accepted as I was flustered and thankful and just wanted to sit down.
When I finally got settled, I looked around to survey the situation. The old Soviet bus was packed with men. Only men. My guess is close to 30 of them. They were drinking. They were loud. They were obnoxious and it was very apparent they had indeed just come from the
At this point I was sort of thrust into panic mode. Do I try to get off? Would they let me get off? How would I get my stuff? Am I overreacting? Where is my phone? Shit, it is in my bag that the nice man just stowed up top for me? What do I do? Remain calm.
The man to my right was in a sort of drunken stupor and didn’t seem harmful. The man to my left, however, was a different story. I don’t remember much about him other than his eyes. They were dark brown, piercing and a little bloodshot. They gave me chills. His teeth sparkled with gold. His hands and forearms were covered in tattoos, which he boasted had been from doing bad things that landed him in prison.
I was wearing a dress that day. Not too tight or skimpy, just a normal sundress. But the dress showed my arm tattoos and my leg tattoo. I had never before had my tattoos put me in danger; usually people are just curious, want to see them and ask a lot of questions.
The man to my left started talking to me. Be asked me where I was from and what I was doing in Moldova. He wanted to know where I lived and worked and who my boyfriend was. He gave me a feeling in the pit of my stomach, a nauseating feeling. It was quite obvious by my accent and tattoos that I was foreign. He kept belting parts of our conversation to the rest of the drunk men in the bus. “She’s American!” he said and they all hollered and laughed. He looked me dead in the eyes and said in Romanian, “I’ve never touched an American before.” He smirked.
Over the next hour of that ride, I was touched. I was prodded. Men took turns running their hands over my body, trying to take off my dress, caressing and examining my tattoos, putting their hands up and in places they shouldn’t have. They did not, however, force me to have sex.
One guy with a camera phone kept taking photos. I remember a lot of squirming. I remember asking them to please stop. A lot of closing my eyes because I couldn’t bare to see their faces. I just wanted it to go away. And eventually I just went numb.
The bus pulled up to the main stop in my site. One man grabbed my bags and handed them to me. I pulled myself together and got up. The driver, who had watched everything happen while laughing and also drinking, said I didn’t need to pay him.
I got off and walked the five minutes to my house. I went into my room, sat down on my bed and picked up my phone. I called my boyfriend. I told him I made it back to site and he asked if I was okay, I think I sort of said I was fine, but I just wanted to shower. I think I started to cry a little. I hung up. I took a shower, hoping the water would rid the feeling that clung in and on my body. I went back to my room, picked up my phone and called my best friend in Peace Corps. She would know what to do. When she answered, I just broke down. I’m not even sure she understood what happened, just that I was not okay. She told me she was going to call Peace Corps Medical.
A few minutes later, the Peace Corps doctor called me. I attempted to tell her what happened, somewhere between the tears, the shock, the confusion and the hyperventilating. She asked me if I wanted to come to the medical office. I just kept insisting to everyone that I was fine.
Early the next morning, the doctor sent a Peace Corps driver to pick me up and take me
the three hours back to the capital to Peace Corps Headquarters. I spent the next week in Peace Corps Medical. I stayed in the Peace Corps Medical apartment which exists specifically for volunteers in need. My doctor at Peace Corps helped me fill out paperwork, do PTSD (Post-Tramatic Stress Disorder) and ASD (Acute Stress Disorder) tests (which I tested positive for), medical exams, and other standard procedures.
We went through the process of deciding whether to do restricted reporting or general reporting. Restricted reporting means only a few people will know what happened, whereas general reporting means fewer restrictions on who will know about the case. The doctor would have details and the Country Director and Safety and Security Manager would know that someone had been sexually assaulted but would not know who or the details unless I told them myself. No one else would know. [Editor’s note: it is the choice of the volunteer in these situations which type of reporting will occur.] Restricted reporting also meant I would not be launching an investigation or filing charges. If a PCV decides to file a police report for sexual assault in Peace Corps, the PCV will be given an attorney and all costs are covered. Peace Corps helps you every step of the way. I was aware of this already and it was verbally explained to me during the week I was at medical as well.
When it came down to reporting and filing a police report, I was mostly thinking just two things. First, I had been living here for over a year and I knew all about the justice system in this country. The country I serve in is ravaged by corruption, primarily in one sector: the justice system – everything from police to lawyers to judges. I thought about how that would go:
Corrupt police trying to find a bus of men that I had never seen before, who didn’t get off in my site, who had come from a political rally.
Corrupt police asking questions to 30 men who had some political connections and it would be their word against mine.
Corrupt police laughing with 30 men who took advantage of an American girl because they could and who really would do anything about it?
Not to mention, sexual assault and rape in this country are taboo. Does it happen often? I am sure. Does anyone talk about it? Nope. And if they do, the response is usually that it was the woman’s fault. Boys will be boys. Typical bullshit.
Secondly, I just didn’t want to deal with it. I didn’t want anyone to know what happened, I didn’t want to talk about it, and I didn’t want to drag out an investigation or trial. I just wanted for it to all go away. If I reported it – if everyone knew – it would be real.
While this goes against almost everything I stand for, based on the situation I am working with in my country of service, we decided on restricted reporting. I did not file a police report.
What happened over the next few months, and even now, was and is a lot of processing. You cannot imagine the questions that ran through my head. How do I admit it to others when I can’t even admit it to myself? How do I tell me boyfriend that multiple other men touched something sacred that had been meant only for him? How do I tell my parents that their little girl, who told them to trust her when she went on this journey, had just become the victim of a sexual assault? What do I say when they want me to come home? How do I ride a bus again? If I can’t ride public transportation, how can I get around this country? How do I put myself in a room with locals or men again? How will I ever let someone touch me again?
How will I get back to site? Why did I get on that bus? Why didn’t I get off the goddamn bus? Why didn’t I keep my stupid phone in my stupid hand? Why didn’t I fight them off? Why didn’t I yell and scream? WHY?!
How will I stay to finish my service? Will I stay?
Peace Corps gave me a counselor who I talked to bi-weekly via phone in Washington, D.C. for a few months, now just monthly. She specializes in trauma and sexual assault. Peace Corps always made sure I was supported both emotionally and medically every step of the way. One day I told one of my volunteer friends that I felt like I just needed to hit or break something. An hour later she had, with the permission of the Country Director and a few others at headquarters, gotten some tiles for me to break. We went to the side of headquarters, she gave me her glasses, turned on some music and told me to break shit. So I did. And I laughed and I cried. Later my Country Director asked me if I felt better (at this point my Country Director knew I was the one who had been sexually assaulted). She has been incredible.
I could not have made it through everything without an incredible support system. I felt loved and cared for and protected by my family, my boyfriend, my friends, my fellow volunteers and Peace Corps everyday following my sexual assault. I am forever grateful for the strength they continue to give me.
I decided to stay and finish my final year of service. I stayed for lots of little reasons, but mostly because I came to Peace Corps to light a spark that would ignite change. What would I be saying to myself, to others, if I gave up because things got hard? I am just one person of millions around the world who are sexually assaulted every year. Everyone has their battles. The world has its battles. But, I believe that if you let the darkness tarnish your light, then the bad guys win.
For that, I stayed.
You can read more about Kate’s service at her blog: From Moldova, with love.