[First written in February of 2004. I’m reposting it here for posterity, and because it came up in conversation earlier today. There’ve been a few serious attacks against expats recently, including a murder and a particularly brutal rape. The perception among some is of a sudden uptick in violent crime. I recounted this story to suggest that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.]
The attack happened last Monday in the afternoon. It didn’t last long, but it left her with a concussion and a broken collarbone.
She was in her apartment, had been for a little while. She settled herself down at her laptop to write up some workshop notes. She heard a noise from the front bedroom, empty now because her friend had left precipitately after no one listened to her fears. She stood, not sure whether to investigate or flee. A man appeared in the doorway, and knocked her down hard as she started to scream. The broken bone immobilised her, so all she could do was scream as loud as she could. Her assailant fled within seconds.
And nobody came.
In the end, she called her boss at work, and she called me. Then she called the police. We all arrived more or less at the same time. The police were ineffectual, to say the least. Faced with a woman whose Bislama was not strong, and having little English, they asked me to take her victim statement. The intruder had pulled the air conditioning unit out of the wall, climbed in through the hole, and waited in the front bedroom until she arrived. I later asked two of the local cleaning staff if the police had questioned them, and if they had seen or heard anything. The response to both was the open and unequivocal no of someone who knows exactly how complicated and dangerous knowledge can be.
I stayed that night, and all of the next day, and the next.
Since Christmas, someone had been prowling around the apartments in that area. When my friend got back from holiday, she learned of this and promptly made a report to the police. She also notified her volunteer organisation, as well as the New Zealand and British High Commissions. Liz at the New Zealand High Comm had some suggestions. Everyone else was less than receptive.
A bit surprising, really, considering that there had been a serious attack on a female volunteer just the week before. The first one resulted in a woman being beaten and held down in her bathroom while an accomplice stole whatever he could carry. She’s in Sydney now, getting her teeth repaired, and considering whether or not to return.
There had been another incident, too. The country director for our volunteer organisation woke up in the middle of the night to find a man standing over her bed. He’d bent the bars on one of the windows, slipped inside, and walked past the laptop and the wallet lying on the living room table, straight to the bedroom. He fled when she started screaming.
So why, then, did this same country director pat my friend on the shoulder in apparent sympathy and tell her, ‘Maybe you just weren’t cut out to be a volunteer.‘ The dangers that my friend outlined should have been vividly clear.
After this most recent attack, things catalysed. Peace Corps had just issued a letter decrying seven recent incidents of harrassment against female volunteers. The Japanese, with characteristic thoroughness, had already submitted twenty-four incident reports to the police. Without waiting for results, they hired round-the-clock security for each of their Port Vila residents. All the volunteer-sending agencies met jointly with the Commissioner of Police, a well-intentioned man with the unenviable burden of being named Robert Diniro. He was told, perhaps not in so many words, that it would be a shame for Vanuatu if the volunteers and the aid money just stopped coming.
The fact is, the police can’t do much. Recently, someone who had subdued and apprehended a man attempting to rape his house girl had been told that the police could not come, as there was no car available to take them. The CID has no finger print catalogue, and no means of creating one. Typically, the only people who get arrested are those who get caught in the act and held until the police arrive.
That didn’t stop the volunteer sending agencies from badgering them to do more. They agreed to meet again in one month to review progress.
With all the to-ing and fro-ing, nobody bothered to walk 50 metres down the road to talk to any ni-Vanuatu members of the community. Nobody thought to ask the local chiefs to help. Nobody asked whether others might be experiencing the same thing. One night at the local nakamal, I sat and listened as every person there took their turn telling me of the time they had been broken into, the time they had been attacked. The time one of them chased a ‘steal man’ down the dark street and, having captured him, discovered that it was a close friend of his.
The local council of chiefs announced in the newspaper that they would be holding a public meeting to address the issue. One white person attended. By default the representative of the volunteer agencies, I found myself standing in front of the room, explaining to them what had happened to my friends. It was everything I could do not to rail at those who chattered about the need for community building but who couldn’t drag their sorry selves to a meeting with the only group of people who were willing and able to catalyse this very process.
I’ve never been particularly blind to the liabilities of Development, the inherent arrogance that accompanies anyone’s offer of guidance. And I’ll confess to a slight cynicism when I consider my own motives for coming here. I’ve rolled my eyes at the news that a certain Asian financial institution was busy feeding training facilities money and resources and blithely ignoring that there’s no demand for the skills they’re instilling. I’ve clucked bitterly at the fairly overt Howard-ism of the Australian efforts here.
So why should I be surprised that the staffing arm of one volunteer agency is so blithe about the problems as to simply suggest to one concerned young woman that she should keep a tin of hairspray by her bedside? And why am I surprised when their reaction to people being injured is to announce to their hosts that things are getting out of hand now that it’s not just ni-Vanuatu who are suffering from the violence, and that they’d better fix things up chop chop or master would be mad and take away all the nice money?
Well, if I was surprised before, I promise not to be any more.