Close to 100 current and former Peace Corps volunteers responded to our callout for their experiences with violent crime overseas and how the agency responded. (Our story on how the Peace Corps responds to violent crime against volunteers ran Sunday).
The volunteers’ accounts varied widely from country to country. In one, a top-notch, professional response led to justice for the victim; in another, volunteers and their colleagues felt abandoned by both the Peace Corps staff and local police.
This inconsistency — noted by the inspector general in audits of the agency’s safety and security program -- something the Peace Corps says it is trying hard to address; .
Below are excerpts from the volunteers’ stories:
■ While walking down a crowded street in Pietermaritzburg early in the afternoon, I was jumped by three men waiting in front of an abandoned building. I was put into a chokehold from behind, and the men attempted to drag me into the abandoned building. Instincts immediately kicked in, and I managed to throw off my attackers and quickly exit the area without harm.
Peace Corps was responsive and very helpful. The incident was reported in a monthly newsletter to all volunteers in the country to be wary in that particular area. Additionally, it led to my eventual relocation out of the town where it occurred. Local law enforcement was not contacted, as it was recognized by both Peace Corps staff and volunteers as an inept institution not worth the waste of time.
---Travis Mayo, volunteer in South Africa, 2006-2008
■ Local law enforcement authorities should NOT be the ones responding. These guys are corrupt and wouldn’t do a single thing except ask for money or other such valuables. Peace Corps headquarters (in the country) need to be the ones responding and going to these remote villages in order to show support for the volunteer, reprimand and/or work more closely with local authorities to minimize these assaults.
(A fellow volunteer in a nearby town had her house burglarized and emptied completely twice during the first nine months in country.
Another friend was sexually assaulted, groped and had her clothes taken off, in public, by a group of seven to 10 Malagasy men, at a town festival/celebration. All had been drinking, including the volunteer.)
--Lauren Dean, volunteer in Madagascar, 2005-2007
■ My friend Tom Moresco was shot and killed in the capital of Maseru. Also, another volunteer was raped just outside the main Peace Corps office. FBI “assisted” local authorities, who are incapable of an investigation of this magnitude. The question is, “Would the U.S government act differently if a U.S . diplomat was a victim of a violent crime?” YES! They would run their own investigation without consent or consideration for local authorities. The fact that one of my best friends died and that the local authorities aren’t as trained for this investigation as much as U.S. authorities, coupled with the fact that the FBI can’t run their own investigation without “jurisdictional interference,” makes this a crime that will forever go unsolved. This is a failure by the U.S. government to protect its volunteers because they don’t want to step on toes.
---Christopher Jones, volunteer in Lesotho, 2009-2011
■ My understanding is that the Peace Corps worked very well with the volunteer and local law enforcement. They found the defendant, the volunteer identified him, and there was a trial. My understanding (from the volunteer) is that the Peace Corps flew her to D.C. for medical purposes and then, because she wanted to ID the man, flew her back to Conakry, assigned a Secret Service (?) agent to her who accompanied her during the entire process and then flew her back to D.C. and eventually home. She took some time but decided that for her, it was best to leave [the Peace Corps].
I have read about the problems Peace Corps has had. This is really the opposite of my experience. I believe that what happened to my fellow volunteer and the response that she received is EXACTLY how these issues should be treated. I am saddened to hear that her experience was more of the exception than the norm. Fellow volunteer was raped.
— volunteer in Guinea, 1997-98, whose colleague was raped.
■ Four female Peace Corps volunteers were raped in separate incidents during my two-year assignment. After a group of visiting St. Mary’s College students were raped in Guatemala in 1998, the Peace Corps called in all volunteers for a meeting at the training center near Antigua. Peace Corps officials mentioned that there was some talk of shutting down the Peace Corps program in Guatemala due to the high number of attacks. The head of the Peace Corps program in Guatemala was strongly against shutting down the program. She told us that the St. Mary’s College students were traveling in a dangerous part of the country where Peace Corps volunteers had been instructed not to travel. When speaking of the attack, the Peace Corps director seemed to be indicating that what had happened to them, while certainly tragic, was largely due to their inexperience in the country and not knowing what locales were safe. She also told us that this is what she had been telling the State Department and Peace Corps headquarters in the U.S., those looking into the incident and determining if it was safe for the Peace Corps program in Guatemala to remain in operation. While I did not want the Peace Corps program in Guatemala to shut down, I was disgusted with the deliberate misinformation about the St. Mary’s College attack and what Peace Corps volunteers in country had been told. Numerous Peace Corps volunteers had traveled on the same roads where the attack occurred. Indeed one volunteer passed the site while on a public bus on his way into the very meetings we were having.
--Adam Russ, volunteer in Guatemala, 1996-98
■ I had been sent back to Washington, D.C. [for medical tests]. While a volunteer is “medically evacuated,” they stay in a hotel in Rosslyn and share rooms with other “med evac’d” volunteers. The night before I was to return to Macedonia, Peace Corps put a new volunteer in my room and told me, with no explanation, to make sure she took her medicine at a certain time. I was given a business card with the Peace Corps nurse’s phone number and told to call “if [I] need anything.”
That night, my roommate suffered what I later learned to be a severe psychotic episode. I woke up at 6 a.m. to her in bed with me, grabbing me around the arms hard enough to break the skin, and telling me that we would go into the light together. Our room had knives in it and other easily weaponized things. After the volunteer made clear threats against my life and I realized she was not sleepwalking, I was able to break free and run to the lobby, where I called the Peace Corps nurse.
She was not on site and told me to “take care of it” until she could get there (approx. 45 minutes). The other volunteer followed me to the lobby, where she continued to assault me. No one would help get her away from me, as most hotel patrons assumed we were friends in a fight, since why else would two people be sharing a hotel room?
The Peace Corps nurse never arrived at the hotel. Finally, an ambulance was called to take the girl to a psychiatric hospital. I learned from the police (who were called by a hotel patron who saw me push the girl and assumed I was assaulting her) that the girl had been sent back to the United States on a private-ish plane because the Peace Corps had not felt confident that she could behave safely on a commercial flight.
But they gladly put her in a hotel room with me, another volunteer, without giving me warning, without stationing a Peace Corps nurse within 45 minutes, and without ensuring her safety.
Peace Corps never offered to let me stay for counseling. They put me on a plane less than six hours later when I was still bleeding. They never acknowledged that this happened to me whatsoever. I was back in my isolated village within 24 hours with pretty nasty post-traumatic stress syndrome and no one to talk to. For the rest of my service I slept with a pair of scissors in my bed just in case anyone attacked me in my sleep again.
Peace Corps totally ignored this. They were liable for my injuries and any that she would have sustained. As such, they never acknowledged it to me and sent me back to my isolated village without every offering me an explanation or counseling.
There is a major flaw in Peace Corps’ system. When THEY are responsible for a crime happening, it is never in their best interest to protect a volunteer. They protect the organization. Granted, my situation is not common. Normally, Peace Corps should be the first-responder to a violent crime. I do believe that Peace Corps in-country needs to have an American, in addition to a host country national, on their security staff. I remember our Macedonian male safety officer telling us women that if we invited a man into our house and he raped us “it was basically [our] fault.” Hell no. They need to have someone on board that shares the same cultural paradigm in terms of safety.
As for my situation, the problem is that Peace Corps was my insurer, they were my employer, and they were responsible for putting me in a dangerous position. When I suffered a crime, they had no interest in protecting me, they protected themselves, and I had virtually no recourse that wouldn’t result in me losing my job, insurance, etc. So my hands were tied, and I suffered pretty severe emotional trauma as a result.
--Sara Ray, volunteer in Macedonia, 2008-2010
■ As far as I know, the local law enforcement authorities dealt with the situation. We received no update or information from Peace Corps on how it was handled.
Peace Corps should work together with local authorities, if the local authorities are functional. Peace Corps should also bring in the assistance of trained U.S. investigators to ensure the investigation is handled appropriately. The investigators should be completely independent of the Peace Corps, to avoid any conflict of interest.
---Amy Jones, volunteer in Uzbekistan, 1994-1996. One of her fellow volunteers was the victim of a violent crime.
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