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BYU student attacked in Fiji says ordeal could have been prevented

Published: Monday, June 29 2015 6:09 p.m. MDT

PROVO — It's been a week since Hilary has had a good night's sleep.

It came after a full day of serving the people of Lautoka, Fiji, where she'd been living since May with a dozen other college-age volunteers.

Like Hilary, many of them were BYU students who volunteered with Provo-based HELP International, a nonprofit group focused on fighting global poverty. The trip was not sponsored by BYU nor is BYU directly affiliated with HELP.

Hilary, 22, spent most days teaching physical education at Fijian schools. She also was working with the World Health Organization and the Ministry of Health on a book about diabetes to be published and distributed throughout the island nation.

"It was a great experience, going (to Fiji) for a good purpose that could have been tremendous," she said, "but it was ruined."

Hilary, 22, asked that her last name not be published as she detailed the events of June 3, the night she said she was attacked in a residential area, dragged to a nearby field and nearly raped before she was able to escape.

The nearly hour-long ordeal is what keeps her up at night.

"I'm not able to sleep fully," she said Sunday in a telephone interview from her home in Colorado. "I scream in my sleep. … I lie awake at night."

Hilary said she doesn't want the incident to define her or the time she spent in the service of the Fijian people. But she felt she needed to make her story known, she said, in hopes of preventing something similar from happening to others.

She said she believes her attack could have been prevented if HELP International had followed through on its promises of providing volunteers with safety training. In addition, an investigation is under way into reports of threats made against the group earlier that day, though the student volunteers were not told about them until after the woman was attacked.

"I still love Fiji," Hilary said. "Most of the people you meet down there are the humblest, kindest people you've ever met. I still loved the service experiences I had. I met some wonderful people.

"At the same time, my experience is changed forever."

Just before 8 p.m. Monday, Hilary was walking from an Internet cafe to the rental home she had been sharing with 10 other students and two HELP International country directors.

It's about a three-minute walk that Hilary says she had made several times before. The students used the Internet cafe to email friends and family or catch up with them on Facebook, she said.

It was dark outside, she said, but there were streetlights along the road and the homes along the street also were lit.

"I noticed two men behind me," Hilary recalled.

She had been keeping an eye on the men, she said, regularly looking over her shoulder at them, wanting them to know she was aware they were following her.

But she didn't see the third man until he'd grabbed her, covered her mouth with one hand and pressed something sharp — "I think it was a knife," she said — against her back with his other hand.

The other two men started to run toward her, she recalled, and the three of them dragged her away into a nearby field.

"The next thing I knew, I was fighting," Hilary said.

The men kept her in the field for between 45 minutes to an hour, she said. Hilary spent much of that time fighting, she said, though she was weak from a recent illness and may have passed out during the ordeal.

The top of her dress was ripped open, and one of the men attempted to rape her, she said, before "a rush of panic" hit and she found her strength.

"I panicked and got my strength back, and I kicked the guy," she said. "He went off of me, and I ran as fast as I could."

Though disoriented at first, Hilary made it back to the house where she had been staying. HELP leaders had been searching for the woman and already had involved the police.

The U.S. Embassy coordinated medical treatment for Hilary and also were looking into reports that the group had been threatened by a landlord after learning HELP wanted to move out of the house, she said.

"The embassy told me at the time they believe my attack was connected to a threat that had happened earlier that day that I had not been informed of," Hilary said.

HELP leaders had found another house in a different neighborhood that better fit the group's needs, she said, but the landlord "went crazy" when he was informed the group planned to move out.

Hilary said the landlord threatened one of the group's directors, saying, "I'm going to get you."

"So I was not informed that there was a threat that same afternoon I was attacked," she said. "I feel like it could have been prevented."

Matthew Colling, HELP's executive director, said "every possible safety precaution" has been taken to keep student volunteers safe.

"I just feel so awful that she had to go through something like that," Colling said, "and I'm sorry for any pain and suffering that it's caused."

He said such an attack is "incredibly rare for Fiji and especially the town in which our team was located."

Colling says safety trainings were provided to the group, before the volunteers left for Fiji and after they arrived. Students also receive safety handbooks that they're supposed to read before they leave.

"One of the things in the handbook is that you're supposed to follow the buddy system," he said. "You're always supposed to be with someone."

Colling says Hilary should not have gone to the Internet cafe alone and was in violation of the code of conduct she signed before leaving by doing so.

"Whenever you're going overseas, you do always run the risk of finding yourself in a compromising safety situation," he said.

HELP International has offered to pay for counseling for Hilary, though Colling says he hadn't spoken with the woman as of Sunday afternoon.

Hilary said she believes HELP International "stands for a great purpose" and "can do great things."

But volunteers aren't given all the information they need about their safety prior to agreeing to join the group, she said.

Hilary, who is taking one correspondence course at BYU this summer, says she plans to return to Utah in the fall to pursue a masters degree at the University of Utah.

Contributing: Sandra Yi and Ashley Kewish

E-mail: jpage@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company