Photo: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

On Being Attacked, and Fighting Back, as a Solo Female Traveler

by Caroline Achieng Otieno May 19, 2016

THE NIGHT I WAS ATTACKED, while a strange man had me pinned down and was fumbling with the button on my pants, I had an image pop into my head: The River Tana in Kenya. Crocodiles. I had read somewhere that when villagers are fetching water and they are attacked, they should go for the croc’s eyes. Hopefully it will let go.

So I went for his face, his glazed-over eyes. I fought back with all the strength I could muster, and felt layers of his skin gather beneath my nails. I scraped lines across his face, his mouth, his eyes. I clawed at him ferociously like an angry wild cat.

Every time I hear that women have turned up dead in a foreign land I go numb. I often wonder if there were red flags they were oblivious to. It frightens me because I am a woman who travels solo. I know what it feels like to have someone violate my personal safety in a violent way. I also know what it feels like to fight back, to come out shaken to the core, but triumphant and alive.

It was an ordinary start to a weekend in Bijlmer, Amsterdam several years ago. A friend and I went out clubbing on a Friday night. At the end of the night she decided to go home with her boyfriend, leaving me to return to my apartment alone.

I entered the building’s elevator with a clean and decent-looking guy. Around six feet tall he was wearing a grey cardigan and jeans and looked to be about 25 years old. He had a dark chocolate complexion: African, like me.

He’d come out of his taxi in the parking lot shortly after I did. He pressed the 7th floor, then asked what floor I was getting off at. He suddenly recalled that he was getting off at the 5th floor, too. He exited the lift with me and began to ask me hurried questions: “Where are you from? How long have you been in the Netherlands?” When I asked why he wanted to know he replied, “Is it a problem to ask?”

His questions were stalling me from entering my apartment. A glaze over his eyes made him seem creepy. I didn’t notice that with each question he took a step closer, finally grabbing my wrist and preventing me from letting go. He said what he wanted to do to me in a menacing, vulgar way: “I am going to fuck you!”

I tried to release his firm grip, to push him away. We both lost our balance in the struggle and landed on the cold hard cement floor, my hair-clip cushioning my head, maybe saving my life. I started a frantic conversation in my head while he lay on top of me, trying to unbutton my pants.

“God, I can’t believe this is happening! This is not happening. I need your help.”

A reply: “You have two choices; either you lie there doing nothing or you choose to fight!”

“I choose to fight!”

Before the image of the crocodiles appeared, I remembered an Oprah show I had watched about rape and how to fight back. I needed something to hit this guy with, but all I could see was a pile of old newspapers, and they were too far to reach. I clawed and I scratched at his face.

“Now scream as loud as you can!” The voice commanded.

So I did. “Help me, help! Somebody help me! Help help! Jesus!”

I remember him pleading with me to stop screaming. Then he cupped my mouth with his hand. I turned my head from left to right to shake it off, opened my jaws wide, and clamped down mercilessly and with force. He let out a loud howl. I could taste the saltiness of his blood; I continued to snap at his hand.

I felt myself weakening and wondered how long I would have to fight when he suddenly shifted his weight off me, rolled off, and crawled to his feet. He bolted down the nearest staircase. I sat upright on the floor and heard myself scream continuously. My hair clip was at the far end of the hallway, my jacket partially ripped, and a couple of buttons were on the ground. I composed myself and took the elevator down to the ground floor, opened the door, and screamed into the dark night. Every apartment had its lights out and my voice echoed back to me. It was an empty and hollow sound.

Back at my shared apartment, I fought the urge to shower, to cleanse myself. I knew the first thing I had to do was to report the assault. If I showered I could destroy any evidence used to find my attacker. I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror — my hair ruffled, my lip bleeding, and some nails broken. I called the police and they brought me to the station to report the incident.

It was a long process. I filed a report, then had DNA evidence collected from under my nails in the victim’s office. When I calmed down, when the adrenalin had worn off, I had horrible headaches. My neck and shoulder throbbed painfully. I went through a year-long process of psychiatric treatment to help me deal with my post-traumatic stress disorder.

The hardest part of the treatment was replaying the events of that day — again and again with my eyes shut tight — each time I turned up for an appointment. It helped me, but to this day I’m alert to the point of paranoia. Whenever I enter a lift with a man, no matter what time of day it is, my hands are in my pockets, one fist clenched, the other firmly holding my set of keys ready to fight. I limit myself with alcoholic drinks during gatherings and outings. I keep my distance, preferring to cross the street, when I see a group of guys in the shadow of darkness.

I love to travel. I will keep on traveling, and mostly solo. But I will do what I can to avoid any situations that pose a danger to me.

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