Raped on her second day in Australia

Belgian tourist Kirsten Vanhentenrijk had been in Sydney for two days when she was brutally raped. She returned home immediately. At the request of local residents she has returned to Sydney this week. [trigger warning discussion of sexual assault]

Since studying tourism it had been my dream to visit Australia. I was planning to discover Sydney and then to travel further. I arrived in November last year and hoped to stay for about a year.

On my second day in Sydney I still felt quite jetlagged and in the early evening I decided to go for a walk outside and see the neighborhood around Kings Cross where I was staying. 

As I was wandering, enjoying all of the lights and the sounds I found myself in a dark street that I didn’t recognise.

As I tried to orientate myself back to the hotel a man grabbed me from behind, and dragged me into an alley. He shoved me against a wall with his hand around my throat. I was paralysed with fear.

Then he sexually assaulted me. When he was finished he left me there; dazed, shocked. I never even saw his face.

I don’t remember much about going back to my hotel but I was strangely numb. All I wanted to do was get back to my room and never tell anyone about what I had just experienced, I was so ashamed. 

When I made it back to the hotel I just crumbled.  When I saw the hotel staff the words tumbled out of me. They called the police who were there in two minutes, and they took me to the hospital. 

My family said they would come immediately to take me home but it would have taken a few more days. I couldn’t wait. I did not feel safe and I was reluctant to even leave my hotel room. I saw something about it on the news and I was scared that someone would be waiting outside my hotel wanting me to talk about it. The next day I was on a plane home to Belgium, a completely different person.

I wanted everyone at home to think that I was ok, because I could see how worried they were and they didn’t know what to say or how to act, so I pretended I was fine. But I was scared of people, I was scared to go out. I was sad, and ashamed. I began to cut myself, and it felt better for a moment but then I felt guilty that I had hurt myself further.

Eventually I went to a counselor and being able to talk freely about it and not worry about their feelings was such a relief.

Belgian traveller Kirsten Vanhentenrijk in Kings Cross, Sydney. Picture: JANIE BARRETT JEM

Belgian traveller Kirsten Vanhentenrijk in Kings Cross, Sydney. Picture: JANIE BARRETT JEM

One day the Belgian Embassy sent me an email. They told me it was unusual for them to do this but a lady in Sydney had sent a photograph to them hoping the Embassy would pass it on. The photograph was of a group of people - women, men and children- standing together smiling at me and all I saw was love. I didn’t really see that they were standing in the alley I was attacked in.

The message was that the community was sorry for what had happened to me and they wanted me to know that they cared. I could see that although the day was grey the sun was shining at the end of the alley and something began to change inside me. It was my first positive association with Australia.

The lady who orchestrated the picture, Claudia MacIntosh Bowman, and I started an email friendship and I began to think maybe I could return one day and have the adventure I had set out to experience the first time. My therapist thought returning would be good for me, and my parents encouraged the idea.

I was nervous about coming back. I was worried that it would be too difficult, or maybe these people who were being so nice to me would not like me when they met me, but when I arrived and saw Claudia at the airport it was like coming home to family.

Claudia had sent out messages to the community of my imminent arrival and people opened their homes to me. I have been given experiences, have been fed and taken out and shown how wonderful this city really is. I have been treated with such love. It’s overwhelming.

Claudia told me she had a friend who is a documentary maker and that she would be interested in documenting my experience here. I was unsure at first but when I met Rani (Chaleyer) I just knew that I trusted her with my story.

I realised it was important to show my journey to inspire other women to come forward if they experience something like this. You don’t have to go to the police, but you need to tell someone you trust. You can’t just hide it away.

When I told Rani I wanted to go back to the alley I was attacked in she questioned if it was a good idea. I had discussed it with my therapist before I left Belgium and I just knew it was something I needed to do. I went during the day, and it looked different to how it looked the night I was assaulted. As I stood there it felt so heavy in my bones, in my heart. I didn’t cry, but I felt so much pain for a minute and it was all right there. And then it wasn’t.

Suddenly, that space was not his anymore. That alley, that horrible experience, and now this new experience, it was mine and I reclaimed it.

What happened to me is awful, I still have bad days and I will carry it for the rest of my life, but this thing does not define who I am. And this trip, and these people in this community have restored my faith in humankind.

* Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by calling Lifeline 131 114, Mensline 1300 789 978, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.

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