On Saturday, 12 April 2008, Mitchell Scholar Winnie Li was raped by a stranger while walking in a park in Belfast in the middle of the day. Until now, Winnie preferred to keep the matter private. She recently decided to tell her story as part of her recovery and in hopes that speaking out will help others do the same. Her essay is part of a new book called Sushi and Tapas: Life Stories by and of Young Women.
Days prior to the attack, George J. Mitchell Scholars had gathered in Belfast for an alumni reunion timed to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. The observance event we organized, which included Senator Mitchell, then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and most of the negotiators of the Agreement, received worldwide media attention.
By Saturday, most of the Mitchell Scholars had departed Belfast. Winnie, a 2001 Mitchell Scholar at University College Cork, decided to stay on a few days. My colleague, Mary Lou Hartman, and I were still in Belfast, wrapping up the press and other matters associated with the event.
In the middle of the day, Mary Lou’s cell phone rang. Winnie was calling, distraught — she’d just been raped. She told us she was in the Colin Glen Forest Park in West Belfast. We had someone at our hotel call the police and tell them where to meet us. Mary Lou and I went directly to Winnie. En route, I rang Monica McWilliams to seek her advice. Monica was someone I’d known for years, as she had been one of the leaders of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition when I worked on peace process for Senator Kennedy. In 2008, Monica was the Commissioner of the Northern Ireland’s Human Rights Commission. We will always be grateful to Monica for her assistance and support, both on that day and since.
The PSNI (Police Service Northern Ireland) were thoroughly professional, compassionate and helpful throughout this ordeal. We were with the police until late in night. Before we left to take Winnie to the hospital, I told the officers that I knew many community and political leaders in West Belfast. There is a history of the Nationalist/Republican community not cooperating with the police. Colin Glen is in West Belfast, I feared that could happen, and I asked if the police thought I should make a private appeal for assistance. The police thought it might help and so I rang Geraldine McAteer, a community worker in West Belfast. Geraldine instantly agreed to appeal to the residents of the area to report anything that might be of help to the police. She galvanized the community without jeopardizing Winnie’s anonymity. People who had been in the park came forward and described a young man who they’d seen in the park and, within days, the police informed me they knew who they were looking for and a few days later, the suspect had turned himself in.
Claire Aiken and Lyn Sheridan of Aiken PR are two other women who were extremely supportive. They had quickly become friends over the previous months as they handled the press for our Belfast Agreement event and they helped us deflect press attention following the attack. Many members of the press had attended our anniversary dinner and one journalist rang me to speculate that the victim was a Mitchell Scholar (Winnie, who is Asian-American, was described in the press only as ‘Asian’). I refused to confirm that the victim was a Mitchell Scholar and we appreciate that the journalist did not speculate in the press, which I understand he could have done.
Nearly everyone we dealt with in Belfast in those immediate days was helpful and discreet. There was one particularly memorable, negative experience. Winnie was booked on a BMI flight to London the day after the attack and she understandably wanted to get home. The police officer met us at the airport to obtain Winnie’s signature on the last piece of paperwork. Winnie was delayed with checking in and when we went to the counter, she was told she was too. As the plane would not take off for at least another 20 minutes, and as the Belfast Airport is very small and she was only a few minutes from the gate, we quickly offered to skip checking her bag, she’d just board, and we’d Fed Ex her suitcase. The woman at the desk refused. I asked if I might speak to the manager. By this stage, Winnie was understandably becoming visibly upset. I stepped aside with the manager to explain the situation. To my amazement, the female manager was unmoved, even when the police officer also asked if they couldn’t get her on the plane. The manager told us, ‘not our problem.’ To this day, Mary Lou and I both avoid flying BMI. Looking at the departures board, I saw FlyBe had the next flight out and went to the desk where the woman was incredibly helpful. She saw that Winnie was upset. I simply said there was a personal emergency but she had already put two and two together and told me she’d heard on the radio that an Asian woman had been raped and she sorted a ticket in seconds.
The experience at the Royal Vic A&E Saturday night was less than ideal. They said they couldn’t provide Winnie with a ‘Morning After Pill’ until Monday, thus forcing her to get it in London. And when we asked for advice about the rest of the night (might she have a concussion? should we keep her awake? etc.), Winnie was told to ‘just chill out with your friends and have a cuppa tea and a glass of wine.’ (The three of us did have to laugh – a cuppa tea seems to be the Irish answer to everything.)
Winnie found her subsequent navigation of the justice system frustrating and she later wrote anonymously, about her experience in the Belfast Telegraph.
In May 2009, a year after the rape, we returned to Northern Ireland, prepared to go to trial when the attacker pled guilty at the last moment. Apparently it is a common strategy for criminal defendants to delay a plea in hopes that the victim ultimately won’t have the courage to relive their experience in a courtroom. Winnie was there and ready.
To the many people who were helpful and respected Winnie’s desire to maintain her privacy, thank you. Winnie now wants to share her story. Writing about this has already helped her. She hopes it helps others. Proceeds from the sale of the book that includes Winnie’s essay will go to Women for Women International, a charity dedicated to helping women in war-torn countries rebuild their lives. You may purchase it at: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/sushi-tapas-life-stories-by-and-of-young-women/16968918