Ruth Pollard November 24, 2008
Domestic violence survivors tell their stories to Ruth Pollard.
Some leave with just the clothes on their back. Others make discreet trips to a relative's house, taking small bundles of belongings to prepare for their escape. A few squirrel away meagre savings to help them survive on their own.
Most have left more than once and many will return yet again.
Over the past six weeks, the Herald has visited many of the state's refuges, speaking to women who have, in an act of immense bravery, made it out of brutally violent marriages and partnerships and found shelter, temporarily, from a life of fear.
We cannot identify any of these women, or the refuges in which they found safety, because it could lead their husbands or partners to track them down and put at risk their lives and those of the other women and workers at the refuges.
These are the women who have survived, who have made it through one of the most dangerous periods for women in crisis - leaving a violent relationship and taking their children to safety.
Many more before them have not survived. Nearly 30 women and children have been killed in domestic-violence homicides in the past 12 months alone in this state, and there are no signs that the death toll will fall.
Her husband gambled away all their money, time and again. He took their baby bonus and her maternity leave payment and gambled that, too.
When he was broke, he tried to convince Fatima to let him film them having sex, so he could sell the footage on the internet and make money exploiting the woman he said he loved.
Fatima has moved four times since leaving him, and he has tracked her down every time. Despite his threats to kill her and their children, she has been compelled to attend mediation with him thanks to the family law amendments brought in under the Howard government.
In halting English, Fatima tells of her ordeal, tears streaming down her face as she shakes her head in disbelief, as if to say: "How did it come to this?"
"We had been married a couple of years … [when] my baby was born and he started to control me. I was still thinking: 'Maybe he will just find a way to right things'. So I just kept waiting."
But her husband's behaviour worsened, she says. He continued to threaten her, and when the next baby bonus instalment was paid he again took it for himself.
"I asked him if he has a gambling problem but he denied it. He says, 'You are just whingeing.' "
At this point Fatima was not a permanent resident in Australia and her husband used that as a weapon, telling her: "You cannot have the baby because the baby is Australian."
She says: "I was scared, so I kept waiting. In the end, it took three years to realise what he did to me. He kept calling me names, threatening to send me back, and I am scared because I do not know the system and I think I am going to lose my baby.
"He took control of me; I had to listen to him."
Her husband continued taking her money, leaving her little to care for the children. He lurched between threats, hostility and begging for forgiveness.
"Sometimes he is nice. Sometimes he says sorry. Sometimes he is begging me - so I think things can change."
But nothing changed. Fatima's husband was violent, menacing and angry all the time. Once he hit her on the head with a frying pan, by which time she was convinced he would kill her.
"Every night I live in fear. Every night, when I go to sleep, I worry. I lock the door. So every night it is a nightmare. Maybe he [will] come this night - he will kill me and my kids."
Whenever Fatima tried to leave, he took her children so that she had no choice but to stay. And he just became angrier and angrier. He picked up a television and smashed it to the ground, he made his children watch pornographic videos and he yelled at Fatima constantly.
"He knows I do not like pornography. I am worried my kids will grow up and learn violence from his home; yelling, fighting. So I come to my social worker again, I pick up my clothes and take them to my family, secretly."
Fatima is now required to attend mediation with her husband, but even then there is no safe place.
"In mediation he would abuse the kids. Every time I had to give him the children he would call me names - the mediator called the police, he was so angry."
Fatima had applied for an apprehended violence order, but because it had not arrived the police said they were unable to act.
"When the police come they say: 'These are his kids, we cannot do anything.' They said we have to wait for the Family Court."
Her husband continually taunted her. He said: "I am not scared of the police, I am not scared of the shit lawyer. You have to believe me now."
And the threats continue when they go to court. Fatima says he has told her: "I am going to kill you, I am going to kill our kids, I am not scared of anything."
His temper is legendary. When a neighbour upset him, he tried to blow up that person's car, she said.
Within two weeks of her fleeing to the refuge he had found her, warning: "You cannot escape from me, I will find you."
"They moved me to the other house. I think he is stalking me; he finds me anywhere I move. Three times I moved and he find me, in the shopping centre, at the train station, because he is stalking me, he is threatening me," Fatima says. "The last time I moved I feel very scared. I believe in his capabilities because when he is angry he loses control."
Fatima decided to go into hiding. She has isolated herself from family and friends so her husband cannot find her or get any hint about where she is living. A new mobile number, her fourth home in a different suburb and no contact with anyone.
She still lives in fear - every time she sees someone who looks like him she is crippled by panic attacks; if her children are even momentarily out of her sight, she fears he has abducted them.
But underneath it all, she knows she has ensured her children will have a better life, free from violence and abuse.
"I am making new friends. I go to a domestic violence group … I am in a nice house, I have my social worker. I have to keep strong - I am with my kids, we enjoy life, we plan for the future and live in peace."
She had planned her escape for many, many months. Her partner controlled almost every moment of every day, reading her mail, monitoring her phone calls, accompanying her to the supermarket, always watching.
But she was clever, too - the sound of a running shower masked hushed conversations with her sister, a secret bank account slowly accrued her meagre savings, as she planned and hoped for the future.
All the while she braced herself against his violence, the punching, his hands around her throat, dragging her down the stairs by her hair, her body slammed against the wall as he thrust a knife into the plaster next to her head - a threat of things to come.
As his violence increased, he turned his attention to their children and it was then that she made her move.
"I was with my ex for four years and I had two children with him. He was very abusive towards me but it was not until he actually threatened and hit the children that I actually realised it was time for me to go," Bridget says.
"In that time I had managed to save some money, which he found in my account and withdrew, but … I had planned that I was going, my sister knew I was going, so it was just a matter of time and making sure it was safe for the three of us to get out."
What made it difficult, if not impossible, to leave was that her partner refused to let her go anywhere alone with the children.
Bridget had managed to save another $500 - nowhere near what she needed to start again but enough to buy essentials such as nappies and clothes - when what she describes as a "miracle" occurred. Her partner let her take the children shopping with her.
"We often went with a large family … I told them I had to get petrol, which is on the way, and that I would meet them at the shops, which meant I could go in a separate car."
They passed her at the petrol station and Bridget, with $500, her two children and a baby bag, called her sister, got in her car and drove to freedom. She moved in with her sister, who had relocated to try to keep Bridget safe, but her former partner tracked her down.
"I don't know how he managed to get her address. He found her number, he was ringing constantly, he was ringing my mobile constantly. I changed my mobile number at least 10 times … and he just kept getting the details."
There was nothing left to do but move again, for everyone's safety, so Bridget and her two children went to a refuge.
Bridget's case worker went through her details with a fine-tooth comb. Bank accounts were changed, pin numbers changed, Centrelink details changed, mobile phone companies changed, everything password-protected, everything that connected her to her old life removed.
She now gives talks to other women, making them aware there are places they can go to get help and dispelling some of the myths men create when they use violence as a weapon.
"My ex used to say to me all the time that I will never amount to anything, that I will never meet anyone else, that I will be a single mum for the rest of my life, that I won't be worth anything … and I started to believe it.
"When I left him I thought, 'Yep, I am going to be a single mum for the rest of my life, stuck on welfare, Department of Housing, the whole lot,' and it wasn't so long ago that I realised that is not true.
"I have been able to move on with my life. I have got the children - they are safe, I am safe. I have been to TAFE. I have now realised I am giving them a hope, that I have given them a chance … and that I won't be alone … Life is good at the moment."
"I came to Australia with not any knowledge of English. I didn't have any family or friends and only after the short time of a month I had been raped and stuck into a very violent relationship with a man, so it took me so many years, about 4½ years, to get out of it."
Karla has just emerged from another violent encounter with a man she shared a flat with. He punched her and stabbed her several times, until she found the strength to push him away and escape to the street, where she collapsed on the footpath, unconscious and bleeding.
The signs of the struggle still mark her - a black eye, scars just healing, arms wrapped around her slender body for comfort as she recounts her brush with death.
"He took the knife [and] I realise he is ready to kill me. He is struggling with one hand, holding the knife in the other. He was saying his prayer to God: 'God forgive me, I have to kill her.'
"When he said that, I saw in his eyes, this is it, this is the killer look."
It all began innocently enough. Karla met the man's sister out one night and she befriended her. Soon she had met the entire family and it made sense to move into a flat with the man, so welcoming were he and his relatives.
But what looked like a loving family turned out to be one devoted to crime, Karla says.
"They all hide this from me. They say they are religious. They introduce me to their parents, to most of the family, they accepted me as I have no family here and only two dedicated friends - I guess they took that as easy access to a new victim.
"From what I have found out, it is not only me who went through this … That person who did this to me is now charged - at the moment he is in the jail. The bigger danger is his brother, because they are working as a team."
Karla has since been moved to another refuge for her safety. Now her biggest challenge is to break the cycle of violence that has punctuated her life.
"I don't know that I am brave but I know myself I am very strong in my belief, in my heart, there must be a way out of anything … I am not going to give up."
She must also face the prospect of giving evidence against her attacker, and the ever-present danger she feels at the thought of being exposed to him and his family. "I am very concerned about my safety - the fear is stronger and deeper."
This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2008/11/23/1227375062030.html
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