Utah students attacked on humanitarian trip say risks are real
Provo • Women speak out after another HELP Internationalvolunteer is assaulted.
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The thing that stood out about the barefoot man who emerged from the jungle to accost Nicole Murray, her best friend Delaina Nielsen and two other Utah college students — aside from the shirt wrapped over his face and the machete he brandished — was how much he talked.

After robbing them and forcing them off the dirt road into the dense woods of Belize, he boasted that he had raped 32 women and intended to make the Utahns victims No. 33 to 36. Failure to comply would get them killed, he said, sticking the blade against one student's throat to show he was serious.

"I never felt true fear until that moment. It's a whole other level," said Nielsen, then a student at Salt Lake Community College.

The women had arrived in Belize two days earlier to start a six-week humanitarian trip in July 2011 with Provo-based HELP International, a nonprofit that runs economic-development projects abroad for college-age volunteers.

While the women escaped, the episode illustrates the potential dangers faced by college students who travel to developing nations on service-learning programs.

Three of the women spoke publicly for the first time this week after news reports surfaced of another female HELP International volunteer being terrorized by three men in Fiji last week. That student, from Brigham Young University, also escaped, according to Matthew Colling, director of operations for HELP. No arrests have been made.

Murray said she and Nielsen are speaking up because they want other students to be aware of the risks.

Police in Belize, the tiny country on the Caribbean coast bordering Guatemala, advised the women not to talk to U.S. media about the attack because publicity would undermine their efforts to identify the perpetrator, Murray said. The crime remains unsolved.

Regrets • The volunteers praised HELP's response to the attack, which included phone calls months later to check up on them. But Murray, a Utah State University senior, now regrets not sharing her story with this year's crop of volunteers. Colling said the students would have been welcome to discuss the incident at last spring's pretrip safety meeting in Provo.

"We don't broadcast these incidents to protect the dignity of the victims," Colling said. "There are risks and people need to be aware of it."

HELP's leadership considers safety a top priority and feels terrible about the attacks on its volunteers, Colling said.

The Fiji incident is the third time HELP volunteers have endured a harrowing experience in country in the nonprofit's 13-year history.

In response, the group's executive leadership intends to host a conference in March, bringing together other nonprofits dedicated to international economic development and their university partners. The idea is to learn from the negative experiences and develop industrywide safety standards.

Colling said there is no umbrella organization that tracks attacks, accidents or other safety-related incidents. "There is nobody doing that. We have an opportunity to become that expert," Colling said.

'Transformative experiences' • Humanitarian trips are popular nationwide among college students looking to broaden their perspectives, even when no academic credit is awarded.

Various Utah college presidents have praised service learning and study abroad as worthy educational endeavors they want to expand on their campuses.

The University of Utah sent nearly 700 students abroad last year on academic-credit programs to at least 30 countries. University faculty regularly lead U.-sponsored humanitarian trips to Costa Rica and Ghana, and in the past have contracted with Ascend Alliance and Choice Humanitarian, Utah-based nonprofits similar to HELP International, to take students to India and Bolivia.

"These experiences are deepening their lives. They don't want to travel for travel sake. They want meaning," said Linda Dunn, who directs the U. Bennion Community Service Center. "I hope they are having transformative experiences. A lot come back and change direction and their majors."

Too risky? • University officials say such programs are worth the risks, which can be managed by taking precautions.

HELP was founded in 1999 by BYU faculty who helped rebuild communities in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch. The group, which has no formal ties to BYU, sends about 200 mostly female volunteers each summer to Uganda, Tanzania, India, Thailand, Fiji, El Salvador, Belize and Peru. Volunteers are required to attend a spring safety meeting and read country-specific safety manuals. The training is focused on prevention, but also provides guidance on dealing with compromising situations.

"If you are getting robbed, give up your wallet. If you are getting sexually assaulted, we can't tell you what to do. It's a personal choice," Colling said.

HELP volunteers agree to abide by a list of safety guidelines, which include not going anywhere without at least one companion and always telling others where they are going and when they are returning.

The four students attacked in Belize last July followed those rules in deciding to visit a swimming hole on a river. Volunteers from earlier sessions had visited the spot, a 15-minute walk from the village of San Ignatio, where they were based.

On their return walk, the machete-wielding man demanded their valuables, and they quickly handed over their cameras and what little cash they had.

"He kept on advancing on us, yelling at us to get into the jungle," Murray said. "We didn't know what to do. The river was to the left, and to the right was a jungle. He was in our pathway for getting home."

The women tried reasoning with the stranger, promising to hand over money and computers at their quarters if he let them go.

"You must think I'm stupid. Don't you know what I want?" he replied. The man referred to the women's earlier conversations, indicating he had been stalking them for at least two hours, Murray said.

He pulled a cotton dress from one of their packs and shredded it into strips to bind them, according to Nielsen, who was high school buddies with Murray back home in Castle Dale.

Nielsen is now a student at Utah Valley University. The two other students attended BYU.

Soon the women were face down in the dirt with their hands tied behind their backs.

"He had complete control over us. It was like game over. There was nothing we could do because it would be so easy to kill us, which is what he threatened to do," Murray said.

As he took one student a short distance away to rape her, Murray hatched a plan that she whispered to Nielsen and a third student, who asked that her name not be used. When the man's pants hit the ground, the three bolted through the jungle and ran toward the village.

The man stumbled after them but quickly gave up the chase. When the students reached a house where they found someone with a cellphone, police were summoned.

The fourth student fought with her attacker, who eventually abandoned his assault. She subsequently was reunited with her companions.

The next day she, Murray and Nielsen returned to Utah, while the fourth woman remained in Belize. Murray and Nielsen said they were grateful to HELP's in-country directors, who arranged prompt flights home and toured them around Mayan ruins on their last day in Belize.

But Nielsen said the attack cheated her out of a great service experience.

"That was the hardest part, wanting to do it for so long and have that happen on the first week," Nielsen said. "I just want to make people aware of [what can happen]. I don't want to prevent people from going."

bmaffly@sltrib.com