She was on the trip of a lifetime. But while camping at a picturesque lagoon in a remote part of northern Bolivia on June 4, 2017, adventurer Vasilisa Komarova was raped, bashed and robbed. It was an ordeal that would have seen many women flee the country to return home—not Komarova.
She vowed to stay until justice was done. However, her determination to see her attackers jailed was constantly challenged. With convictions for rape unheard of in that region, the 37-year-old says she faced overwhelming resistance from authorities. “Nobody wanted to listen to me. It was horrible. You see a woman, bruised, scratched and raped and the ones who are supposed to help just tell her to go?” Komarova tells WHO.
“That moment my desperation started to become anger. They are going to rape other women, so whatever people were telling me, I stayed for what I felt was right to do.”
Russian-born Komarova—who moved to London at age 20—was travelling across the Americas on a motorbike when her dream trip became a nightmare. While staying in rural Santa Rosa, Komarova’s camp was raided by three men—one of whom raped her. “They pulled me out of my tent and then it went really nasty. I thought I was going to die,” she says.
“They scratched me with machetes. They beat me, they hit me, I was constantly choked so I couldn’t breathe. I lost consciousness.”
Despite a local hotel owner identifying her attackers as Jose Gongora, 26, Yery Yumacale, 24, and Fabio Bazan, 30—and a police search uncovering Komarova’s stolen property strewn across their homes—she says authorities were disinterested in her case.
“The doctor didn’t want to take any samples because I couldn’t pay him,” she says, adding a policeman said the only reason he was helping her was to win favour with the embassy. “At that point, I started to lose faith in humanity.” Days after her attack, the shaken Brit had to face her attackers in a police line-up, with a broken mosquito net the only thing separating them. “I recognised them immediately. I didn’t feel fear, I was angry. I also felt pain, because I couldn’t help myself thinking about what they did to me.” Komarova says in Bolivia, police investigations have a lifespan of six months, so there was no time to waste in her quest for justice. However, she felt both the prosecutor and her solicitor went to great lengths to avoid her. And, Komarova says, they weren’t the only ones.
“The police wouldn’t talk to me. I would go to the police station, they don’t look at me. They just tell me to go, they don’t know anything.”
Her three attackers were taken into custody but repeatedly applied for bail. Adding to Komarova’s anguish, she had to attend court to face them each time or her case would have been thrown out. “They were sitting just two metres across the room in front of me. They were laughing. My fear started to go and I started to become angry,” the personal trainer recalls. The trio were denied bail on a technicality, but Komarova says a myriad of catastrophic failures by her own legal team threatened to derail the case, including a complete lack of forensic evidence. “The prosecutor was supposed to send DNA—she didn’t do it.”
Another oversight meant Komarova was unable to give evidence—something she didn’t discover until the beginning of the twoday trial, which took place in May this year.
“It was the first time I thought I was going to lose the case. Before that, despite what everyone was telling me, I thought I would win. But at that moment, my faith which moved me through all these months was crushed.” However, an unforeseen technicality—which Komarova describes as a “miracle”—enabled her to be called as a last-minute witness. “Giving evidence, my throat was dry, I was terribly nervous because it was the first time I had told anyone what had happened.
I felt physically sick as I was recounting the details.” Komarova had to stand up and point to each of her attackers, call them by name and tell the court what they’d done to her. “I wanted them to look, I wanted to burn them with my eyes. But they would not look at me, and I was so pissed off. I said, ‘Even now you are not looking into my eyes.’ One of them looked at me like an idiot and he smiled. The rage I felt fuelled my confidence and dampened any fears that I had.”
After the guilty verdicts, Gongora was handed 25 years for rape and 10 years for armed robbery, to run concurrently. Yumacale received 10 years for aiding the rape and eight years for robbery. Bazan was jailed for seven and a half years for aiding the rape. Komarova was elated.
“At every stage, until the last moment I was constantly told, ‘It’s not going to happen.’ Even people who helped me along the way, would say, ‘You know you are not going to win.’ Rape happens here, but this is the first case that’s gone through the whole process and been won.
Afterwards, women came to me in the airport and in the streets to say thank you.” Komarova is determined to continue her travels. In the meantime, she’s focused on creating an online network that will connect sexual assault victims with local support. To follow her journey, check out her Instagram account: @mythousandsmiles.
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