Welcome to America! With stars in her eyes and hope in her heart, a lovely young athlete from Norway was living her dream. She had been accepted to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas and was given a spot on their cross country team.
In the second semester of school, Monika Korra’s life changed in less than two hours. A victim of an abduction and brutal rape, it would have been quite understandable for her to get on the next plane for the safety of her homeland, but Monika chose to publicly share her story and, when the offenders were caught, used her real name in the court statements, something not required of a rape victim. Then Monika did something no one, least of all her rapists, could imagine: she forgave them.
SMU cross-country runner survived a brutal rape and tells her story
DALLAS — “Run.”
That’s all she heard the men say. A simple command, something she had done all her life. But at that moment, Monika Korra couldn’t do it. Her body wouldn’t let her.
She fell to the hard ground.
“I run. I run many miles every day,” she said. “But at that point, I just couldn’t stand up.”
She was scared, naked and cold. She tried to crawl, but couldn’t even do that. Her energy was gone. She had just fought for her life and used every ounce of strength that she had to survive. She thought the men were going to come after her again.
Monika just wanted to be safe. She wanted to feel the way she felt as a young girl, growing up in Loten, Norway. She used to run through the foothills and by the fjords in a place that looked like Middle-earth. Massive cliffs with waterfalls everywhere. Just nature and little else. Just safe.
Running provided her shelter. She thought about nothing else when she ran. Her focus helped make her a champion in Norway, winning gold and bronze medals in distance running at the 2008 Norwegian junior championships.
In Norway, cross-country running and skiing go hand-in-hand. Both sports combine mental and physical toughness. When she was just 3 years old, Monika started cross-country skiing because her older sister, Annette, did. By the time Monika was 11, she needed something to do in the summer, so she started running cross country.
“I got better and better and better,” Monika said. “It was more and more fun, so I just ended up running instead of cross-country skiing.”
For years, SMU cross country coach Dave Wollman had been impressed by distance runners from Norway. He’d had success recruiting runners from Norway. He’d read Monika’s times and knew she could run. He just needed to talk to her to see if she could handle being so far from home. He offered her a scholarship, sight unseen.
“It’s a big deal to go 3,000 miles away from home, across the big ocean and realize that you’re by yourself, at 18 or 19 years old,” Wollman said.
Self-reliance. He immediately knew she had it.
“She was on board almost instantly,” the coach said. “I didn’t have to convince her.”
Monika was going to Dallas, but she knew almost nothing about SMU before Wollman called. She would have the chance to go to college and run — and that never would have happened in Norway. The hard part would be breaking the news to her mom and dad, who had always supported their daughter’s dreams.
“It was too far away,” said Monika’s mom, Kari-Ann.
Her dad, Tore, agreed. They were torn. They didn’t want her to go. They knew their daughter was responsible, determined and had always made good decisions. They trusted her.
“She wants to do it,” Tore said, “and we must help her in the best way.”
Their baby girl was going all the way to Dallas, to Southern Methodist University, and they were going to support her like they had her whole life. Monika was going to need them more than ever, no matter how far away they were. She had never been to America, and when she arrived on campus, her English was not very good. She kept to herself, said very little, and ran. She’d always been able to run.
Her second semester at SMU, everything changed. Another Norwegian runner, Kristine Eikrem Engeset, joined the team and the two quickly became friends and roommates.
“I had someone to really talk to again,” Monika said.
She could speak Norwegian if she wanted. Dallas now had a little slice of Norway. It was her second home.
In December 2009, Monika and Kristine had been studying for finals and decided to take a break. They were going to a party just off campus that was being thrown by some friends on the soccer team. Just blowing off steam. It felt good to get away from the books.
They left the party around 1:30 a.m., skipping down the street, hand-in-hand. They were heading home when a white van pulled up next to them. Someone from inside the van yelled to the girls.
“I didn’t hear what they were saying,” Monika said, “so that’s why I turned my head and asked what they were wondering about.”
She felt something pressing against her head.
Another man grabbed her arms and pulled her into the van by her neck. Kristine grabbed Monika’s feet, but the men turned a gun and drove off with her. Kristine ran to find the police. Monika was gone.
They drove for about 20 minutes, according to Monika. And then they stopped.
“I just thought to myself, ‘Just give them whatever so they don’t kill you.'”
The three men took all of Monika’s clothing and jewelry. They had not finished.
Time seemed to stop.
“They raped me, all three of them, one by one and two at a time, three at a time,” Monika said.
The gun was against her head the whole time and she kept expecting to hear the sound of the shot. She says she felt helpless. She felt weak. She had no control over what was happening.
As the men attacked her, she saw other women’s shoes in the van. Her immediate thought was that they had done this before, that she was not their first victim.
“I want to live,” she remembers thinking. “I want to survive.”
She tried to separate herself from the body they were attacking, but one of the men — “the worst one,” according to Monika — forced her to kiss him. She looked into his eyes.
“It was nothing,” she said. “You couldn’t see a person in them, like a stone face.”
Monika kept looking for the gun at all times, but after a while they taped her eyes closed.
“I felt like it was hours, days,” she said. “Every second was so long.”
The van door opened. The men pushed her out of the door.
Officer James “Steve” Shivers of the Dallas Police Department was on patrol in South Dallas when he received a call to be on the lookout for Monika. He saw a girl with blonde hair roaming the streets looking tired and scared. He pulled up about a block away and held his badge out so she could see that he was an officer. Monika didn’t believe him at first.
She had been gone for 1 hour, 20 minutes.
“At that point I just started to cry,” Monika said. “I realized that life would continue.”
Exhausted and in shock, with duct tape in her hair, she was taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital. Around 4 a.m., Kristine arrived. She was finally safe. Almost immediately, Monika tried to gain control of her situation.
“I was afraid that people would look at me as dirty for the rest of my life,” she said. “I realized that it’s not my fault, and I told myself that: ‘Just promise yourself to never, never blame yourself.'”
She called her parents in Norway and told them what had happened.
“It was like a nightmare,” her mother said. “I just wanted to wake up and say, ‘No, it isn’t so.'”
They wanted to come to Dallas immediately. It would be their first trip to America. Monika told them no, don’t come. She didn’t want them to see the school and the city she had come to love so much under such negative circumstances. It was nearly Christmas break in 2009, and she would be home soon enough, Monika told them.
“I will survive this,” Monika assured her parents. “I will go on and I will be the same Monika as I was before.”
As always, they listened. They trusted her and honored her wish. They stayed in Norway. And waited. And worried.
As strong as Monika was, she couldn’t fight the nightmares. For months, every night, every time she tried to sleep, she relived the attack.
“I was so afraid when I woke up,” Monika said. “I could feel the same fear that I felt that night.”
The duct tape.
The gun against her head.
The “worst one” kissing her.
The loss of control.
The fear of losing her life.
“I just decided that I wouldn’t allow them to break me down,” Monika said. “I will win. I survived and I will fight. I will fight until I win my life back.”
She began her recovery — her feeling of empowerment and her identity — by doing what made her feel most free.
She began to run.
She started running again on the treadmills in the crowded gym on campus at SMU. Monika was still too frightened to run alone on the streets. At first, she ran 10 minutes a day. It wasn’t much, but for those 10 minutes, she was free. She was safe. She was in control again.
She ran on the treadmills for weeks until she was ready to run outside. She found strength in running, and with writing in her journal. She wanted to let people know what happened to her. She didn’t want to be a prisoner.
“She put it in detail. Every single, nasty, awful detail that they did to her,” said Erin Hendricks, who represented Monika as an assistant district attorney. “She took it over.”
Police tracked down the attackers after one of the men used her stolen cell phone. She identified the three men. Almost a year after the assault, Luis Zuniga, Alfonso Zuniga and Arturo Arevalo were brought to trial beginning in December 2010. They were charged with aggravated sexual assault.
Monika decided she would confront each of the men in court. It was a way for her to regain more control. She was anxious, but not nervous. She wanted to face them, show them she was still standing and that she had survived. Two of the men were sentenced to life in prison. The other pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 25 years. She was free, and they were the ones who lost the power.
“I told them that I don’t hate them,” she recalled. “I hate what they did to me.”
Monika then did something that the men probably did not expect. She forgave them.
“Two of them even cried,” Monika said. “That really meant a lot to me because then I saw that it is something good in everyone.”
One of them even thanked her in open court.
Victims of sexual assault are assigned a mandatory pseudonym to protect their identities. For the court proceedings, Monika was known as “Jessica Watkins.” In April 2011, immediately after the final trial in Dallas, Monika went public with her story. Rape victims often choose to remain anonymous, and news organizations usually do not disclose the names of people who are attacked. But Monika wanted everyone to know her story.
Her story first appeared an article by Scott Goldstein of The Dallas Morning News. Appearances on local Dallas television news programs soon followed. Monika was invited to speak to local women’s groups in Dallas and on campus at SMU. She got her message out: You don’t have to be a victim.
She wanted to be a role model for other victims of sexual assault. She wanted other women to speak out. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 74 percent of all rapes go unreported, and 15 of every 16 rapists go free. Monika wants to help change that.
“I want to be a person that people can look at and say that it’s possible to move on,” Monika said.
In October, Monika was running again. She helped SMU win the Conference USA title in cross country. In May, she will graduate from SMU. She plans to write a book about her experiences, and hopes to visit the men in prison to talk about that night.
“I took the control back,” she said. “I’m glad I did.”