‘He strangled me to the point where I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t scream’

Solicitor Sarah Grace wants the system to change for sexual assault survivors like her

A survivor of a violent sexual attack by a stranger who broke into her apartment in Dublin while she slept, has met with the Director of Public Prosecutions’ office and is writing to the Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, to outline her concerns around how the courts interact with victims. The woman, a solicitor, wants to prevent survivors of serious sexual violence being retraumatised by their experience in court.

Sarah Grace (29) has decided to speak publicly about her experience in the hope of highlighting how victims can better prepare for trials, and is calling for more open and understanding conversations around sexual violence in Ireland.

Earlier this week, Grace's attacker, Ibrahim Elghynaoui (28), was jailed for 10 years for the attack in the early hours of Wednesday, July 17th, 2019. Elghynaoui faced multiple charges, including aggravated sexual assault.

During the attack, Grace says she believed she was going to die. Elghynaoui repeatedly strangled her, and penetrated her with a violent punch, forcing his fingers into her vagina, and causing an internal cut.

Grace escaped by fighting back, at one point biting off a piece of his hand while he was covering her mouth and nose. She managed to flee from her bedroom, and warn her two female flatmates, who both eventually escaped out windows of the ground floor apartment they shared in Grand Canal Dock in Dublin.

Since the attack, which has had a huge impact on her life, Grace has begun a process of healing, which she feels may be instructive for other victims of violent sexual crime.

In the aftermath of the attack, Grace suffered serious post-traumatic stress disorder, including panic attacks. She was unable to be touched by anyone including her own parents, was unable to be alone, and was unable to sleep. The attack had begun while she was asleep.

After it occurred, she found herself obsessively getting out of bed to check windows and doors up to 20 or 30 times nightly, and lived in constant fear that she would be attacked and violated in her sleep again. She suffered violent nightmares, flashbacks and insomnia.

When Grace was offered sleeping tablets by her doctor, she was too frightened to take them, and was terrified of allowing herself to become unconscious at night or be unable to defend herself if she was attacked again. In her victim impact statement, she said that her life has been changed permanently.

“The fact that I was so violently attacked in the safe haven that was my bed, in the privacy of my bedroom, means that there is nowhere that feels safe to me, not even the sanctity of my own home. I am always expecting the crime to happen again. For everyone else life has moved on, but for me time has stopped.

“I watch as my friends and family look to the future and don’t think about the crime anymore, but I feel I do not have a future to look forward to. I am stuck, unable to move past the night of the crime when my life turned upside down. It never leaves me. It is the first thing I think of in the morning and the last thing I think of at night. I carry it with me every day; it is a weight that sometimes crushes my chest, invisible to the rest of the world but very real to me.”

Despite the serious ramifications of the attack, she wants to offer hope to survivors, and advice to friends, families, and colleagues of survivors.

In the months before the attack, Grace says she had felt like she was starting to flourish, personally and professionally. She had qualified as a solicitor, and also fulfilled her dream of becoming a yoga teacher. “I felt like – I don’t want to say that I had it all – but very positive about things. I had lots of plans for the future, big trips, trying to think about where my career was going.”

In her spare time, she enjoyed travelling with her sister or by herself, and got a huge amount of satisfaction from solo travel. She loved cycling, hanging out with her friends and going for brunches. Living in Grand Canal Dock, she loved her surroundings so much she often took a small detour to the office of the law firm she worked at, so that she could pass the sculpture of red poles in a neighbourhood home to many tech and legal firms.

... I couldn't see any light. I tried to sit up. There was a weight on my chest

Having grown up in Japan with her sister, her Irish father and her French mother, she went to university in London, and was beginning to fall in love with Dublin, saying of her neighbourhood: "I love that little area. It's got a real community vibe and felt supersafe. It was a place I thought: yes, I'm liking this."

In the days preceding the attack, Grace spent a long weekend in Galway, celebrating qualifying as a lawyer with her family. On Tuesday the 16th she boarded an early morning train back to Dublin and had a busy day in work.

Wednesday was to be a crucial day for her, as she had meetings with two large clients, whom she was excited about working with – “It was like my career was starting to happen” – and stayed in work late preparing for the meetings.

When she returned to her apartment at about 11pm, her bedroom felt stuffy at the height of July, and also because she had been away for five days. She left her window open on a security latch for ventilation, showered, made a late dinner, and went to bed, rechecking the safety latch on her window before falling asleep.

Grace says the next memory she had was waking up in the middle of the night, “there was something strange because I couldn’t see anything. Normally there’s a streetlight outside my apartment and the light kind of streams through the sides of the curtains, the blackout curtains. I couldn’t see any light. I tried to sit up. There was a weight on my chest.”

She felt something wet on her neck, repeatedly tried to sit up. “And there was that heart-dropping moment where I realised there was a man on top of me, on my bed.”

Elghynaoui then began to strangle her. “At this stage I thought I was going to die. I started thrashing, kicking, as hard as I could just to get him off me. He clearly was surprised by this. He wasn’t expecting me to resist as much because I was able to throw him off quite quickly to the side.”

Grace ran to her bedroom door, but was chased. Elghynaoui grabbed her from behind and threw her on the floor, face down, “Before I had time to get back up, he was coming down on top of me. He was kind of straddling me and started strangling me again.

The last lucid thought that went through my mind, was of my parents

“At this stage, I can’t describe the panic. I was screaming at the top of my lungs trying to wake up the neighbours upstairs, the flatmates who were two doors down, anyone passing through the street, just screaming for dear life. So he strangled me more to the point where I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t scream. I just remember thinking: I’m going to die.

“And the last lucid thought that went through my mind, was of my parents. I just remember thinking: they’re going to have to come here and clean out my room because I’m going to be dead. And something just so animalistic kicked in. It was like the biggest rush of adrenaline I’ve ever felt. I just thought, over my dead body.”

Grace managed to pass her hands through his arms and tried to strangle him back, grabbing his throat. She also grabbed his groin – “squeezed, twisted, pulled down”.

This initially deterred him, but again, he tried to pin her to the ground, and as she screamed, he placed his hand over her mouth. “It was blocking my nose as well and I couldn’t breathe and I thought: that’s it, I’m dead now.

“So I bit down on his hand, and it was the piece of skin between the thumb and the index finger. I got my mouth around it, bit down, and I didn’t stop until my teeth came into contact.” When he fell to the side, she made for the door.

“As I took the first lunge towards the door, he – I assume as the ultimate act of ‘f**k you, I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do’ – he just rammed his fingers so violently up inside of me, which caused a cut of several inches, I think, two or three inches, I was told after, with the force of a punch. Like it was very violent, very painful, but at that stage I was running and I didn’t stop. It kind of registered for a split second and I just remember thinking: fine, if that’s the price I need to pay to get out of this alive, fine. I just kept running.”

After the three young women escaped they called gardaí, who arrived and brought them to Pearse Street station and from there to the sexual assault treatment unit at the Rotunda Hospital. Ibrahim Elghynaoui was arrested a number of days later.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, she drew from her experience of studying criminal law on how to proceed. “Do not shower, do not brush your teeth, do not wash your hands, just don’t move, if you can avoid drinking don’t drink, don’t eat until you get to SATU” – the sexual assault treatment unit at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin.

Grace believes her process of healing began at the treatment unit. “I cannot say enough good things about the men and women there. My god, they do life-saving work. Because actually your healing starts day one, minute one. And how you handle those first few critical hours is going to really impact your journey and how you come out of this and how you heal.

“I was waiting in the waitingroom on my own thinking, ‘I’m in the waitingroom of the sexual assault treatment unit, this can’t be happening. I’m so careful, how could this have happened to me?’ And the second I walked in the door, they were just warm, welcoming, human, but no pity, which is what you don’t want.”

Grace also attended therapy sessions at the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. She found writing a diary to keep track of her feelings and progress was extremely helpful, and also simple yoga exercises to reconnect herself back to her body following a prolonged period of disassociation.

The trial began 18 months after the attack, but shortly before the trial date, a year-long delay was mooted, news that Grace found out as she was preparing to fly back to Dublin from France and quarantine for two weeks before giving her testimony. She successfully advocated for herself that the original trial date stand.

She is highly critical of what she characterises as “inefficiencies” in the courts system, and the feeling that although a victim, you are cross-examined as a witness to the crime, and so she felt at times that she was on trial.

“By the end of the trial I was brought to my knees. I don’t wish that on my worst enemy. I don’t wish that on the offender. Even the attack hadn’t done that to me.”

It's extremely complex. You can't really move on completely without forgiving. It's one of the hardest things you'll have to do

She also successfully advocated for a physical screen to be used in court so that she would not have to see her attacker. This is permitted, but is very rare. As the attack took place in darkness, she had not seen her attacker’s face clearly, although she remembers his eyes. She did not want to see him in the courtroom, as she didn’t want “to put a face to my nightmares for the rest of my life”.

As a result of the stress preceding the trial, she felt at one point that she could not go through with it, but felt the burden of responsibility to others was too great. “The only thing that kept me going was if I leave, he walks, and this is going to happen again. And I can’t do that. I just could not live with myself. That was the only reason I stayed. It was not for me.”

She said she appreciated the judge’s remarks during the sentencing hearing, saying “after months of feeling I wasn’t being listened to and wasn’t heard, I finally felt acknowledged, that someone cared. That was more healing than the sentencing itself.”

When the trial began and was reported on, some online commentary that referenced the attacker’s nationality also upset her, “What pained me was people were using my life-changing trauma and piggybacking on my life-changing trauma to further their political agenda of racism and anti-asylum laws and all of that.

“I saw a few comments in the Twitter feeds and so on like, ‘I wonder what her views were on asylum laws before and after the attack?’ Well actually they haven’t changed, they’re exactly the same. I think I understand better than most people what it is to feel unsafe. And a lot of people coming to our shores are fleeing something. They feel unsafe. I understand that, and we should be trying to help them.”

Grace says she forgave her attacker “a while ago”, although the trial caused feelings of anger to bubble up. “I felt sorry for him. If the woman who was violently attacked and violated can forgive him, maybe others can find it in their hearts to rethink or question some of their preset beliefs.

“It’s extremely complex. You can’t really move on completely without forgiving. It’s one of the hardest things you’ll have to do, but it’s almost more about you than it is about him. The crime itself is the problem, the person is separate to that.

“At the end of the day, I had to fight a battle I asked for no part in. I had a choice: I could choose to resist and not forgive and be angry for the rest of my life, or I could make the decision to forgive and move on with my life.”

In her meeting with the DPP, Grace recommended that general information for witnesses be more forthcoming, including sticking to facts and not referencing things outside the facts of the case, that the DPP be more humane and sensitive in their email communication, and that victims are informed about their rights and options around physical screens and the potential for delivering evidence via video link.

We need to acknowledge that this happens to a lot of people – not just women, everyone

She also believes that one thing hampering closure for survivors is a broader societal silence around sexual violence. “You can still be this fun, flirty character, if you want. Your romance and your love life and your ‘fun’ life, isn’t gone. If anything on the contrary, you become so aware of the importance of what matters in life, you focus on that, and you kind of think, well I could be dead right now so I’m going to enjoy this, 100 per cent. But that only comes after you do the work.

“We need to acknowledge that this happens to a lot of people – not just women, everyone. It affects families, friends, colleagues. We can address it today. We can make that change today, just by not being afraid to reach out, speak up and not be afraid to hear what someone has to say. That is the most empowering thing anyone can do. Help the survivors take their power back.”

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact the Rape Crisis Helpline (1800-778888)

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