October 30, 2003 - Dayton Daily News: Murder victim Nancy Coutu speaks through diary

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Special Reports: October 26, 2003: Dayton Daily News reports on Peace Corps Safety and Security: Archive of Primary Source Stories: October 30, 2003 - Dayton Daily News: Murder victim Nancy Coutu speaks through diary

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Murder victim Nancy Coutu speaks through diary





Connie Coutu holds a collection of her daughter's journals. Her daughter, Nancy, died while serving in the Peace Corps.


Read and comment on this story from the Dayton Daily News on Peace Corps Volunteer Nancy Coutu who was found outside her village in Madagascar in the early morning of April 9, 1996. Her attackers, known cattle thieves, had struck her head with a hatchet. Coutu died instantly, and then was raped. Until her body could be identified and collected, the villagers covered her body with a canopy of fabric and guarded her, according to a volunteer who went to identify her.

Her mother, Connie Coutu, who is 70, decided to publish a book of her daughter’s journals and letters as a way to preserve her voice. "It was just something I had to do. I also wanted people to know Nancy and her sacrifice," Connie said. "But I also wanted people to know what actually happens to a person when they go in the Peace Corps, and the kinds of dangers they are constantly exposed to." Read the story at:


Murder victim speaks through diary*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.



Murder victim speaks through diary

Grieving mother says book should be required reading

By Mei-Ling Hopgood and Christine Willmsen
Dayton Daily News

Nancy Coutu’s journals, tucked in a box with a pair of worn-out pajamas and an African cloth skirt, arrived from Madagascar several weeks after her death.

Coutu, 29, was bicycling to a meeting with fellow Peace Corps volunteers in the early morning of April 9, 1996, when she was killed by a blow to the head and then raped.

For months Connie Coutu could not bear to look at the journals, filled with page after page of her daughter’s looping handwriting. The pain was too raw.

Finally, one quiet afternoon on her living room sofa, Coutu started reading and didn’t stop until her vision blurred from the tears.

Aug. 27, 1994

I’ve never been faced with reality in such intensity. There were more poor people than I have ever seen. Children following us begging, sweaters with the wrists or sleeves ripped off, dirty faces, skinny arms and legs. I had a hard time not crying on the way back on the bus.. . .I have never seen such poverty before. But I don’t want to be na•ve any more and I want to understand what’s going on in the rest of the world.

In those diary pages, and from Nancy’s letters home, Coutu found the daughter she lost: a young woman who cherished her experience in the Peace Corps but felt she was not doing enough. Nancy was searching for herself, for acceptance and for love in a far-off place.

Connie Coutu, who is 70, decided to publish a book of her daughter’s journals and letters as a way to preserve her voice.

"It was just something I had to do. I also wanted people to know Nancy and her sacrifice," Connie said. "But I also wanted people to know what actually happens to a person when they go in the Peace Corps, and the kinds of dangers they are constantly exposed to."

Nancy Coutu, a native of Hudson, N.H., joined the Peace Corps in 1994 at age 27, one year after graduating from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in wildlife management. The agency sent her to Bereketa, or "Big Cactus," an isolated village of about 350 people five hours by bike from the nearest volunteer.

According to her journals, Coutu discovered during orientationthat she would be living alone.

"I guess that news disappointed me some, but I’m sure I’ll grow from whatever experience I’m in," she wrote. "Being alone may be tougher though. Yet being with one other person may not allow me to rely totally on myself, so who knows which would be better."



Nancy’s journals and letters reveal the ups and downs of a volunteer’s life and her struggles establishing regular work, coping with isolation, loneliness and culture shock, as well as her love for the villagers and excitement about small accomplishments. She spearheaded the rebuilding of a school, taught English to park rangers, grew an elaborate garden, and taught villagers to make necklaces with beads her mother sent her. Before she died, she had planned to paint a school mural showing children on a world map.

Feb 25, 1996:

I’ll feel better when it’s time to go if I get a bit more done before I leave. I must admit, if I could do nothing for my last 8+ months here except plant vegetables, pick peanuts and socialize with villagers I would. But I know I couldn’t do it guiltlessly. I’ll get a little something done on the side, to make it seem like I’m working. Maybe that should be the definition of Peace Corps, "the toughest job you’ll ever have at making it seem like you’re doing something."

Nancy had both health problems and minor crime problems. She had abscesses on her legs, infected nails and dysentery. She tested negative for HIV after a man stabbed her with a needle. She also had her bike stolen.

She was a day-and-a-half away by car from the agency’s headquarters in the capital. Her mother, who originally did not want Nancy to go to Africa, became so worried about her isolation while visiting her in July 1995 that she went to the agency’s offices and demanded they supply Nancy with a radio in case of emergency. When they said they couldn't do that, Connie threatened to go to the press. The agency installed radios in volunteers' homes.

"I figured that’d make you feel better," Nancy told her mom. "Your complaint got action."

March 25, 1996

21 cattle thieves with guns recently passed close to our village and robbed some people walking on the road.

At about 4 a.m. on April 9, 1996, Nancy rode her bike down a dirt road to meet with other volunteers for a project meeting.

Her body was found later that morning almost a mile and a half from her village. Her attackers, known cattle thieves, had struck her head with a hatchet. Coutu died instantly, and then was raped. Until her body could be identified and collected, the villagers covered her body with a canopy of fabric and guarded her, according to a volunteer who went to identify her.

The director of the Peace Corps, Mark Gearan, called the Coutus. Within 48 hours, most of the rest of the Peace Corps volunteers were being evacuated to the capital city. Ten days after the murder, the Peace Corps inspector general had arrived to assist in the investigation, and a few days after that a man named Sombila and two others were jailed.

Peace Corps and media reports said Sombila and his partners planned the attack after Coutu refused their advances at a gathering. In June, the men were convicted and sentenced to death, although their sentences were commuted to life in prison. The following year, Sombila escaped from prison and was on the loose for six months before being recaptured.

In letters to the Coutu family, volunteers said nothing could have been done to prevent Nancy's death. Her parents weren't so sure.

"Was Nancy’s death preventable? I have to wonder if there was another person traveling with her if they would have gone after her," Connie said. "And of course I’ll never know."

Nancy’s father, Roger, added: "She’s out there on her own and in a very isolated part of the world. They should have a radio check in every day — some type of security measures like a buddy system, and there should be at least two of them to a site.

"There could be many measures to make it safer for those young people out there."

Many volunteers prefer to live on their own, so they can be immersed in the language and culture. The Peace Corps says one of the best ways volunteers can protect themselves is to develop close ties in the community. In recent years, the agency has increased security staff worldwide. Yet, like Nancy Coutu did, many volunteers still live alone in places where communication with the headquarters or other volunteers can be difficult.

A year after her daughter's death, Connie Coutu visited Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., to see photos of her body. At the entrance to the building, she stared up at the glass memorial to fallen Peace Corps volunteers. The Peace Corps had told the press that her daughter was the 14th volunteer to be murdered. Yet her name was one of more than 200 etched on the list of volunteers who had died from any cause, including accidents and health problems.

"Why isn’t this information given to every new trainee?" Connie wrote in her book. "These are the lives of our love(d) ones. Maybe they would think, ‘It could happen to me’ and would be constantly cautious and not drop their guard."

She completed the first version of her book last year and sold about 700 copies, mostly in the two cities where she splits her time in New Hampshire and Florida. The book bears the same name as a school in Madagascar: "Souvenirs de Nancy."

She is now rewriting the book and plans to publish a new version. She hopes to talk to Peace Corps about making it required — or at least recommended — reading for new volunteers.

She doesn’t want them to forget her daughter’s life, or her death.

Nov. 26, 1995

"Well I finished the school today — YEAH! A major high for me!! I got three guys to mud the last wall with me this morning. Then I painted the windows and doors and trim around each. It’s downright beautiful. I was thinking as I was working, that everywhere I’ve been I leave a pretty scene behind. Every apartment I’ve been in is freshly painted or stenciled, and every relative/friend of mine has a stained glass or macramŽ. . . . It’s a neat feeling. The villagers will call the school "Souvenirs de Nancy" when I’m gone, which is so true. It’s nice to know a mark of my beauty will be left here too."

[From the Dayton Daily News: 10.30.2003]



July 23, 2002 - Nashua Telegraph: Remembering the life cut short of Madagascar PCV Nancy Coutu





Read and comment on this story from the Nashua Telegraph on July 23, 2002 about a book which has been published postumously from the journals of Nancy Coutu. Ms. Coutu was a volunteer who was murdered in the field in 1996. The book was edited by her mother based on the extensive letters and journals which Ms. Coutu kept based on her experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar. Read the story at:

Remembering a life cut short*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.



Remembering a life cut short

By ANNE LUNDREGAN, Telegraph Staff lundregana@telegraph-nh.com

She wrote of planting vegetables, grinding rice and building a village school.

Nancy Coutu filled pages in her journals and letters to her family with her experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar.

She wrote about seeing lemurs and cockroaches, about children in dirty and ripped clothing and about teaching villagers how to sing Christmas songs.

Her mother, Connie, compiled those letters and journal writings for a book, "Souvenirs de Nancy." (Top Shelf Books; $14.95; 367 pages)

Nancy, who grew up in Hudson, was murdered by three men in April 1996 near the remote village of Bereketa, where she was living.

While working in the Peace Corps, Nancy asked her family to save the letters she mailed them. She also sent her mother rolls of film for safekeeping.

Soon after Nancy died at age 29, Connie received about three journals in the mail.

"Her journals were so detailed," she recalled.

Looking at the journals and letters, Connie thought that if her daughter had returned safely she would have wanted to write a book about her experiences.

Instead, Connie, who lived in Florida, became the one in charge of reading all her daughter’s words, editing them and compiling a book.

She began work on the book shortly after Nancy’s death.

"It was really a joy because she was alive to me," Connie said.

The journal entries and letters reflect Nancy’s gregarious nature, her leadership and her get-it-done attitude, Connie said.

But the book doesn’t include everything; Connie did not include some entries that were too personal or were redundant.

It often took two to three weeks for Nancy’s letters to reach home. In addition to writing to her family, she wrote letters to her mother’s classes and to friends.

It was a chore for Nancy to send and receive mail. She had to bicycle 35 miles to a nearby town to pick up her mail, a trip she made almost every two weeks.

Her letters home realistically portrayed the challenges and rewards of being a Peace Corps volunteer and the absolute poverty she encountered, said Connie, who had visited her daughter in Madagascar.

"When I was typing this up, everything was very realistic," she said. "The trip changed me . . . to realized what life is like in a Third World country is an experience no one can get unless they’re there."

Most people in the United States probably cannot imagine living without running water or electricity, Connie said.

"The beauty of the people was everywhere, but so was the poverty," she said.

Nancy entered the Peace Corps after studying wildlife management at the University of New Hampshire. She started school late, at age 22, after working for several years.

For two summers, Nancy worked at Elm Brook Park in West Hopkinton. While there, she started a junior rangers’ program. There is now a memorial at the park to her.

In her application to the Peace Corps, Nancy wrote that she wanted to "dive into a challenging job, one where I can make a difference in the lives of others and that will make a difference in my life."

Initially her mother was against the idea, arguing that there were poor people in the United States who Nancy could help.

"I didn’t want her to go," Connie said.

She told her daughter that she’d be going to a place where she didn’t know how U.S. citizens were accepted and that it may be dangerous.

"She felt she had to go . . . it was a calling," Connie said. "She went with my blessing."

"She really loved helping others and making a difference in their lives, but there many times it was very difficult for her."

While in Bereketa, Nancy helped the villagers grow vegetables for money to be used for a community pharmacy, rebuild the village school and construct a hospital.

There were dangers, however, and Connie feels that the Peace Corps should have done more to protect Nancy and other volunteers.

"I feel that the Peace Corps does not do nearly enough to keep their people protected," she said. "There are Americans who go into help the poor of the world, but they need more protection."

Connie thinks that there should be two volunteers on every site, that volunteers should be taught self-defense and have the capability to communicate with the corp’s main office.

Since Nancy’s death, her family, friends and the people she worked with have sought numerous ways to memorialize her life. She was knighted in Madagascar, a rare honor for a woman. A clinic in Bereketa was dedicated to her, as was as a Peace Corps stamp.

For the people in her village, Nancy’s death was like losing a family member.

"Everyone’s faces were wet with tears," fellow volunteer Joe Schaeffer wrote Connie in a letter. "I want to express somehow what this scene means to the Malagasy. They were treating the situation exactly as they would have had it been someone of the village who had been killed."

Connie hopes that the book helps people understand what it means to the Peace Corps and to learn more about Nancy.

"The book really reflects here," she said. "By the end of the book they get to know her."

Anne Lundregan can be reached at 594-6449.




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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Safety and Security of Volunteers; Investigative Journalism; COS - Madagascar

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