05.12.10

7 Student Travel Nightmares

From abductions in Africa to emergency evacuations from the Middle East, Constantino Diaz-Duran unearths tales of gap years and study-abroad trips gone terrifyingly wrong.

These days, traveling to a far-away country is as common among college students as pledging a fraternity, and from Spain to Somalia, virtually no destination is considered out of bounds. Student travel, through gap years and study-abroad programs, has become so casual that when something does go wrong—as it did when American student Amanda Knox famously ended up tried and convicted of murder in Italy last year—it comes as a disorienting shock to students who apparently thought that the world is one big Lonely Planet-approved adventure for the taking.

Knox, however, who was found guilty of killing her British roommate in a sensational, internationally watched trial, is not the first student to end up in prison abroad—and her roommate isn’t the first to have been murdered. From students marooned in the wilds of Ghana to military evacuations in Lebanon, The Daily Beast presents seven horror stories of student travel gone wrong.

Abducted in Uganda

Lucy Dickenson was 18 years old when she left Britain to volunteer at an orphanage along the Uganda-Rwanda border. Her gap year got off to a great start. “It was amazing. I was learning the local language, Rukiga, and I was settling in,” she told reporters years later. But everything changed after a group of tourists was murdered and mutilated by Rwandan Hutu rebels in Bwindi National Park, not far from where she lived. In fact, she had almost joined the group, but decided to stay back at the last minute because she had to work early in the morning. The region was declared a war zone after the massacre, and all Westerners were warned that they could be targeted. Lucy stayed for another three weeks, until one day when she was dragged out of her hotel room by a group of armed African men who forced her to watch as they stabbed a man to death in the neck. They let her go after the murder, and she escaped the village. A few days later, she returned to the hotel to get her things, and 10 minutes after she left her room, the entire building was blown to pieces. “The man on reception told me someone had been in my room and my post-trauma mind tells me the bomb had been put under my bed, but I'll never know,” she said. Nearly getting killed three times, however, was not enough to detract Lucy from her wish to help people in developing countries . She is now the head of The Safe Foundation, which runs development programs around the world, including in Rwanda and Uganda.

book-cover---angel-face
Angel Face: The True Story of Student Killer Amanda Knox. By Barbie Latza Nadeau. Beast Books. 224 pages. $14.95. ()

Starving in Ghana

The University of Washington was forced to compensate 17 students to the tune of $2,500 each in 2008 for what they called a nightmarish study-abroad program in Ghana. “We were essentially left out there to fend for ourselves,” Andrew Rakestraw, a senior at the time, told the school newspaper. The students claimed that they had no access to the program director and were fed meager meals. “An average breakfast was small, maybe an 11-inch loaf of sugar bread split between 17 people and a small bit of peanut butter,” said a participant in an interview with the university’s newspaper. Eight of the students had to be evacuated out of the country when they contracted diseases such as dengue fever and malaria. They claimed that the program coordinators did not offer proper attention to their illnesses, and continued to serve poor meals. “I realized I needed to get out of there because I wasn’t recovering from this sickness, and it was primarily from the lack of food,” said one of the evacuated students.

Raped in Guatemala

In 1998, 13 students from St. Mary’s College in Maryland were on a bus in Guatemala along with three faculty advisers when gunshots forced their driver to skid off the road. When they looked out the windows, they saw that they were surrounded by bandits with semiautomatic weapons. “I was the first person they pulled off the bus,” recalled Spanish professor Jorge Rogachevsky, months after the attack. The gunmen searched him, took his money, and ordered him to lie face down in a sugarcane field along the road. The plants blocked his view, but he could hear the attackers ordering everyone else off the bus. Angered because the Americans didn’t have much money on them, the bandits took revenge by brutally raping three female students, one on the bus and the other two in the field, just feet away from their helpless classmates. Upon their return to the U.S., the victims sued the college, alleging that it should have been aware that the road they were traveling was dangerous. In 2002, the school paid $195,000 to the victims to avoid a trial.

Evacuated from Lebanon

When Nadia Zahran, then a senior at Trinity College in Connecticut, arrived in Lebanon for a summer language program four years ago, she never expected to have her trip cut short by the most aggressive Israeli bombardment of the country since the 1982 Lebanon War. “The reason I picked Lebanon is that it was the safest place, I thought, in the Middle East,” she told reporters after she was airlifted and returned to America. “Two of the bombs that went off one night sounded like they were right outside my window,” she added, recalling one of the most frightening moments of her life. After two days of bombings, she was evacuated along with other students by the U.S. Army on a Seahawk helicopter. They were taken to Cyprus, then to Athens, where they were able to get on a flight home.

Murdered in Costa Rica

On Mother’s Day 2001, Jeanette Stauffer got a call from her daughter Shannon, who was studying in Costa Rica. The Kansas University student was thrilled to be in the popular Central American country, but just a few hours later, Stauffer received another call—one that every parent of a student abroad fears. Shannon had been stabbed to death in the town of Golfito, near the Panamanian border. Her body had been found along an abandoned airstrip access road just 30 yards from her host family's home. What followed for Stauffer was almost three years of an uphill battle through an unfamiliar justice system to find and bring her daughter’s killers to trial. When Costa Rican authorities proved unhelpful, Stauffer hired a local private attorney and American “cold case” expert. The ordeal left her $100,000 in debt and cost her her job, but she holds no ill will toward Costa Rica. In 2004, she decided to honor her daughter’s love for the country by opening a nonprofit English-language center in the town where she was killed.

Killed in a Crash in Ecuador

Rebels, bandits, and kidnappers are the usual boogeymen in study-abroad horror stories. But there is yet another peril students might face: dangerous, sometimes deadly roads. Four British teenagers and their tour guide died in Ecuador in 2008 while traveling from the capital, Quito, to a small fishing town called Jipijapa. Eighteen-year-old Indira Swann, and 19-year-olds Lizzie Pincock, Rebecca Logie, and Emily Sadler were killed along with 26-year-old Sarah Howard when their bus crashed against a sand truck a mere 30 minutes from their destination. They were part of a 15-week gap-year program, "Inca and Amazon Venture," organized by Warwick, England-based tour company VentureCo. It is not clear how the accident happened, but the truck driver fled the scene before police rescue crews arrived. Robin Logie, father of one of the victims, told reporters in the U.K. that he hoped the accident wouldn’t discourage other students from traveling. “I don't want anybody to be put off by what happened to our daughter,” he said. “It was an accident.”

Knifed in Panama

A year before Amanda Knox became famous for her alleged involvement in her roommate’s death, another American was accused of killing a fellow student abroad. Jared Williams was 23 years old when he was arrested in Panama for stabbing 20-year-old George Turner Ashby in the leg. The stab punctured a major vein, and resulted in Ashby bleeding to death before paramedics could get to the scene. Both students were enrolled in Florida State University, and had class together at the school’s Panama Canal Zone campus. They were finishing up the summer program, along with 50 other students. Witnesses said that the two men had been drinking, and might have gotten into a fight over a girl. Williams spent three weeks in a Panamanian jail before being released. His lawyer argued that the wound was not meant to be fatal and had been a matter of self-defense.

Constantino Diaz-Duran has written for the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Orange County Register. He lives in Manhattan and is an avid Yankees fan. You'll find him on Twitter as @cddNY.