Stalwart victim savors freedom

Ebele Achonu woke up in the intensive care unit at Duke University Hospital and immediately thought to call her boss. She tried reaching for the telephone but couldn't move. Thickly wrapped splints immobilized both arms. A brace enveloped a deep gash on the back of her neck. Bandages wrapped her fractured skull, and tubes snaked from her body to the wall behind.

Her right hand was gone.

So she tried something else.

"Please help me with the phone," she remembers asking the nurse at her side. "I need to call my job. I won't be in today."

"They already know," the nurse replied. "You don't need to worry about work right now."

"What do you mean I don't have to worry? It is Monday. I'm supposed to work today."

"It's not Monday," the nurse said. "It's Wednesday."

Ebele's mind raced, and she began to absorb what had happened.

She thought back to Sunday. She remembered the phone call with her best friend from Nigeria, the discussion about her failing marriage and deep unhappiness. She remembered hearing her husband, Victor, come up behind her in their home in Southeast Raleigh. She felt blows. She glimpsed the machete. She remembered lying on her carpeted bedroom floor, staring at her two hands, limp and nearly severed, and watching her blood spread around her.

She remembered thinking she was dying.

Instead, she had survived one of the most brutal acts of domestic violence possible shy of murder.

And she realized at that moment, in that hospital bed, that she was free. No one would ever take that from her again.

Always independent

Ebele's resolve to push forward, so evident when she regained consciousness at Duke that Wednesday in October 2003, is common among victims of domestic violence. As for so many women, that drive created conflict in Ebele's marriage to Victor Achonu -- then served an entirely different purpose after the marriage ended and Victor was safely in prison: It propelled her through her recovery.

Ebele's independence defined her even as a schoolgirl, when her mother had worried that Ebele was "wayward," says her best friend from childhood, Amarachi Chibundu. That label, Chibundu says, is less an accusation of misconduct than a warning that the potential is there.

Ebele (eh-BELL-ay) befriended boys -- a taboo in Nigerian culture, even in the large, modern city of Enugu where she lived. She sneaked off to wear Western clothes and makeup, changing and washing her face before going home.

Ebele was also fiercely willful, says Chibundu, who lives in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, with her husband and young son. And so Ebele's mother, hoping to calm her down, pushed her to marry an older man.

"Where we come from, at that time, parents told you what school you could go to, what time you could be out, who you could see," Chibundu recalls. "It was not easy to put your foot down and stand up to your parents and say, 'This is the life I want to lead.' We don't have the independence that you have in America."

Ebele's mother encouraged her to marry Victor. So did a great-uncle who, because Ebele's father had left her mother when she was very young, was a father figure to Ebele. Despite her own misgivings, Ebele married Victor in Nigeria in 1992. He was 40, she 22.

"You have these dreams when you're young to marry the husband that you want to marry," Ebele, now 35, says. "And I had that dream, too. I said I wasn't going to marry someone more than five years older than me. But you know, this wasn't the case. A lot of family opinions were involved."

The Achonus' marriage was troubled from the beginning. Like many abusers, Victor took an obsessive interest in his wife's behavior. He accused her of sleeping with dozens of men. Ebele says she never did so.

Victor had moved to the United States in the early 1980s. He attended Shaw University, became a citizen, and married, then divorced. After marrying Ebele in Nigeria, he quickly returned to the United States with plans for her to join him when her visa came through. In the meantime, even from across the ocean, he sought to control her.

Ebele wanted an apartment of her own -- a flagrant violation of custom. Victor insisted that she live with his parents and forbade her to bring friends home.

Even now, Victor willingly rattles off detail after detail of what he considers evidence that Ebele was not faithful. At Lanesboro Correctional Institution in Anson County, where he is serving nearly 20 years for attempted first-degree murder, Victor maintains that Ebele began straying just months after their marriage.

"One of my cousins saw Ebele with a man walking down the street," Victor says, recalling an incident back in Nigeria. "My cousin immediately called my mother."

Though he insists Ebele was unfaithful, Victor, who sat for a three-hour interview in prison, does not dispute the facts in this article. These details come from Ebele, her family and friends, and court documents.

In 1996, when Ebele's visa came through, Victor demanded that she leave Nigeria immediately -- even though their 2-year-old son, Brian, would have to stay behind until his visa was ready. When Ebele protested, Victor and his family accused her of wanting to stay for dishonorable reasons.

"They said, 'Why are you not gone? All of a sudden you don't want to go to America,' " Ebele remembers. "I said, 'My son!' I mean is that not a reason not to want to go? And they said, 'There is a skeleton in your cupboard.' I said, 'There is no skeleton in my cupboard,' and I went [to the United States] just to prove that."

Rising frustration

Victor acknowledges that his preoccupation with Ebele developed as failures mounted in his life. He struggled to earn a living. And he found his shortcomings that much harder to bear as he watched Ebele take to her new home.

"She was dragging me down," he says. "I was working so much and Ebele was going about enjoying herself. She goes to parties by herself, talks with men, having sex with all these men."

The Achonus lived in an apartment for a few years, then bought a modest home in the Chastain subdivision near Garner. After Brian, the Achonus had two little girls -- Amarachi, now 7, and Chinwendu, 5.

In 1987, Victor had earned a bachelor of science degree in computer information systems. Yet he was earning a living the way hundreds of educated Africans in the Triangle do: by driving a cab.

Victor often talked about returning to school for another degree. Yet he did little beyond driving the cab. His credit was bad and he rarely had cash. He had defaulted on his tuition payments to Shaw, and he could not obtain a copy of his transcript until he made good on the debt.

Ebele embraced life in North Carolina. She entered nursing school, made friends, took a job as a nursing assistant at Rex Hospital. She bought a cell phone and wore stylish clothes.

Ebele managed the household finances, and she kept her own savings account. She used her credit rating to obtain a mortgage and paid cash for the Isuzu Trooper that became the family car.

Victor's economic plight depressed him, and so did Ebele's independence. It's a common marital struggle, domestic abuse counselors say. And it is heightened among immigrants who come from more male-dominated societies and arrive in the United States culturally isolated and economically disadvantaged.

Victor rarely ventured beyond his world of African acquaintances. The Achonus' friends were Victor's friends, and his only social outlets were work, where virtually all his associates were fellow Africans, and a Nigerian association that he belonged to.

Ebele says she tried to enjoy life with Victor. He didn't like going to restaurants. When she finally saw her first movie, in 2003 -- "Daddy Day Care," starring Eddie Murphy -- she went by herself. She took the children to the park alone or with friends. Victor showed no interest in such activities, she says.

Ebele grew increasingly unhappy with Victor's lack of motivation. And Victor grew more and more consumed by feelings of inadequacy and fear that he would lose his wife. He slept poorly and was responsible for several car accidents in his taxi, he says. About a year before the attack, he stopped driving the cab and took a shipping and receiving job at Sears.

And he grew more jealous and controlling. He began searching Ebele's receipts. He fiddled with her cell phone, checking incoming calls and dialed numbers to see whom Ebele was talking to. He would call her when he knew she was leaving class and keep her on the line until the next one started. Victor and Ebele both acknowledge that he was particularly suspicious of a male friend of Ebele's, a married man with children whom she had befriended and who, in a written note, had professed a deep fondness for her.

Victor believes they were lovers. Ebele says they were not.

Victor would also make strange comments about violence, Ebele recalls. Whenever news broke of a man harming his wife, he would take note and later remind Ebele of the story when they argued.

"This is the kind of thing that would push a man to do that," Ebele remembers him saying.

These are classic warning signs of battering, says Laura Hilton of Interact, an agency that serves victims of domestic violence. But the signs are commonly ignored, she says -- particularly in a culture that values stoicism and discretion within a marriage.

"In our tribe, you're not supposed to talk about your marriage," says Chinelo Azuka, 39, a friend of Ebele's in Raleigh. "It's almost like airing your dirty laundry." Like Ebele, Azuka belongs to the Ibo ethnic group of Nigeria.

Ebele kept her worries to herself until a few weeks before the attack. Finally, despairing that her marriage would ever work, she approached her mother, Miriam Chukwuka, 64, who had moved from Nigeria two years earlier to help with the children while Ebele attended school.

Speaking out about her marriage was a huge step for Ebele, but she was desperate. She felt that she had tried for years to make an unhappy marriage work. She couldn't do it any longer.

But Miriam, who had urged Ebele to marry Victor all those years ago, had little to say. "My child," Ebele recalls her mother saying, "you must make it work."

Ebele then turned to her best friend from Nigeria, Chibundu, pouring her unhappiness into the telephone at moments when Victor wasn't around. It pained her friend to hear Ebele's hopelessness so many miles away.

"I could not understand for the life of me why she ended up with this guy," Chibundu says. "We were so disappointed, her friends. We were supportive, of course. I couldn't have told her what I felt."

It became clear to Ebele that the marriage was ending. She told Victor she was unhappy.

On Oct. 5, 2003, he exploded.

Dark suspicions erupt

Victor behaved strangely from the start of that Sunday, when the family headed to services at First Baptist Church on Salisbury Street in downtown Raleigh. Ebele and Victor were both raised Anglican, but Victor did not attend services regularly before Ebele moved here in 1996.

When Victor attended church with the family, Ebele often elbowed him to keep him awake. But on this Sunday, Victor was agitated. He hadn't slept the night before.

When the family returned home, Ebele went upstairs to the bedroom. Victor followed her. Her cell phone rang. He looked at the number. It was the male friend, the one Victor believed she was having an affair with. He snatched the phone away and began shouting: "Hello? Hello? Hello?"

But the man couldn't speak quickly enough for Victor. He threw the phone across the room and shouted: "These are one of those people I told you not to talk to anymore! You see, they know it's me so they don't want to talk!"

Victor picked up the phone and threw it again, this time into the toilet. Again he picked it up and threw it. It broke into pieces.

Victor then left the room without saying a word.

On the bedroom phone, Ebele called her friend Chibundu from Nigeria, who was in France on business at the time.

"I was already in bed because of the time difference," Chibundu recalls. "It was late afternoon her time. She wanted to go off the line when she found out I was in bed. I said no."

As Ebele cried to Chibundu, she heard Victor return. Her mother and children were downstairs.

Victor looked into the bedroom. He assumed she was talking to the man he believed was her lover. He left, but quickly returned. Ebele continued to talk to Chibundu. She heard Victor lock the door behind him.

That's when her friend, 4,000 miles away, heard the screaming begin.

Chibundu didn't know what she was listening to. She heard no voices, no words, only the screaming. It seemed to go on forever.

"I didn't know it was a human being screaming," Chibundu says, her voice choked with sobs. "It was so awful."

Ebele thought Victor was hitting her with his hands. Then she guessed it was a stick, because the blows were so hard. Finally, she saw the blood -- and the gleam of the machete.

"Mom! Mom!" she cried out. "I'm dying."

Victor aimed for Ebele's head, first fracturing her skull and then slicing the back of her neck. But she raised her arms over her head, absorbing blows on her hands and arms. She fell to a fetal position on the carpet, prompting Victor to strike deeply into her knees.

Miriam and the children heard the screaming, too. They ran up the stairs and broke down the door.

"Oh Victor, oh Victor," both Ebele and her friend remember her mother saying. "What did I do to give my daughter to you?"

It was only when Chibundu heard Ebele and her mother speak that she began to fathom what was happening.

Victor finally stopped striking Ebele when the family came in. He left a trail of bloody footprints on his way out of the house, carrying with him the machete, which the Achonus used to butcher goat meat. The police never found it.

Miriam and the three children stood in the doorway, stunned at the sight of Ebele on her blood-soaked bedroom floor.

"They saw everything," Miriam says sadly of the children. "All of us went inside that room."

Ebele was alert. She told Brian, then 9, the eldest child, to dial 911. Brian did, not knowing his mom's friend was still on the line.

Chibundu remembers Brian's words exactly.

"Is this the police?" he asked. "You've got to come. My dad got mad at my mom and he hit her with a knife."

Chibundu hung up to free the line. It would be days before she learned that Ebele had survived.

Will-powered recovery

Ebele's will to push forward surged in those first moments after she regained consciousness three days later. It was equally evident at her first post-operative visit just 10 days after surgery.

Ebele was right-handed before the attack, but Victor's blows left the hand attached by little more than a flap of skin. Her orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Diane Allen of Duke, reattached the hand in surgery, but it never regained the blood flow to survive. Allen was forced to amputate.

"She came in walking, even though both knees had been damaged," Allen remembers of the post-op appointment. "She had a mild limp, no crutches. Her spirits were high. She's never shown any self-pity of any kind. And then the poor thing didn't want any pain medication."