The 32-year-old from Ulladulla on the NSW South Coast who greets her family and friends with joy and laughter looks like she’s just returned from a gap year in Europe.
In reality, she has landed in her homeland after more than eight years in a Peruvian prison.
“So much has happened since I left here. I had to rewire my brain into dealing with the fact that my life took place within thick walls, which I couldn’t escape from. Now I’m free and can see the ocean from my window. It’s unbearably beautiful and painful at the same time,” she says.
In 2008, Atherton was found at an airport in Peru with a suitcase full of cocaine. She was convicted of trafficking drugs and sentenced to 14 years in jail.
Atherton says her downward spiral was triggered by the sudden death of her three-year-old son when she was 21-years-old. “I had him very young – when I was 18 and living in Byron Bay, NSW. My boyfriend and I had been trying for a baby, so Shamaya came into the world, loved and cared for, but he died of a restricted bowel three years later.”
“My life was destroyed and I needed to get away because I didn’t want people to say, ‘Oh, that’s the girl whose kid died,’ so I went to Melbourne. From there I decided to go to Africa so I could help underprivileged kids.
But Atherton decided to travel nonetheless. “I’ve always been a drifter, so I went to Europe for a couple of weeks and then to Mozambique,” she says.
A month after her arrival her passport and precious photos of her son were stolen. “There’s no Australian consul in Mozambique so I had to travel to South Africa. I got a temporary passport at the border, and the consul leant me $200 when I got there. It took three months to get my new passport so I hitchhiked around South Africa while I was waiting. So much crazy stuff happened during that time.
Indeed, it was a chance encounter in South Africa that led to her eventual incarceration.
“I was in a cafe in Pretoria and this guy came up to me and said, ‘You look like you like to travel. I’m into trafficking gold, diamonds, marijuana, cocaine. Would you be interested in bringing something across the border?’ ” Atherton says.
“I couldn’t believe I was actually hearing someone say this. I was like, ‘What the hell?’ ” she says. “I said no to everything, but eventually said maybe I’ll bring marijuana with me on a bus to Swaziland.
“I was on self-destruct mode. I was running, running, running. I got on a train and as soon as I said ‘yes’, I couldn’t get off.”
‘Things can always get worse’
Atherton went on a wild six-month journey, traversing three continents and 22 countries, had a gun held to her head and was raped – twice. In the meantime, she discovered that the man who had raped her in Australia had infected her with HIV.
“I thought, ‘I’ve lost everything, my boy, my health, it couldn’t get any worse’ – or so I thought. I learnt, unfortunately, that things can always get worse.”
Marijuana was replaced with cocaine. “Eventually two friends did a mule run with cocaine and landed safely, so I did it a week later. I was told I was getting nine kilograms, which would have meant two-and-a-half years in jail, had I been caught. But I ended up getting 17.4 kilograms.”
In October 2008, she was given a bag that weighed 46 kilograms in a taxi in Lima, Peru, en route to Jorge Chavez international airport. “Every voice in my head was telling me it was insanity, but I did it anyway.
“The security guard came straight up to me and asked me to open the bag, which I didn’t have a lock for. Then they pulled me into a small room and someone stuck this poker through the bag and I could see that there was cocaine at the end of it.”
The bag contained two pillowcases full of cocaine as well as jumpers, cushions, blankets and all the things you’d need if you went to jail.”They knew that I had to buy everything once I got to jail, so they wanted to do the ‘decent’ thing and set me up,” she says.
“It was surreal. I just went through the motions,” says Atherton. “They didn’t launch a big investigation, they weren’t out to find the guys who put me up to it.”
She was charged with trafficking 17.4 kilograms of pure cocaine. “I pleaded guilty. There was only a hearing, not a trial. I got 14 years.”
After 15 days in a holding cell, she was sent to Santa Monica women’s prison in Chorrillos, a suburb of Lima, Peru.
‘I knew what I was doing’
Unlike Schapelle Corby, who returned home in May this year after nine years in Bali’s Kerobokan prison after being caught with four kilograms of marijuana in Bali in 2004, Atherton arrived home to no fanfare, no flashing lights, no paparazzi.
“That’s what happens when you’re guilty. Like, I knew what I was doing, I don’t deny that, but I wasn’t in a position where I made good decisions,” she says from her childhood home in Ulladulla earlier this week. “I wouldn’t have done it if I was healthy. Things like that don’t happen to mentally healthy people. I needed to heal, I was damaged,” she says.
“I feel bad for Cassandra Sainsbury,” says Atherton about the 22-year-old Australian facing several years in prison after being caught with six kilograms of cocaine in Colombia’s El Dorado airport in April this year. “People don’t know the difference between criminals and people who make mistakes.
“[In prison] I was surrounded by very violent women, women who killed their own children. Most of the mules I met aren’t like that. They just made a mistake. A really, really stupid one.”
Atherton was granted her freedom after eight years and two months. “I was released in December 2016 and spent the last seven months in Lima, waiting patiently to get my documentation to fly home.”
She was let out early due to health reasons. She says she would probably not have survived another year. “The battle for my early release was long and hard fought in the Supreme Court [in Peru], which took a lot out of me.”
Throughout her time in prison, HIV weakened her immune system and she required constant expensive medication. “I was sick all the time, either food poisoning or other diseases which spread in prisons. Also my mind was shattered.”
Despite this, Atherton says she gained a lot spiritually from prison and insists that hers is not a sob story. “I don’t want a pity party. I’m just having a full human experience – and many people suffer far worse than I do. I have used this time to heal my broken spirit and broken mind, so it hasn’t been a waste of time. It’s been a long journey that I’m still on, and I don’t feel like a victim. I want people to know who I am as a person. I am not my mistake, my prison sentence or my illness.”
She says that she is thankful to the people who helped her during her prison years. “People I never met supported me financially and filled out petitions to ensure my early release,” she says.
Atherton’s mother set up a Facebook page for her, and a petition for an early release. She received letters and money from people all around the world.
Everything cost money in prison – toilet paper, food, hot water, drinking water – so she couldn’t survive without donations.
Family friend Diana Black says Atherton is riding a roller-coaster of emotions since returning home. “She has been so resilient, always finding the positive in situations that others would find unbearable, always taking lessons from the pain.”
Atherton says she’s not sure where she’ll eventually settle, but is enjoying Ulladulla. In the coming year she plans to publish some of the 12 fantasy novels she wrote in prison. She also has around 200 colourful paintings from her time in Peru that she also wants to sell.
The biggest highlight of coming home has been seeing her mother, Robyn, and her friends and family. “Everyone is so loving towards me. I’m just not used to that. It’s something you should never take for granted and I’m so grateful.”
Atherton says she wants to use her experiences to help those who can’t help themselves. “I want to work with kids who are on the wrong path. I think my story can inspire them. The war on drugs doesn’t work and I want to address why people take them in the first place.
“We need to equip kids with the tools to cope with issues that happen in childhood, so they can deal with them in adulthood,” she says.Read original article in the Sydney Morning Herald here: