In 2016 Rosie Ayliffe’s 20-year-old daughter Mia was murdered while backpacking in Australia during her gap year. She had just moved into a hostel in Queensland to take a job on a sugarcane farm when she was fatally stabbed by French national Smail Ayad. Another young backpacker, Tom Jackson, died later of wounds sustained while trying to protect Mia.
Nothing prepares you for news as calamitous as that we received on the evening of 23 August 2016. When the two police officers told us that Mia had been fatally wounded we were given very few details. But I remember feeling a sense of deja vu, almost as if I’d known this was going to happen.
Since then, I have been asked over and over how I felt on receiving that news. The absolute truth is I felt nothing. It was like I disassociated from my emotions, as if I were a bad actor in a movie I didn’t want any part of. I’ve learnt now about coping strategies and grief, about how the mind goes into denial, but at that point I was watching myself and wondering what was wrong with me.
In the months after the murder I found my grief had a physical impact on my body. I went from being an active person who took care of my physical and mental states to being literally crippled by grief: the effects of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) took their toll manifesting in joint pain, exhaustion and tension. I could no longer work as a teacher because I couldn’t face those rows of teenagers: constant reminders of my own daughter and her untimely death.
Although the physical ramifications were to stay with me for a good while, I found ways to manage my mental state through long-held therapeutic practices and positive self-talk. But I decided I owed it to my daughter to face her killer and so in 2018 travelled to Australia to be present at his trial.
I didn’t feel angry or afraid, but loss, and pity, and a profound sense of dejection and grief for all the people who had suffered that awful night, not least Ayad himself.
I was fearful of this man who had previously been considered too dangerous to appear in court because of the savagery of his attacks on Mia and Tom, and his subsequent aggression towards the police. But I also felt a need to find some way to connect on a human level, and to find some degree of understanding of his destructive spree that night.
On the one hand I knew he deserved to be sentenced to life imprisonment but on the other hand the idea of justice providing some sort of closure for the victims was completely alien to me; I couldn’t see how I would ever benefit from another person’s suffering, especially when that person was clearly mentally ill.
In court Tom’s father, Les Jackson, and I waited for the man who had killed our children to appear. I fully expected to see a huge, grinning, swaggering and testosterone-driven monster. So, when a somewhat wizened and broken-looking man shuffled in, none of us really paid much attention until we realised he was shuffling because his legs were in chains. He looked exhausted and depressed.
The proceedings were all about his mental-health issues. The facts are that after killing Mia, Ayad dived head-first from the balcony, breaking vertebrae in his back and neck. After he was arrested, he refused food and medication, and had to be kept alive through forced feeding for months.
I knew many people were wishing him and his family pain and anguish and even death. I understood their thoughts. But when I read out my victim impact statement I spoke about how although nothing could undo the pain of what had happened, I wished Ayad and his family peace.
When I said that Ayad’s realisation of what he had done was worse than anything that could be inflicted on him he looked up at me for the first time and we stared at each other in silence. I think the fact I refused to vent about hating him made an impact. And I then realised that this was why I had flown halfway around the world – in the hope of achieving that connection.
In her summing up, the judge passed a message back to Les and me from Ayad expressing his grief for what he had done to Mia and Tom, and the fact that he cried every day when he recollected that fact. I really do believe that to live with having taken the lives of two people must be a life sentence in itself.
Prior to entering court I had written this letter to Ayad’s mother which said: “Family members present in court would like to convey our deepest sympathies to you. We understand that your suffering is not dissimilar to ours and we bear no ill will to you.”
She was not in court, but her liaison officer gave me her response which said: “We share your immense pain and grief because I am a mother first and foremost, but words are too weak to ask for forgiveness. My son has never been aggressive, violent or nasty in his past life…It is a nightmare. May you one day find peace in your hearts.”
From the beginning I never put myself under pressure to forgive. The act of killing was a manifestation of something the perpetrator couldn’t control: insanity, possessive fury, a psychotic episode, or perhaps elements of all three. Whatever it was, I don’t believe he had deliberately gone out to kill Mia or Tom.
Whether or not people think I am mad to be able to forgive Ayad, I don’t care, because it is consistent with Mia’s own values since she was a little girl. We both believed that you can only move on in life through love and forgiveness, which was the path she tried so hard to tread herself.