Playing in the bush, I found one last branch to complete our makeshift hut. Then I lay down inside with my little sisters, Saliel, eight, and Olympia, seven.
‘It’s a palace!’ Saliel beamed.
‘Let’s live here forever,’ Olympia, known as Olly, grinned.
We’d had the same conversation a thousand times. Our imagination was the only escape from the living hell that was our reality. Our stepdad, Bruce Howse, brutally abused us and our mum Charlene.
At 13, I was the eldest and my sisters slept in my bed so I could try and protect them. But that didn’t stop Bruce. We’d be beaten with power cables, thrown against walls and punched in the face.
‘Hurt me, not them,’ I would plead with him. But answering back only angered Bruce more.
‘If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you all,’ he warned as he kicked us.
I had no doubt he was capable of it, so every night, I hid the kitchen knives under the fridge, then put them back before he got up the next morning. I was too frightened to tell anyone about the abuse. In fact, most of the time I could barely find my voice at all.
Knowing how shy I was, Saliel and I invented our own language using hand signals. A tomboy who loved sports, she was so brave.
‘It’s going to be me and you against the world,’ she’d promise me.
Despite everything, Olly always had a smile on her face and would sing whenever Bruce wasn’t around. Between the three of us, we made our own family, looking after our other brother and sisters.
Over the years, the police came to the house countless times. On a couple of occasions, Mum took us to refuges. We even lived with our grandparents Maymourn and Alan at one point, before the court sent us home.
Then when I was 16, I fell pregnant. Thinking of my child, I moved back in with Nan and Grandad. Leaving my siblings behind with that monster was the hardest decision, but I had to protect my unborn bub.
When I was six months pregnant, Mum came for dinner with the kids. Saliel didn’t leave my side.
‘Please, can I stay here tonight,’ she begged.
‘I’m sorry sis, I’ve got too much to do tomorrow,’ I said.
Saying goodbye later, I got an uneasy feeling, and in bed I couldn’t sleep. Saliel seemed more scared than usual, I tortured myself. Then in the early hours, a calm washed over me and I finally drifted off. At 4.30am, Nan woke me.
‘We need to go see your mum,’ she said.
I had no idea what was going on, but when we arrived, the street was swarming with police. Mum was across the road at a friend’s house, crying. The younger kids were with her but I couldn’t see Saliel or Olly.
‘Where are the girls?’ I panicked.
‘They’re asleep,’ Mum wept.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘For good,’ she replied.
She means dead, I realised, my legs buckling.
‘I need to see them!’ I screamed, running towards our home, but three policemen held me back.
Through the haze of it all, I discovered my sweet sisters had been stabbed in their beds. Saliel was 12 and Olly was 11.
‘It was Bruce,’ I cried.
Sure enough, he was later charged with their murder. In November 2002, Bruce Thomas Howse, 40, appeared at the High Court in Wellington, NZ, and pleaded not guilty.
The jury heard that accusations had been made about Howse sexually abusing Saliel and Olly. Child Youth and Family (CYF) had sent a letter to Mum asking her to make contact with them.
On December 3, 2001, she’d phoned the social worker. The court heard that, intent on silencing my little sisters, Howse crept into their rooms that night and stabbed them each once.
They died on December 4, having bled to death.
The prosecutor also read out a chilling note from Olly’s diary – My dad is going to kill me.
On December 4, 2002, exactly a year after the murders, Howse was found guilty of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum non-parole period of 25 years. Afterwards, the CYF admitted a series of failures.
I was consumed by guilt. If only I’d spoken up about the abuse, the girls would still be here today. When Grandad fell ill, his dying wish was for their ashes to be buried alongside him, so in December 2015 they were laid to rest together.
It’s been 15 years since I lost them but I still feel them around me all the time.
I now have two girls, 15 and 13, and two boys, 11 and 10. They are my life. Our house is full of love and we cuddle every day.
I’m speaking out to urge people who might be going through something similar to seek help. Not coming forward might be the biggest mistake of your life, like it is mine.
I want Saliel and Olly to be remembered as the beautiful bright girls they were – not just victims.
For information and support on sexual assault or domestic abuse, call Respect, a counselling helpline on 1800 737 732 from Australia or the Family Violence Information Line on 0800 456 450 if you're in NZ.
'The most cruel of all'
Throughout the trial, Howse claimed the girls’ mum, Charlene, had killed them and asked him to take the blame. At sentencing, Justice Lowell Goddard said that was one of the most terrible things about the incident.
‘It was the most cruel of all...’ she said. ‘Anyone who had to hear the evidence against you, which was overwhelming, could have no doubt about your guilt.’
This story was originally published in that's life! Issue 19, 4 May 2017.