Jane* reflects on that fateful morning 13 years ago when she learnt the devastating news: her father had assaulted her mother with a kitchen knife as she stepped off the bus on her way back home, killing her in a pool of blood.
“Had I been there, maybe he would not have killed her. Maybe he would have felt sorry for me…. I could have been with her,” says Jane, now aged 25.
On that day, Jane, aged 10 and her sister, 11, asked their mother if one of them could join her at work that day.
Shortly before their father assaulted their mother with a butchers’ knife, he ran into their then 12-year-old brother, who was on his way to his aunt, and asked if their mother had gone to work that day.
“He was my father. He asked and I said ‘yes’,” the brother, Mike*, now 26, says.
His youngest sister Debbie*, now 23, adds: “We never imagined our father would go to that extent.”
The three siblings have an impenetrable bond galvanised by the traumatic experience they shared. Catherine Agius was killed on July 13, 2009, when she was stabbed on a bus stop in Tarxien as she returned home from work.
Their father, Roger Agius, pleaded guilty to the murder and was jailed for 31 years in January 2012.
The siblings gather at the home of their grandmother – who raised them – to share their experience following the femicide of mother-of-two Bernice Cassar last month.
Cassar’s husband is charged with shooting her dead as she was on her way to work. The case has many parallels with their mother’s. Both victims were 40-year-old mothers killed by their estranged husband on their way to or from work.
Both had sought police help before the crime.
Jane says: “When I heard about the murder, it hit me straight in the heart. Bernice was 40 like mummy. She too had children who would wake up one morning and ask: ‘Where is mummy?’ How can you explain it to them?”
Since their mother’s murder, the term ‘femicide’ was introduced into Maltese law earlier this year.
But the siblings are not too impressed. While it may lead to a harsher punishment, it does not save the victim.
“It’s a word. What will be different? If a woman going through abuse comes forward, what difference will it make if no action is taken?” says Debbie passionately.
“Whenever there is a case [of femicide], everyone becomes an expert and talks about how ‘the system failed her’. People write poems and sing songs. But no one helped when she needed it. If someone asks for help, it should be immediate. People spoke before us. Nothing changed. I wish something I say could change things, but this will not be the last case, I’m sure.”
The siblings speak in one voice when they stress that, unless immediate action is taken when a domestic violence victim asks for help, nothing will ever change. And all three agree that children who lost their parents this way should not be forced into having contact with the parent who killed the other.
Debbie, Jane and Mike remember living together as a family. Their father was an alcoholic who often got violent. They saw him hit their mother, bang and throw stuff around the house and they remember police outside their door.
“He was not that abusive towards us. When we were up to something, there were times he slapped us. He did bang our heads together and hit us with a belt especially when he came home drunk. Back then it was a normal thing for us, so we did not see it as a big deal,” says Jane.
Mike recalls times when their father would lock them in a room for an entire day so he could drink while their mother was at work. She was the breadwinner as he would spend all his money on alcohol.
They remember the day they moved out – about a year before the murder – which remains etched in their memories as “one of the worst days”.
Their father was drunk and angry and he falsely accused their mother of having an affair with a family friend.
“I remember him throwing a wine glass and chasing after us and then we all started running around the table. Mummy left and came to nanna and called the police. No one bothered to come. The police called him to go to the police station, but he could not as he was drunk,” Debbie recalls.
Mummy left and came to nanna and called the police. No one bothered to come
Later that night, their mother returned home to pick them up, escorted by their uncle. The girls packed their bags, ensuring they had their school uniforms for school the following day, and eventually left with their mother.
“I remember that day I spotted the knife he killed her with placed on the kitchen sink,” Debbie recalls.
Mike stayed with their father as he had chicken pox and could not leave.
“I stayed there for another three weeks. The first day I was in bed, I could hear him hurl chairs at the door. He left one chair for him only at table.”
Eventually Mike joined his mother and sisters at their grandmother’s house where they continued to live.
The children had long been telling their mother she should leave. And when she finally did, the separation proceedings started.
Some time into the proceedings, the court gave the father weekly access visits with the children – who dreaded it. They begged their mother not to go but she told them it was a court order and they had to obey.
“When you are a minor, you can’t decide. We would cry and tell our mother we did not want to go. We knew what he did at home, but no one listened to us because we were children.”
Eventually their father stopped opening the door for them when they turned up and they stopped going.
The day of the murder
The murder happened in July, so the children were on summer holidays. They recall how the day before – a Sunday – they went to mass with their mother and, as she often did, she told them to pray that their father would change.
Debbie and Jane recall how they woke up early with their mother and asked her if she would be taking one of them to work.
“She worked at a laundry in Valletta and, in summer,
sometimes she’d take us to work in turns. We enjoyed it,” Debbie remembers. That morning, their mother encouraged them to sleep in and go to the beach as they were on holiday.
“Had we been with her, maybe he would not have killed her,” Jane ponders.
Mike bumped into his father that day and after that, he went to his Catechism lesson. The girls were home when their mother was meant to come home from work by bus at about 5pm. But she was running late, and their grandmother started to worry – as she often did whenever anyone was late.
Their grandmother recalls: “My other daughter came and said the road was closed. Then a neighbour came and told us there had been an accident involving my daughter on the bus stop a few metres down the road.”
Debbie and Jane have clear memories: “We went there and saw mummy’s bags on the ground and a big pool of blood. One shoe was in one place, the other elsewhere.”
People whispered around them, knowing something bad had happened. Looking back, it angers them that they were not told the truth immediately.
When our father killed our mother, he was dead to us too
“Initially they told us all would be fine. When we went to hospital later, we thought we would see her. But they told us she had died of a perforated lung,” Debbie says.
The children were told their father had slashed their mother’s chest open with a knife.
“When our father killed our mother, he was dead to us too,” Mike says. The siblings stuck together and continued living with their grandmother who took full custody of them.
“Thank God it was for her,” Debbie says loudly, affectionately addressed towards her grandmother, now 85, and hard of hearing. They also had the support of neighbours who involved them in activities after the murder.
The children had to face psychologists and other professionals but Mike confesses he did not feel comfortable.
“I ended up speaking because I wanted to look normal and if I did not speak, it would have seemed something is wrong.”
For them, the hardest part was facing people’s comments and looks. They would go to the grocer and hear people whisper: ‘Those are the children of that man’.
At school they felt they had the support they needed. Teachers and staff offered them support and their close circle of friends knew their story. But they did not want to broadcast it to everyone.
“I think we lived a pretty normal life and blended in. The only problem was when you are put on the spot. For example, if the teacher asked: ‘what does your father do?’ I used to say: ‘I don’t have a father.’ I would have rather said that than have to explain my story to the entire class.”
At the time, the three siblings used to say their father was dead – but they no longer do. Today they have no problem saying he is in jail, although there were instances of friends’ parents not allowing them to be their friends because of the crime.
A late apology
After the murder, their father apologised for what he did. But it was too late.
“I was always a reserved person,” says Mike: “Mummy was the only person I would open up to. She was the only person who really knew me. Once she died, I had no one… Saying sorry means nothing. He should have thought of it before. You can’t break a plate and fix it. It will remain broken.”
For a few years after the murder, their father tried to contact them and sent birthday cards, but they refused to speak to him.
A priest from prison would go to their home and tell them how sorry he was for what he did – but this angered them.
“How can you come here when I tell you I don’t want to hear any more and you keep coming? Why come here and reopen the wound?” Debbie says.
They feel their views were not given enough weight because they were children. But they were not small children, and on the brink of their teens when it happened.
Now, as their father is half-way through his jail term, they do not discount the possibility of speaking to him one day.
“Maybe I’ll cry. Maybe I’ll get angry. I don’t know. But there are questions only he can answer,” says Mike.
While a part of them wishes they did not remember anything about the ordeal, they are glad they were old enough to still have memories of their mother.
“We have memories when she would take us out with the bicycles and barbeques. That’s why we are thankful it happened when we were older. On one hand, we would not remember the pain, but we would not have these memories.
She always remained in our memories… especially this time of year as she loved setting up for Christmas together.”
The siblings preferred not to use their real names. While they are not ashamed of their story, they don’t want to relive the past.
Watch excerpts of the interview on Times of Malta.
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