On a cold January day in 2011, I walked into a newsroom aware that a tragedy of huge importance to our readers had just occurred.
he wedding picture of Michaela Harte, now McAreavey, had appeared on the front page of the Irish News, where I then worked, less than two weeks before. It was unusual for a wedding to make the front page, but Michaela was, even at the young age of 27, instantly recognisable to anyone with even a passing interest in Gaelic football.
She was the daughter of Tyrone manager Mickey Harte, and as the county team enjoyed success, Michaela became their mascot.
That picture on her wedding day of the raven-haired beauty, beaming with happiness with new husband John McAreavey by her side, would soon make the front pages again.
However, it would no longer symbolise a celebration.
Michaela had been murdered and I was being sent to Mauritius to report on an incomprehensible act of violence.
I had an hour to pack and make my way to the airport for the long journey to the Indian Ocean island — a flight to London Heathrow followed by a connecting flight to Mauritius that was over 12 hours long.
The plane was mainly filled with excited couples and a few young families. There were a handful of other journalists instantly recognisable by their dreary outfits next to those in their colourful holiday finery.
By the time more details about what had happened to Michaela emerged, I was already on a plane, out of contact with the newsroom.
I arrived to numerous text messages and email updates and no idea where to start other than at the beginning. So I made my way to Legends Hotel where the couple had been staying on the second leg of their dream honeymoon, the first having been spent in Dubai.
Michaela had been murdered in her room at the five-star complex, but why would anyone want to murder the gentle young Tyrone school teacher?
It was on arrival at the hotel that I got the first hint that this was not going to be a straightforward story to cover.
At the reception, I was greeted with a hot towel and a cold drink after my long journey.
Couples were checking in, romantic music was playing in the background, the splashes of water from the nearby pool and laughter of those enjoying the idyllic setting rang out.
There were no police, no crime scene, no worried hotel staff, no sign of anything untoward.
A young woman at the start of her married journey had lost her life in violent circumstances just days before and yet all signs of the murder had been carefully hidden from public view.
The staff member who took my bags to my room looked at me strangely. Maybe he thought I’d been jilted at the altar, it was clear this was not an establishment used to hosting women travelling alone.
I recall looking around at the room. It was the height of luxury, a huge round bath, a king-size bed, glass doors that opened out onto tropical gardens. The perfect place for John and Michaela to kick back, relax and just be in love, and yet I was there to write about her murder.
I ordered a taxi and headed to the Line Barracks in the island’s capital Port Louis. Like many of the government buildings in Mauritius, it was an old colonial-style structure. At this stage, I had been awake for the best part of 30 hours. Nothing, including the business-as-usual situation at the hotel, was making any sense.
I knew little of Mauritius before travelling. I now know it was uninhabited, home to the dodo, and first discovered by Arab sailors in the 10th century, who named it Dina Arobi — Desert Island. It was visited by the Portuguese and later the Dutch in the 1500s, who named it Maurice of Nassau, hence the name Mauritius. The French would later colonise the island using slaves stolen from Mozambique to farm the land.
The British came in the 1800s and took over, abolishing slavery and bringing cheap labour from India to care for the crops. You might wonder what this history lesson has to do with Michaela’s murder, but it’s important in understanding the class structure that still exists and that, I believe, impacted the original murder investigation.
At Line Barracks, I was directed to the murder investigation team. They were in a slightly dilapidated room, and around the table were other journalists who had also just arrived. They were mainly Irish with a few English tabloid reporters who had been dispatched to find out what happened to the beautiful girl with the perfect smile, now on every front page. A senior detective gave us a briefing, the first of many we would receive over the next week.
He had decided on a narrative — a robbery gone wrong. Questions were asked, but any deviation away from the robbery motive was quickly shut down. They had identified suspects. It seemed strange that he was so sure of this version of events.
The police officers were largely of Indian descent, the business and hotel owners mainly, like those who holidayed on the island, white European.
There is no official language in the constitution of Mauritius, but formal proceedings are usually in English or French.
Over 80% of the local population speak Mauritian Creole, a type of ancient French, and many also spoke Tamil and Hindu.
I found a taxi man who spoke all of these languages and without his help it would have been impossible to navigate the country and its cultural and religious sensitivities.
Most of the holidaymakers spend their time inside the large, lavish hotel complexes, with food, activities, spas, and white sandy beaches. But outside the hotel walls, life was very different. There were main roads to and from the airport and the capital, but venture off that and it was mainly dirt tracks. Families lived with three or four generations in one home. Sugar cane production was once a main employer, but now almost every family relied on tourism to survive. They were poor and hard-working people, but also gentle, kind and subservient to tourists in a way that made me deeply uncomfortable.
I visited the prime minister’s office to speak with him about the murder. He was keen to play down the danger. Every person in officialdom maintained the killers were in custody, but without forensics, eyewitnesses or any evidence at all, it was hard to share their confidence.
Throughout the week, I got to see and speak to many Mauritians. They were apologetic to a fault, but it was clear they wanted the story of Michaela’s murder to go away as it was not good for tourism and therefore their livelihoods.
On the day of her funeral, I attended a small church service organised by the tiny Catholic community on the island. It was simple, modest and fitting. While far from religious, I was aware of the symbolism of the prayers of the island’s faithful while thousands of miles away, people were gathering in Tyrone to say goodbye to their favourite daughter.
I was genuinely glad when my time there was up. This was only an island paradise for those soaking up the sun on a lounger. For everyone else, it was a difficult life with a very definite hierarchy of perceived worth. On the long journey home, I thought of John making that trip alone, his beautiful wife no longer at his side, a seemingly never-ending flight knowing his life had changed forever.
I hope he has managed to find some peace and happiness.
In July of the following year — exactly a decade ago today — the men accused of Michaela’s murder were found not guilty.
I can’t say I was surprised.
Hotel workers Avinash Treebhoowoon and Sandip Moneea were acquitted, unanimously, after a trial in which the prosecution had claimed the pair had murdered Michaela after she had come into the room and caught them stealing.
I have never believed that the family will get justice. The early days of the investigation were spent constructing a case around the chosen suspects rather than finding evidence and then arresting the culprits.
Michaela’s murder was in the headlines again recently after a song about her murder was chanted in an Orange hall. It rightly was condemned by all.
I struggled to get my head around why anyone would find reason to rejoice in the murder of such an innocent person.
I’ve reported on hundreds of stories since that week in 2011, but my time in Mauritius will always stay with me — the sights, sounds and smells of that island, its people, its police, court and the huge disparity of wealth that exists. It was a holiday that was to be the start of a new married life. However, it turned into a nightmare, and yet in Mauritius, life carried on as normal, as if it never happened.