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When Chris Ver-Haest left a friend’s house in north London on 16 July 2017 he was going to buy cigarettes and water from the local shop. It was 10.45am on a Sunday. He would never return.

He had stayed at the house the previous night after an impromptu farewell party – a last hurrah before moving to Madrid. He was beaming. The possibilities of what lay ahead stretched out like a childhood summer holiday.

There was another reason to beam: Amid the evening’s wine and laughter he had met a young man. They kissed. They planned to meet up again.

But 15 minutes after leaving the house, he would be lying in the road in a foetal position. His right leg would be broken in four places; his ankle smashed. He never made it to Madrid.

Instead, five months later, Ver-Haest would be standing in a nearby court testifying against the man responsible, who would be facing a charge just below attempted murder: grievous bodily harm with intent. His name is Kamil Snios. He had ensured that Ver-Haest paid for Snios’s hatred of gay men with almost everything he has.

Ver-Haest’s leg has not recovered. It never will.

The hostility gay people face had never been a particular preoccupation for Ver-Haest. Being Chinese-British, it was racist abuse he suffered growing up, and when he heard about homophobic hate crimes the magnitude of what they meant did not register properly.

Ver-Haest changed a lot in 15 minutes.

Five weeks after the attack, he sits on a bench in east London with his smashed, swollen leg stretched out, describing the events and its aftermath to BuzzFeed News.

His was just one of 80,000 hate crime incidents in the last year, with 1 in 5 LGBT people saying they have been targeted. Ver-Haest wants others to know what such hatred does and from where it comes.

“There needs to be a way that people really see what’s happening,” he says.

There is something else, though, that emerges during the hours we spend together: a picture of hatred’s inverse.

People helped Ver-Haest in ways he could never have imagined. And when he took to the witness stand, there was someone still rooting for him, months later: the young man he met the night before the attack.

This is a story about hate and love, and how they derail everything.

On the weekend of 15 July, Ver-Haest, 36, was only back in London for a few days before heading to Madrid.

After nearly 20 years working in hospitality he needed a complete change, something that would help people develop. He had embarked on a course to teach English as a foreign language.

“I wanted to do something more rewarding,” he says on the bench in Hackney five weeks after the attack, in a clearing set back from the roadside. He wears shorts and a white shirt. He looks younger than his age but has a gently confident voice that carries a sort of refined authority.

It is the beginning of what would become a five-month conversation. At this stage, Ver-Haest speaks in an almost detached, factual way, shifting between past and present tense. He talks about growing up in Suffolk and London, and says his family background was complicated. Depression beset him as a young child.

He starts to describe the events leading up to the attack.

With his teacher training completed and a job secured in Madrid, Ver-Haest was on his way to a new life. He thought nothing of the get together that night in Tottenham: old friends mostly, but with some of their friends too. One of whom was the man he kissed. His name is Santiago. Although only 20, he was more than attractive, and intriguing enough to pique Ver-Haest’s interest. There was another man he hardly knew there too, a straight man called Adam.

The next morning Adam and Ver-Haest set off up Stamford Road, just off Broad Lanes, to pick up supplies from a corner shop. On the way they noticed something unusual: a house party still raging on the first floor of a nearby building. Noise was wafting from the balcony.

As they passed by, chatting, Ver-Haest gave Adam an affectionate pat on the back: the gesture of a newfound friend.

They picked up milk, water, and cigarettes, and started heading back.

“As soon as we get onto Stamford Road, he [Kamil Snios] is on the opposite side of the street and walks directly towards us. He looked like he was on a mission.”

Snios was muscular and broad-set with a shaved head, jeans, trainers, and a navy zip top. As he neared the two men he jutted his arm out straight from the shoulder, holding a cap in his hand: an odd gesture, Ver-Haest thought.

“He looked wired, in a kind of tunnel vision, like he’d been up drinking all night.” Ver-Haest also thinks drugs were in his system, so crazed and otherworldly was his demeanour.

“He said, ‘Have we got a problem?’ I was closest to him, and was like, ‘No mate’ – trying to not engage or make eye contact. The cap was about head height from me and he hit me in the face with it. Then he starts shouting and pushing.”

The shouting was in Polish – Snios’s mother tongue – so Ver-Haest did not know what he was saying nor have time to consider what was about to happen.

“He kicked my right leg.” This was not an ordinary kick, he says, but one so precise and destructive that it seemed to him to be a learned, specialist technique with one purpose: to obliterate. It knocked Ver-Haest to the ground.

“I didn’t register the level of pain,” he says, “but he broke the leg straight away.” It fractured right through.

This was just the beginning. Snios kept kicking. He focused on one target: Ver-Haest’s lower right leg. He kicked and kicked, below the knee, across the shin, around the ankle, again and again and again, a frenzy of strikes, breaking and smashing each bone, one by one.

Kamil Snios

Google

In between, Snios grabbed their bag of shopping and threw it to the floor. At first, Ver-Haest had no idea what the motivation was.

“I didn’t really know what was happening apart from me being on the floor and thinking, ‘I need to get up and get away.’ But when I tried to get up I couldn’t understand why my leg was just buckling.”

A passerby – a middle-aged man – tried to intervene and help Ver-Haest and Adam, but gauging the ferocity of the attack, quickly left.

When Ver-Haest did manage to stand up on his left leg, Snios reacted quickly. “He came over and kicked that one out, so I’m on the floor again.” Ver-Haest tried again, but each time Snios would knock him back down.

As he was doing this, another man was shouting in Polish from the nearby first-floor balcony where the party noise had emanated.

“He was cheering him on, whooping like it was some kind of spectator sport, laughing every time he sees me get knocked over.”

A conversation ensued between Snios and his cheerleader – a type of call and response, again in Polish, but the overall meaning of which was clear to Ver-Haest. The other man was encouraging him, goading him, revelling in every blow.

“He was cheering him on, whooping like it was some kind of spectator sport”

“He was so excited and elated to be seeing what he was seeing,” he says, as if “this is the best entertainment ever”.

When Ver-Haest was on the ground, incapacitated, Snios turned on Adam.

“He got him on the floor once or twice – same move,” he says referring to the kick. But it did not land in the same way, failing to break Adam’s leg, leaving him able to stand up again.

“At some point Adam is able to come and help me,” says Ver-Haest. “I put my arm around his shoulder and tried to lightly put my foot on the ground and it’s so painful I pulled the two of us over. I tried to do it again. Snios comes over and kicks my leg again. I tried putting my arm around Adam’s shoulder two or three times but we just ended up on the floor, either because Snios kicked us down or I couldn’t take the pain.”

Ver-Haest tried reasoning with Snios, telling him his leg was broken, to stop, that they would go away. “I was trying not to appear like too much of a victim.”

He then climbed on Adam’s back hoping they could escape that way. “But my foot is loose, it’s bobbing around and that’s so painful I pull us down because I can’t take it. I can feel the bones moving in there; it’s completely loose.”

What Snios did not know was that from this point a local resident was filming the incident on a mobile phone.

Ver-Haest resorted to crawling; dragging himself along the ground by his hands, with Adam helping, pulling him – anything to try to escape round the corner. But then another element to the attack crept in.

“Snios comes up and because I’m in that [sitting] position his crotch is at my head height. He starts to unbuckle his trousers. I didn’t know what he’s saying because it’s in Polish but the tone has changed.”

Despite the language barrier, Ver-Haest sensed what Snios was saying. It was, he says, a threat of sexual violence but with the snarling suggestion that Ver-Haest would enjoy it, as if to say: This is what you want, isn’t it?

“Something stopped him,” says Ver-Haest – he did not undo his trousers any further. And seemingly exhausted after such a sustained attack, Snios took the cigarettes Ver-Haest had just bought, waved them over his head in a way that one of the officers later described as “like a trophy” and walked off, back towards the block of flats.

Ver-Haest and Adam managed to drag themselves around the corner. But still only 50 metres away, Ver-Haest was terrified Snios would come back for them.

Adam rang for an ambulance. A few minutes later, a passing police car stopped to help. They called for assistance – the culprit was dangerous and still just metres away. Another two police cars arrived soon after.

Armed with a description of both Snios and the man cheering from the balcony, four officers went into the building to make an arrest.

Meanwhile, Ver-Haest was being stretchered into an ambulance and driven to Homerton hospital. There an officer took his statement as doctors cut his trousers and put his leg into traction.

Laura Gallant / BuzzFeed

“They had two people extending my leg out to try to get all my bones in a relatively straight position and then the third person applied all the plaster of Paris,” he says.

X-rays revealed multiple, complete fractures in his tibia and fibula bones, which lead from the knee to the ankle: a displaced fracture to his distal tibia, a displaced fracture to the tibia shaft, and a displaced fracture to the proximal fibula. As well as the clean breaks there were splinters of bone unattached, with the ankle smashed into fragments. It would take major surgery to hold everything together.

But first, late that night, as Ver-Haest lay in his hospital bed, he received a phone call from a police officer that would confirm his suspicion: They were targeted for a reason.

“He said they’d caught the guy [Snios] and was shocked because he admitted very clearly what his motivation was. He said he had seen us walking down the street and thought we were a gay couple and was disgusted by it, and that’s why he did it. The police officer said he’d never heard anything like that in his 17 years.”

It wasn’t the homophobia itself that was new to the officer. It was, says Ver-Haest, the fact that he had never known anyone to believe so completely that they were in the right.

But it was a confession, not only to the violence but also to the motivation. There was now no doubt: This was a hate crime.

Two days later, Santiago, the guy Ver-Haest had met at the party, came to visit him in hospital. His presence would prove transformative over the coming days and weeks.

The surgery on Ver-Haest’s leg required a titanium nail to be inserted down the length of his tibia, with a succession of screws in his leg and ankle clamping fragments of bone together. Extensive physiotherapy would be necessary almost immediately.

But the nurses, he says, were late giving him painkillers before the first session.

“Half an hour later, the physio gives me this [walking] frame and I manage to get up slowly, support myself on the frame but it’s blindingly painful. I get about five feet away before I need to get back.” At the end of the session, knowing what the intensity of the pain was about to unleash, Ver-Haest asked the physio to close the curtain.

“I got as small as I could and wept for half an hour,” he says. “It was devastating.”

There was only one thing that helped him cope. “I thought about the guy I’d met at the party,” he says. “I thought about his face. That simple joy of meeting someone as lovely as he was, was the only refuge I could find at that point.”

Ver-Haest was in hospital – on seven types of medication – for five days before the next stage: recuperation. His surgeon said at the time that although the injuries could take a year to heal, ending any hope of moving to Spain in the near future, they would eventually do so. Ver-Haest had no idea how optimistic this prognosis would prove to be. And to begin with he had to grapple with the volume of practical obstacles lining up.

“I got as small as I could and wept for half an hour”

Having given up the lease on his flat to move to Madrid, Ver-Haest now had nowhere to live, and without the job in Spain or the ability to work due to his injury, no money. He took to staying with a succession of friends, a week here, two weeks there, sitting all day on their sofa, watching television with his leg elevated, trying to take care of himself.

Santiago would come to visit him wherever he was. “That’s been truly lovely,” says Ver-Haest. “He was totally there and had to sit and try to support me.”

But no one could be there all the time, when the daily struggles of having an unusable leg, surgical boot, and crutches became overwhelming. Ver-Haest had to relearn everything: how to wash, cook, shop, and eat.

“I could heat something in a microwave but can I get it to where I want to eat it? No. I have to eat standing on one leg or perched on the counter holding it in one hand.” On one occasion, after heating soup in a microwave he tried to carry it to the sofa, but dropped it, scalding himself. His crutches slipped on the spilt liquid, flooring him once again.

When he describes his attempts to seek help from the agencies designed to assist, it conjures the same image: crutches slipping.

An automated text arrived from Victim Support shortly after the attack informing him the agency would contact him properly within seven days. It did not. When Ver-Haest eventually got through he was offered phone counselling. But he was in a supermarket when the counsellor rang. “I said, can you please call back in five minutes? They said, ‘No. How about I call you next Thursday?’” That was nine days later.

They did not call him the following Thursday, he says, but five days after that – two weeks later. He lodged a formal complaint and received an apology but for Ver-Haest it was too late. Meanwhile, Galop, the organisation for victims of homophobic hate crime, was understanding and supportive, he says, but was only able to signpost him to other services. One of which was housing and employment benefits.

“They [the government] have said they’re going to pay me ESA [employment and support allowance], which is £73 per week,” he says, “but I haven’t had anything yet. I don’t know what they expected me to do for these first two months of having no money coming in.” Without a credit card, he says, he would be destitute. His debt began to rise.

And with no housing benefit, no savings for a deposit on a rented flat, compensation for such injuries taking months to arrive, and a social housing shortage, there was only one option, a housing charity suggested to Ver-Haest: Go to a homeless shelter.

At this point, a couple he had only met four times stepped in. They offered him their spare room for free.

“It’s really touching,” he says, his voice cutting out for the first time. “They’re a straight couple. They came to see me one time and brought me flowers, chocolates, took me out to lunch, and then offered me this room. I was bowled over.”

A couple of months later, Ver-Haest’s brother took over, letting him live in a flat he owned but had been renting out, encouraging Ver-Haest, where possible, to make improvements to the place – a project to rebuild his strength. It renewed their relationship.

Psychologically, the ripples from the attack have been complex. When we first meet, Ver-Haest is focusing on the practical, being matter-of-fact and coping well. But a few weeks before the trial, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD.

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