Sounds like an amazing book. Unfortunately, this kind of story is not as rare as we would hope....
For all the whining that the fathers rights do about Japan (which actually attempts to protect mothers), most of the world is more like the Middle East in its protection of violent criminal fathers and their ownership "rights" over women and children.
Dad is identified only as MOSTAFA.
'They said I'd be stoned to death... but I still walked into a war zone to snatch back my little girl': One mother's journey to Syria to bring home the daughter abducted by her violent ex-husband
By Louise Monaghan
PUBLISHED: 16:24 EST, 9 June 2012 | UPDATED: 16:24 EST, 9 June 2012
Wednesday, September 7, 2011 is a day I will never forget. That day shattered the idyllic life I had been living for nearly six years in the resort of Limassol in Cyprus.
It started out like any other: there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. My six-year-old daughter, May, was excited because she was due to start ‘big school’ the following day.
Her white polo shirt, navy skirt and new shoes were placed on her bed. The previous night, her father had called to say he would take her to the beach in the morning. Mostafa, whom I had divorced a year earlier, had been given access to our daughter for a few hours each week.
When he arrived, he was quieter than usual, following me around the rooms as I sorted May’s clothes for the beach. He was watching my every move, and it worried me. Later, as I sat at work still feeling uneasy, I dialled his number. His phone was off – something wasn’t right. I drove to the beach where he’d said they would be. They weren’t there. Then and there I knew. He had taken May away from me.
In a blind panic, I rang my sister Mandy in Dublin. ‘He’s taken her, she’s gone,’ I said. I kept ringing Mostafa’s mobile. Nothing.
At first the local police were of little help. I had been to the station many times before, reporting Mostafa over assaults, so I knew only too well what reception I would face: they told me to calm down.
Again, I tried Mostafa’s phone. I was shocked when it rang but sickened when I realised it was an international dialling tone. He answered and I felt my stomach churn. ‘Oh my God, Mostafa, I’ve been ringing you all day. Where are you?’
He replied calmly: ‘I am in Syria. I am taking May to Syria.’ I asked him if I could speak to her. I didn’t want to upset her, so I stayed calm. She said she was fine, but she sounded distressed. I asked her if she had been on an aeroplane and she replied: ‘Yes, Mama, I have.’
I cracked. My body collapsed from beneath me. The next thing I remember is waking up in hospital, panicking. I knew I had to leave urgently, so I signed myself out without treatment, feeling awful. I had been sick for a long time, and it had been recently confirmed that I had osteoarthritis. I needed both my hips replaced urgently and the doctors had found two large cysts on my hips that they suspected might be cancerous.
Mostafa didn’t seem concerned as I relayed my fears to him on the phone.
He said simply: ‘I am sorry, but you left me no choice. She was to start school tomorrow and you knew that I didn’t want her to go there.’
The reason for abducting May became clear. She was due to start school, and it wasn’t a Muslim one. The hypocrisy. Mostafa seldom went to mosque, yet here he was pretending to be devout. This was why he was turning mine and May’s world upside down.
People ask me all the time: ‘What did you see in him?’ Well, it wasn’t just what I saw in Mostafa; it’s what every woman who met him saw in him. In a good mood, he was absolutely charming. With a strong jaw line, rugged features, big brown eyes and beautiful black hair, he was a good-looking guy with a commanding presence. I suppose his charm was, despite the bad times, what kept me going back to him.
There was nothing charming about him now. If I ever wanted to see my little girl again, he said, I was to sell everything I owned. He ordered me to clear my bank account and bring him whatever money I had, so that we could live in a slum in Syria.
Somehow, I managed to keep him calm. I didn’t want him to worry that I might have reported him to the authorities. I told him I wanted to get there as soon as possible to be with May. He knew only too well that my life revolved around her, yet he still underestimated me. He hadn’t realised I would risk my life to get her back.
One of my aunts had contacts in Turkey, which borders Syria. She said a group of Turks might be able to snatch May from Mostafa’s house and bring her back across the border.
I knew they would be illegal people-smugglers, but I was ready to give every last cent I had. I had foolishly put my trust in the Cypriot authorities – which had been warned about the threat of abduction – and they had let me down.
I dialled the Turkish number. A man answered and when I told him what had happened, he said: ‘I will get some men over there and we will snatch her back for you.’
But I wanted a Plan B, too. I decided to head for Turkey – at least I would be nearer Syria. Mandy agreed to join me, so together we flew from Ercan airport in the occupied north of Cyprus to Adana, about 160 miles away from the Syrian border.
The next morning we took a taxi to the town of Hamam in Hatay province. I was less than 40 miles away from the border between civilisation and war. It felt like the dividing line between life and death. Without my little girl I might as well have been dead.
I contacted our Turkish ‘friend’ to tell him I was only a few miles from the Syrian border and that I would wait there until he returned with May. But he started to make excuses, saying the escape plan was proving difficult.
Mandy and I were worried. We decided I should ring Mostafa and tell him where I was. He sounded frantic and asked where I was. When I told him, he said: ‘You are only half-an-hour away from me.’
After warning me not to do ‘anything funny’ or he would flee with May, he finally agreed to a plan: I was to join him and our daughter. I wanted to scream but I had to stay calm. I had to play the game.
As I put the phone down, I looked at my sister and knew she was thinking the same thing: we might never see each other again. I was walking into a war zone, to an ex-husband who had beaten me many times over many years. But if I didn’t go, what then? May would be married off, probably to a cousin, at 14 and she would always think her Mama had abandoned her.
So I set off in a taxi. As we neared the border, I could see a refugee camp with hundreds of white tents filled with Syrians who had been caught trying to sneak into Turkey. It was heartbreaking to look at the children in their bare feet on the dirty, sandy gravel.
Up ahead I could see lorries and cars queuing at the checkpoint. My driver told me he could take me no further. He charged me €100 for a journey that took just 30 minutes.
At the border, I handed my passport to a guard. In English, he asked me where I was going. When I said Syria, he replied: ‘No, you’re not. Do you know what is happening there?’ I said yes, but that I had to go.
He said: ‘I can’t let you in, I’m sorry.’ I took out my purse and offered him money, yet he refused to budge. I then told him my ex-husband had taken my baby and that I needed to save her. With that, he took me to an outbuilding where three men were checking documents. As they all stared at me and my Irish passport, one man made a call. When he put the phone down, he handed the passport back to the man I now call my ‘angel’. It was stamped.
'He wanted me to sell everything I owned and live in a slum in Syria..'I climbed into Mostafa’s car – a maroon Kia – and asked him how May was. From the back seat he plucked a black hijab and a long black dress, threw them at me and said: ‘Put this on. This is what you will be wearing now.’
We drove through filthy streets until we eventually arrived in Idlib, near Aleppo in north-west Syria, Mostafa’s home city. I was hit with the strong smell of sewage. Rubbish and old clothing were strewn everywhere. It was the dirtiest place I had seen in my life. Men drove along in the dark on donkeys, whipping them as they struggled. I told Mostafa that I had seen what Idlib was like on the news because of the violence. He blamed it on media hype.
He pulled in opposite what looked like a fruit-and-vegetable shop and told me to wait. I pulled the scarf over my face to block the stench. Within minutes, there was a deafening noise and in the rear-view mirror I saw what looked like a 1,000 protesters, mostly men, waving flags and carrying a makeshift coffin.
I locked the doors. Women were grabbing their children and running. The car began to rock violently – for a brief moment, I thought it was going to be turned over, but after a few minutes, the crowd disappeared around the corner chanting: ‘Death to the president, death to the president.’
We then drove through army checkpoints and arrived at Mostafa’s village, Nairab.
One of the first things to strike me were the green lights on the top of three buildings – mosques. This was clearly a very Muslim area and home, perhaps, to extreme fundamentalists. The village looked like a compound, the tall walls covered in graffiti, but it was only afterwards that I learned how dangerous it was. The Syrian army shot people on the streets most days for protesting.
Mostafa’s house did, at least, look habitable. He had been sending money home when he was working in construction in Cyprus. He ushered me in – obviously no one was meant to see me.
I was elated to be reunited with my little girl. Yet as the door opened and she walked through, it took me a moment to recognise her. May’s long brown hair was tightly plaited and she was wearing a cheap pair of black trousers and red Arabic clogs. Her black and white top had cheap lace around the neck and sleeves. It was typical Arab village clothing.
She clearly didn’t know what to say. She looked nervously at her father before saying: ‘Mama, look. I told you I would mind my Nintendo for you. I kept it safe.’
I felt like bursting into tears. She treasured her game console and it had obviously been her lifesaver in this hellhole. She sat on my lap and Mostafa left the room. As soon as he was gone, we started to kiss and hug. May looked around and she whispered: ‘Mama, I’m really worried. I was meant to start school.’
I replied: ‘Don’t worry, love. I rang the school and I told them that you were on holiday.’
May relaxed. She told me how her father had told her they were going to a new shopping centre to buy a Barbie. She believed him. In fact, it was an airport, not a mall. He bought her a doll in the duty-free shop, but when she went outside she saw the aircraft and began to cry.
She told him that she didn’t want to go on a plane, that her Mama had said she was never to get on a plane without her. But he beat her repeatedly until she got on the flight, sobbing.
I didn’t know what to say except to tell her over and again how much I loved her and that nothing like that would ever happen to her again.
That night, we cuddled up and May fell asleep in my arms. I remember lying there, terrified to hear gunshots outside the window. It was a different, frightening world.
We had a chance to escape. I grabbed May and yelled 'Hang on and be brave'
I learned very quickly to be nice to my ex-husband. I had no rights. At any stage he could have beaten me to death and claimed I had been unfaithful. Thankfully, Mandy managed to keep the story from the British press and foreign TV stations, knowing Mostafa was volatile.
We lived on yogurt and rice, and when Mostafa’s cupboards were empty, his mother sent food. I wasn’t allowed to leave the house.
Every day I would struggle to look through the windows to the outside world, but there were bars and wire mesh on every window.
The lavatory – a hole in the ground – was horrible. Instead of toilet roll, there was a hosepipe coming out of the wall. The smell was horrendous, and the lavatory was right next to the kitchen.
When I turned on the kitchen tap, filthy brown water poured out. There was no way I would drink that, even if it was boiled.
I remember bursting into tears. I told Mostafa that I had spent all day listening to bombs exploding and gunfire and I was terrified. A huge row erupted, and I flung a chair across the room in fury and frustration. For the first time since I had met him, he just stood there and accepted it.
‘What’s done is done,’ he said. ‘I can’t change it. May will never leave Syria – never, ever – so get that into your head.’
I prayed the people-smugglers would come.
There was no fresh air in the house because he was so determined to keep me a prisoner. When I objected, he screamed at me, saying I wasn’t in Cyprus now, and he dragged me into the bathroom and punched me repeatedly.
I fell but he continued to beat me, hitting the back of my head and punching me in the side. May was watching from her bedroom and screaming: ‘I want my Mama, I want my Mama.’ Mostafa simply shoved me and said: ‘Die, you bitch.’
The next day, I rang Mandy and the first thing I said to her was: ‘Happy birthday, Sis.’ Her birthday was still important to me and May, I told her. I explained that I was hoping Mostafa would extend my visa for another 15 days – I had told him that if he let me stay longer, I would ensure that he was financially comfortable until I returned.
Mandy’s voice became very serious. She said: ‘Louise, no one’s coming for you. The Turkish guys have gone AWOL and it looks like the government has no powers to do anything. It’s just too dangerous. I hate to say this, but you are on your own.’
At this stage I was unaware that Mandy had paid the Turks €5,000 to get us out and they had absconded.
I heard Mostafa’s car pulling up. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘We are going into Idlib for your visa.’
We found a parking space some 300 yards away from the immigration office, he gathered the paperwork and got out of the car. I couldn’t believe Mostafa was leaving us on our own. As he walked away, he suddenly turned back and said: ‘I will leave the keys in the ignition and the car running as it is so hot. It will keep the air-conditioning on.’
Once he was out of sight, I pulled out my phone and sent a text to Mandy, saying: ‘I have a chance to run. No passport.’
A text came back immediately: ‘F*** it. Run.’
I turned to May and said: ‘May. We are going. Please hang on and be brave.’
We ran towards a taxi rank where three or four yellow cabs were waiting. I chose one driven by a man in his 50s with a kind face. I rang a contact in Cyprus and asked her to get someone who spoke Arabic. I told her our lives were at risk.
Within a minute someone called back. His name was Tariq. After a conversation with the cab driver on my phone, Tariq said: ‘You are in luck, Louise. This man will take you all the way to Damascus. But it is a five-and-a-half-hour drive and it is very dangerous.’
I didn’t know what exactly we would do once we reached the Syrian capital, but I was hoping he would take us straight to the Irish consulate.
We drove on dirt roads through areas I had never heard of – and some I had, including Hama and Homs, where people were being killed every day. I made sure that my hijab covered every hair on my head and that I made no eye contact.
After a few hours, we started to see signs for Damascus. One of them said it was 108km (67 miles) away. It might as well have said a million. May and I spoke to each other in whispers and said the Hail Mary together.
We came to yet another checkpoint. There were many soldiers, this time heavily armed. Some were clearly special forces, dressed in shirts and jeans. They were checking every single vehicle and making each car approach very slowly in single file. As we got closer, I could see a soldier staring in at me and May in the back of the car but he casually waved us on.
I saw the driver look in his rear-view mirror and smile. I knew this poor man could have lost everything, perhaps even his life, if he had been caught.
But just a few yards past the checkpoint, with mountains all around us, the car started to choke, smoke coming from the engine. I couldn’t believe it. I kept saying to the driver: ‘Yalla, yalla, yalla [move, move, move].’A soldier started to follow. But miraculously, we rolled away from him around a corner. And then the car just stopped. Dead.
There was a look of horror on the poor taxi driver’s face. In Arabic he just said: ‘Khalas [finished],’ and threw his hands up into the air. We were doomed.
The driver made some calls and a short while afterwards another taxi pulled in. Its driver attached a rope to our vehicle and started to tow us through this mountain range, a weird area covered in sand, with nothing else around – no birds, no animals of any sort, no noise – until, miles later, we could exchange cars.
Finally we arrived at a huge street with garages everywhere and shops selling spare parts. Damascus. We were safe. Our taxi driver opened our door and in Arabic said: ‘May God bless you and your beautiful daughter.’
I wanted to cry. I owe that man our lives.
The days went by in the safe house organised by Tariq. The Irish embassy was trying to locate the travel documents we needed to get us out of Syria, but without success. Then Mandy rang. She said: ‘Louise, I don’t know how to tell you this. This is the hardest phone call I have ever had to make.’ My heart missed a beat.
‘The Syrian government says you are wanted for kidnapping May,’ she continued. I felt weak. She went on to say that this was an extremely serious charge – if I was caught I would be imprisoned for life or stoned to death under sharia law. I didn’t know what to say. I had no words.
‘You are in severe danger,’ said Mandy. ‘Do not leave the apartment. This is very serious, Louise. Your lives are at risk.’
NEXT WEEK: Our terrifying journey across the mountains
Stolen: Escape From Syria, by Louise Monaghan, is published by Mainstream on Thursday, priced £12.99. To order your copy at the special price of £10.99 inc p&p call the Review Bookstore on 0843 382 1111 or visit mailshop.co.uk/books