September 23 September 2013
Last year alone, more than 500 children were abducted from the UK by one of their parents. We speak to some of the mothers and fathers left behind
Louise Monaghan with her daughter, May, in Cyprus: ‘We’ll change our names, move. If you want to get lost, you can.’ Photograph: Eirini Vourloumis for the Guardian
When Louise Monaghan rang her former husband’s phone, her worst fears were confirmed: it went straight to an international ring tone. He had fled the country with their six-year-old daughter, May. The police in Cyprus, where Louise lived, didn’t seem overly interested; it was just another domestic that would sort itself out. Nor did the government back home in Ireland: no, they couldn’t arrange an emergency passport for May without her father’s signature. Louise protested that this was the man who had absconded with her daughter. Sorry, she was told, rules are rules.
She had been divorced from Mostafa for less than a year. During their seven-year relationship, he regularly beat her; on one occasion, when he punched her unconscious, he thought he had killed her. Eventually, she found the courage to press charges, and then begged the judge for leniency; Mostafa had told her he would have her and May killed if he went to prison. He was given a suspended sentence, and his access to May continued, three days a week, three hours a day. Louise says May hated her time with him. She had panic attacks and developed trichotillomania, a compulsion to pull out your own hair. “She had a big bald spot.”
After they divorced, he stalked Louise, hiding in bushes beneath her apartment, following her in his car, terrifying her. She warned her daughter as gently as she could. She never used the word kidnap, nor did she suggest that May’s father was a bad man, but she did say there was one thing her father wasn’t allowed to do. “I told her time and time again, if your father ever takes you to an airport or a ferry, please scream and shout and go to the nearest adult and say, can you please call my mama? She knew my number off by heart. We practised it all the time. So when he took her, I thought, please God, do what I said.”
The phone continued to ring out. Eventually, Mostafa answered and calmly told her they were about to cross the border into war-torn Syria, where he was from. “I said, ‘Do you have May?’ and he said, ‘Of course I have May. We’re going to live in Syria.’ I said, ‘Can I speak to her?’ When she came on the phone, she was so distraught I couldn’t understand a word she was saying. I said, ‘May, speak slowly, where have you been?’ And she said, ‘In a big shopping mall, Mummy.’ I said, ‘May, were there planes there?’ And she started crying and saying, ‘Yes, Mama.'”
The story that followed is the stuff of thrillers. Indeed, Louise’s book,Stolen: Escape From Syria, is being made into a film. But there is nothing thrilling about the way she recounts it. She crossed a heavily guarded Syrian border, fooled Mostafa into thinking she still loved him, was beaten, starved and held captive by him, betrayed by the people-smugglers she had paid to rescue them, and then escaped with her daughter across the mountains into Lebanon through bomb attacks and sniper fire.
Two years on, Louise is back living in Cyprus. May is at school and life is returning to a kind of normality. We meet in Dublin, at her sister Mandy’s home. May is a pretty eight-year-old with long, dark hair and an uncertain smile. I look at her and find it hard to comprehend what she has been through. Perhaps the only giveaway is her silence.
Louise is undergoing intense psychotherapy. She talks about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, how introverted she became, the death of her mother in a car crash, her first marriage to a man who was more friend than lover. She is trying to put things into context, she says, explaining how she ended up with a man like Mostafa.
In her late 20s, she left Ireland for Cyprus and became a successful travel sales consultant, before setting up a hair salon. She drove two cars, had a good income and a great circle of friends. Then she met Mostafa. “I don’t like to say his name,” she says quietly. She seems embarrassed, ashamed even, that she fell in love with him.
“He was a good-looking guy, let’s be honest about it,” Mandy says as her sister struggles. “He came over from Cyprus to Ireland, to the local pub, and you should have seen the carry-on from my friends.”
“Even after the kidnapping, friends said to me, ‘It’s such a shame, because he was a gorgeous-looking man,'” Louise says.
From the start Mostafa was controlling, but she told herself she was lucky to have a man who cared for her so passionately. Yes, she was aware that they came from very different cultures – she was Irish Catholic, he was Syrian Sunni Muslim – but that wasn’t going to get in the way of love. “Then I married him and I became his property.”
After the abduction, Mandy flew to Cyprus to be with Louise and work out a rescue plan. They flew to southern Turkey and drove to Hatay, a province bordering Syria, where Louise put on her hijab and left Mandy. On 12 September 2011, five days after Mostafa had abducted May, she walked into Syria, passing thousands of people fleeing in the opposite direction. When Louise was reunited with May, she learned her daughter had been beaten on to the plane. “On her arms, her thighs. She still had bruises where he grabbed her arms.”
Louise and May spent five weeks in Syria. Often, Mostafa would leave her locked in a dark room and take May with him. “I presume it was to see his parents. I think he did it to torture me, to show me he was the boss. I thought I’d never see her again.”
She lost a stone. Mandy says that when they came back to Ireland, May looked even worse than her mother. “She had these terrible black rings under her eyes.” And now? “She doesn’t like talking about it. She very rarely mentions it. She might twitch at something.” Despite this, Louise says May told her therapist she still loves her father.
“You know what?” Mandy says, out of nowhere. “I haven’t read the book.” She’s happily buttering a piece of toast in the kitchen, and the next second is in floods of tears. “It’s just too horrific. I hate to think they went through all that.” Now Louise is crying, too.
A month after Louise and May returned home, Mostafa was apprehended trying to escape Syria over the Turkish border. He was jailed for two weeks and was due to be extradited to Cyprus on charges of abduction. But Syria was mid-collapse, and he was let go. There is currently an international warrant for his arrest.
It is almost impossible to get accurate statistics on parental child abduction. Last year, Foreign and Commonwealth Office statisticsrevealed that there had been an 88% increase in the number of parental child abduction cases it had dealt with in less than a decade – from 272 in 2003/4 to 512 in 2011/12. These figures almost certainly understate the problem because they are based only on official police investigations. Although the common perception is that more men than women abduct children, in 2011 Reunite, a charity that supports victims of international parental child abduction, found that 70% of parental abductions in the UK were by women, most of whom had followed their partner to the UK and returned home when the relationship soured.
Neil Winnington: ‘All I can do is leave a trail for her online – films, songs, blogs, poems – and hope she follows it.’ Photograph: Shaw + Shaw for the Guardian
If you look on Myspace, there is a beautiful video of a red-haired two-year-old at the seaside, eating ice-cream, bouncing on a trampoline, making sandcastles with her father. The film was made in May 2008, two months before Neil Winnington’s daughter Emily was taken to Russia by her mother. He was assured they would return to Wrexham after the holiday, but he didn’t believe her. After all, Neil claims, she had previously threatened to take Emily back to Russia for good, saying that if he didn’t give her half his earnings, she would never allow him to visit. “She had said she’d go to the Russian courts and have my name removed from the birth certificate. Emily wouldn’t even know she had a British father.”
Neil doesn’t have a clue what Emily looks like today, or where she’s living: “25 September is five years to the day since I saw her.” He assumes she wouldn’t recognise him. All he can do, he says, is leave a trail for her online, in the form of films, songs, blogs, poems and photos, and hope that one days she follows it.
As with most cases of abduction, Neil’s story is one-sided. His former wife (he doesn’t say her name; she is “Emily’s mother”) is unavailable for comment because she has disappeared; he assumes they are both still in Russia, but doesn’t know. The British government hasn’t been much help either, he says: “Three years ago, the Christmas and birthday presents all started coming back with ‘incorrect address’ marked on them. When the cutbacks started to bite at the Foreign Office, any attempt to contact Emily was stopped. When they did send somebody for a consular visit, Emily’s mum refused to let them even take photographs for me.”
Although Russia has just signed up to the 1996 Hague convention, which states that abducted children should be returned to their habitual country of residence, it will consider only retrospective cases that occurred within the previous year. “So the estimated 150 children, including Emily, who were abducted to Russia prior to that will get no help,” Neil says. He doesn’t know who, or where, to turn to now.
Neil says it’s ironic, really. He has travelled all over the world as a TV producer, but met Emily’s mother in Birkenhead, just a few miles from his parents’ home. She returned to Russia to give birth to Emily, and that’s when things started to go wrong. “I think she had postnatal depression and her mother started sowing seeds of doubt.” The marriage fell apart when he discovered she had been having an affair.
After Emily was taken, Neil stopped working. He got into £20,000-worth of debt, lost his home and car, and stopped going out. “I had a complete nervous breakdown. To be honest, I’ve just learned to control it. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. Even if Emily came back tomorrow… I’ve spoken to other parents: they expect their children to be snatched again. It never, ever leaves you.” His speech is broken. “I was a recluse for two years. I couldn’t face seeing children. If a child cries – even to this day, in a supermarket – it brings me to tears.”
Like the other parents I speak to, Neil knows his abduction statistics by heart. “In 2011, Reunite received calls about 512 different cases, involving 700-plus children. And the numbers are rising each year. It was 300 the year Emily was abducted.”
Why is the number rising? “If I’m blunt about it, the growing media and political antipathy towards foreigners is driving a lot of people apart. It gave Emily’s mother ammunition to say they weren’t wanted here.” Was there any truth in that? “There are always people who’ll look for a reason.”
He says he is in a slightly better state now. He has just started a new job, is campaigning for Reunite, and has convinced himself that one day Emily will turn up on his doorstep.
Has he been in a relationship? “I’m staying single for the rest of my life,” he says forcefully. “It would be a betrayal of Emily. If she came back and found me with another family, I don’t think I could forgive myself.” But he could have another family and still love her? “No, because she is what I always wanted. If I’d had another family, it would have meant that I’d stopped fighting.”
Catherine Meyer: ‘My boys are always small in my dreams. They’re with me and either taken away or in danger.’ Photograph: Lydia Goldblatt for the Guardian
On the surface, Catherine Meyer says life couldn’t be better. She is married to a wonderful man (Christopher Meyer, the former ambassador to Germany and Washington), she has two grown-up boys of whom she is hugely proud and a successful career in the City behind her – and yet the past still haunts her.
It is 19 years since her two sons, Alexander and Constantin, then nine and seven, were taken by her former husband. Strictly speaking, they were not abducted: they were wrongfully retained. The boys had gone to visit their father in Germany, and he refused to let them return.
We meet at Catherine’s beautiful London town house, which is currently being overhauled; the one room that is operational serves as the office from which she runs Pact, a charity she set up to help victims of abduction. Like Louise Monaghan, she has written a book about her experience, called They Are My Children, Too. Left-behind parents often feel the need to chronicle their experience, partly for themselves and partly in the hope that their children will be able to make sense of it one day.
A slight, elegant woman, Catherine looks both much younger, and occasionally older, than her 60 years. She is in tears before her first sentence is out. Half-French, half-Russian, she grew up largely in Britain, and spent time in America and Africa. She was 29 and one of only three women working on London’s Stock Exchange when she went on a road trip to visit her sister in the south of France. At a service station, a man smiled at her. Then she saw him at another service station, and it turned out they were visiting the same place. “He was very good-looking, German, blond, blue eyes. He was a doctor, did something useful. I thought, wow!”
They moved to London and married. When he became homesick, she agreed to move to Germany for two years. They lived with his mother in the small town of Verden, near Bremen. Two years became seven, and Catherine decided she’d had enough. She returned to London in 1993, where she was awarded custody of the boys; the agreement was that they would spend the school holidays with their father, which is how it worked out, until the following year, when she received a 21-page letter from him. “He said, ‘It’s not me, it’s the children, they are begging to stay with me. I’m not doing this against you, I’m doing this to be nice to the children.’ He was already preparing his legal case. And the whole world crashes.”
As with Louise, every date is imprinted on Catherine’s mind. “I said, ‘If you don’t send them back on 28 August, I will consider this wrongful retention under article 3 of the Hague convention.'” Alexander and Constantin were made wards of court, and an order was made for them to return to the UK; but the local German court successfully argued that the children were victims of racism in Britain, and that the “children have decisively opposed such return”. Over the next 10 years, Catherine saw her children half a dozen times, for a few hours on each occasion; in all, she says, she spent 24 hours with them. She dedicated her life to their return. She spent more than £200,000 on lawyers, and lost everything. She explored every avenue, analysed 22 other cases of abduction in Germany, examined every inconsistency in the legal arguments. In 1997, four years after losing her children, she lobbied Christopher Meyer, then ambassador to Germany, for help. “He always says, ‘This poor woman came in to try to get some help, and I knew I couldn’t help her. So I did the second best thing and married her.'” She smiles.
She believes the boys became convinced that she had abandoned them. One day she took a plane to Germany and waited outside their school. When they saw her, they ran in the opposite direction and got into a car. “The first time I saw Alexander, at the second court hearing, he greeted me by hitting me.” She aims a punch at her own stomach to illustrate.
How did this change her? “I lost my job and by now I was weighing 45 kilos. I wasn’t eating and I couldn’t sleep because my hip bones were so painful, sticking out.” She looks into her coffee, then directly at me. “I used to be quite amusing, actually, when I was young. Now I cannot stay still – I have to be busy. That’s a sign I see in a lot of parents. They become workaholics, or depressives. I have two people who committed suicide, and one ended up in the loony bin. You can feel sorry for yourself and go deeper and deeper into yourself. Or you can work and work.”
The most painful loss, she says, was physical. “Touching them. Feeling them. I constantly had nightmares. Still have them. They are always small in dreams, they’re with me in London, and they’re either being taken away or they’re in danger.”
How did she win her case? She didn’t, she says: “There was an angel.” A man living near her boys in Germany heard her story and wrote to her. He got in touch with Alexander, told him his mother still loved him and was desperate to see him. He passed on her address. Aged 19, Alexander visited his mother in London for the first time in 10 years. Constantin followed soon after. “I was incredibly nervous. How will they react? What will they think of me? Shall I speak French, shall I speak English? We sat on the tube, looking at each other rather than saying anything.”
Alexander is now 28 and a maths PhD student in Berlin. Constantin is 26 and studying to be a doctor in Hamburg. They visit regularly. Do the boys consider they were abducted? “We don’t talk about this… Possibly not. They are boys, and boys tend to look forward rather than back.” Does she think they will want to talk about it? “Yes. With Alexander it has come up. We’ve had some conversations and he’s said he doesn’t really want to go there, but maybe one day he will.”
Alexander was nine when he was taken, just old enough for his mother to start to see who he might grow into. Constantin was still a baby in her eyes. “He was a gorgeous little blond boy when he left, and suddenly he’s a young man with hair on his arms. It’s difficult. You’ve missed 10 years of your child growing up, very formative years. We’re rebuilding.”
She attributes the dramatic increase in the number of parental abductions to an increase in international marriages, a greater number of divorces and the fact that today’s family courts are less clear cut when it comes to child custody; in the past, it was assumed they would stay with their mother. The biggest problem, she says, is lawyers with a financial interest in prolonging divorce conflict, and parents who think of their children as possessions. “The trouble is, parents think they have rights to their children. You produce them, they didn’t ask to be in the world, the only thing you do have is responsibility to raise them properly and give them the love they need.”
I ask if she is capable of feeling joy these days. “Seeing my children is wonderful. Christopher says my face lights up when I see them.” She pauses. “I used to say I’d like to just drill a hole in my head and take some of this stuff out, this anxiety, this hyperness.” She still feels that? “Oh, yes.”
Rachel Neustadt: ‘They don’t remember English any more. My son couldn’t remember how to say goodnight.’ Photograph: Lydia Goldblatt for the Guardian
Rachel Neustadt says she’s lucky. Then again, luck is relative. Nine months ago, her ex-husband abducted her two oldest boys, Daniel Jakob, seven, and Jonathan, five. We meet in early September, a few days before she is due to fly to Russia to fight in court for their return.
Six months after the boys were taken, in June 2013, Russia signed up to the 1996 Hague convention. The earlier 1980 convention had ruled that countries had to individually ratify with each other for a child to be returned to the country from which they were taken, but the 1996 model states that countries need only to have signed up for it to be applied. The old convention would not have helped Rachel; the new one should see her children return. Hers will be a test case, the first to use the new legislation for an abduction from the UK to Russia.
Rachel and Ilya met at a wedding in Vienna. They had much in common: both were orthodox Jews, with Belarusian family; both had been brought up in a number of countries and were economists. He was studying for a PhD, she was working for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. They married, had two boys and raised them bilingual, speaking English (she is American) and Russian. They married in Germany, lived in Switzerland, then moved to England. Over time, she says, Ilya became unreasonable and abusive. In what way? “Almost every way.”
In 2011, after eight years of marriage, Rachel decided enough was enough. She was pregnant with their third child when she filed for divorce. She says she tried to make the split as amicable as possible. Legally, she didn’t have to allow him to take the boys on holiday, but she wanted to normalise the relationship. He suggested taking the boys to see his brother in Russia. She knows that should have rung an alarm bell: he had not been back to Russia for two decades. He then suggested getting the boys a Russian passport because it was cheaper than a visa, and that meant they would be able to visit their cousins every year. “I went to the embassy and signed all the papers to get them Russian passports.” She shakes her head in disbelief. She gave the trip her blessing, and the boys never came back.
This is the most common circumstance in which children are abducted by a parent, during contact time. Astonishingly, Rachel says, if the left-behind parent has given the other parent permission to take a child on holiday, it is not even a crime; “wrongful retention” is a civil offence. As with most male abductors, Ilya has been helped by his mother; she has moved from Germany to Russia to help bring up the boys.
Why did he take them? “He said they’re his kids, he brought them to England, he can take them whenever he wants.”
He didn’t see the boys as their children? “Well, he’s always seen them as his possessions. He doesn’t really see them as humans with rights and feelings. He said we live in Russia now, and we don’t need anything else. The kids don’t need a mother, they don’t need you. I’m their mother and their father. He’s tried to coax me into bringing our third son to Russia to see his brothers, so he can abduct him, too.”
At first, Rachel says, Ilya allowed her a weekly phone call, but he would keep her waiting for hours, and then the calls tailed off. If she said anything personal or loving to the boys, the line would go dead. The last time she spoke to them, she felt they were no longer used to regular conversation. “They’ve lost a lot of their ability to communicate. They don’t remember English any more. Their father said to Jonathan, ‘Say goodnight to your mum in English’ and he couldn’t even remember how to say the words.”
The walls of her north London home are covered with mementoes of the boys – a crayoned drawing with the words “I like crackers” by Jonathan, pictures of the union and Israeli flags, a certificate Daniel Jakob won for a spelling competition, photographs of them dressed up as sword-wielding Normans.
Rachel is composed until I ask what such an experience does to a parent. She swallows between half-sentences and takes deep breaths. “Most mothers, when they put their kids to bed and they see them sleeping, they hover for a moment. Before you walk out of the room for the night, you tend to wait, because you know you’re going to miss them until morning. So it’s that feeling multiplied by 24 hours a day. I’m just waiting…” She is barely audible now. “It’s horrific.” Every parent I meet cries in the same way: mid-conversation, without warning, silently, uncontrollably.
The days are worse than the nights, Rachel says. “That’s when you’re constantly cleaning chins and tying shoes and doing homework. All the stuff you do every second with kids.” But she says the overwhelming feeling is not one of missing the boys: it is of panic that they might be damaged, and horror that she has failed to protect them.
She sleeps four hours a night, if she’s lucky, between 3am and 7am. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable calling it a night when I know if I did a couple more things I might be more successful in bringing them home.” How does she get through the days? “I’m very busy working for them. I don’t have much time. I try not to distract myself with emotions, because I have a job to do. Paperwork to file, phone calls to make. It is a full-time job. If people ask me, I say I’m a full-time student of international abduction law.” She allows herself a rare smile.
Has this changed her as a person? “Yes. In many ways, actually. My ex was unreasonable in so many ways, and I thought that if I just kept being reasonable, he’d come round. Now I think what I did was naive. I guess, in an abusive relationship, it’s called enabling behaviour. Ultimately, I realised it’s up to me to defend the interests of the family and not allow someone like him to destroy us.”
I ask if I can see the boys’ bedroom. “Sure,” she says. Her mother, who has come over from America to support her, is in there playing with her baby son, Meyer, and a toy bus. There is a double bed and a single bed. Rachel points to the double. “Daniel Jakob likes this bed because he rolls about in his sleep.”
“Yes, he does!’ his grandma says, laughing.
What have the past nine months been like for her, the boys’ grandmother? Her face collapses and tears roll down her cheeks; she ushers my tape recorder away.
We play with the bus, Rachel sings London Bridge to Meyer and calm is restored. Well, I say, hopefully the boys will be back soon. Rachel’s mother blinks back her tears. “They will be… they will be!” she says.
Back in Dublin, Louise Monaghan says that, while it is wonderful to have May back, the family are not yet at peace. After their escape, Mostafa rang her sister Mandy and promised he would track down Louise and May.
“Even now, not knowing where he is, you’re still living in danger, still sleeping with one eye open,” Mandy says.
Where do they think he is?
Mandy: “Hopefully he’s died. I know that’s not nice.”
Louise: “In my heart, I think he got out. He has family who love him in Dubai and Qatar.”
How does she feel when Mandy says she hopes he’s dead? “We’ve had that discussion. I have mixed feelings. My overriding feeling is I want peace. When I heard that he had been arrested and was being flown back to Cyprus, my biggest fear was that, if he was languishing in a Cypriot prison, I would have to get out of here because he would organise for me to be killed. I have no doubt about that.”
The family are planning a fresh start. Louise and May do not believe they are safe in Cyprus, nor Mandy and her family in Ireland. They will move together to a new country, as yet undecided. “New identity,” Louise says. “Change our appearance, change our names, move somewhere else, whatever. If you want to get lost, you can get lost.”
Just before going to press, I receive an email from Rachel Neustadt in Russia. While Ilya has argued in court that the boys are frightened of London and do not want to live with their mother, the court has ruled that they should be returned to the UK: a landmark decision. Ilya has 15 days to appeal. Rachel’s relief is palpable, as is her fear. “I wish I could hold my sons in my arms right now, but it is still unclear how to gain access to them. Today is Daniel Jakob’s half-birthday – he’s seven and a half. We have not reached the end of this nightmare, but today’s decision was crucial. I have no idea, nor do I want to imagine, how much longer this might take. I suspect we have a difficult road ahead of us.”
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