Mother, I hardly know you

What happens when children snatched abroad by their fathers meet their British mothers for the first time in years? Ann Jousiffe, who organised a unique visit to Libya, reports
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The Independent Culture
HESHAM was eight years old when his Libyan uncle took him from his family home in the north of England to Libya. The trip was disguised as a family holiday, but once he was on Libyan soil his British mother, Wendy, couldn't get him back. She was later tricked into taking Jamal, Hesham's baby brother, to Libya on the promise that they would all return to Britain together. The baby was taken from her arms at Tripoli airport by his father, and Wendy was forced to return alone. Hesham is now 12, alm ost 13,and wants to come home.

Layla is now a young woman of 16. She has been in Libya since she was nearly eight - once again taken there, supposedly, for a family holiday. Before last summer, her mother, Pauline, hadn't seen her since 1990, and in the meantime a report had been filed from the diplomat who looks after foreign affairs in Tripoli, saying that Layla didn't want to see her mother again. This conclusion was based on an interview carried out in the presence of her father and a Libyan official. Since then, Pauline had had no contact with Layla. Her letters remained unanswered; the telephone in Libya had been disconnected.

The experience of parents whose children have been abducted from this country by the other parent is well documented in the British press. Tearful interviews with distraught mothers (it is nearly always mothers) clutching family snapshots of lost children are a frequent testimony to the heartbreak of the situation. It is a loss with which we can all sympathise. But what about the children themselves, plunged into a country and culture of which they often know nothing? How do they fare when deprived of aloving relationship with both parents?

Last summer, a unique expedition set out to ease the plight of such children. For three weeks, a group of British mothers visited Libya as guests of the Higher Committee for Child-ren, a Libyan organisation concerned with child welfare. All were visitingtheir own children, who had been snatched by their Libyan fathers.

The trip was the result of a lengthy process of delicate negotiations with the Libyan authorities - not by the British Government, but by myself and Corinne Simcock, freelance journalists. We have been campaigning for some time to bring about a solution to the problems of international child abduction. We have seen how governments generally avoid the confrontations needed to bring about agreements.

In this case, there was no question of handing the children back to their mothers. Libyan law is clear on the matter: once in Libya the children are regarded as Libyan, and their own wishes are not considered until they are 18. The aim of this visit was to provide access only. For many of the children, it was the first contact they had had with their mothers since their abduction.

The right of the children to see their mothers had never been disputed by the Libyan authorities. It was, however, a Catch-22 situation since visas are usually given to a foreign spouse only upon an invitation from the Libyan husband. On this occasion they were issued by the Higher Committee for Children.

The question of custody and access had never been heard, in any of these cases, in a Libyan court. The fathers had assumed a control over their children's lives which had never been subjected to any question of the child's welfare or rights. Now, it see m ed, the children's interests were about to be considered for the first time.

The hours before they were due to arrive at the appointed rendezvous, a hotel outside Tripoli, were highly charged. Nobody knew quite what to expect from the children, some of whom no longer spoke English. There were fears of rejection or indifference, fears that the children would harbour resentment at being "abandoned" by their mothers. What is more, the mothers had to contain their emotions in the glare of the Libyan media circus that greeted their arrival in Tripoli.

The first thing they saw when they got off the bus late at night was a barrage of cameras and a group of children carrying roses and cards saying: "Love Your Father and Your Mother". These were not the children they had come to see, however, but a group

of local schoolchildren. The brief flash of hope dissolved into tears as the mothers learnt they had another day to wait before seeing their children.

When the time came, the children who had arrived at the hotel were brought in for the first meeting. Most were smiling and composed; some sobbed with relief at seeing their mothers; all instantly recognised the emotional bond which time and distance had not broken.

The fathers who had brought the children in stood about and watched the scene with fixed smiles on their faces. In a country where a man's role as supreme judge and jury in family matters does not encourage self-doubt, there must have been some uneasy moments as they watched their children reunited with their mothers.

Hesham, after a long and tearful hug with his mother and young brother, said: "When I first came to Libya I thought I was OK. Everything I wanted they brought to me, because I was just a kid. Then everything became not so good - and I thought I was in a prison." His face was pale and pinched, his mouth set in a way that made him look a lot older than his 12 years.

As he doesn't live with his father, who has a new wife and family, Hesham only sees his younger brother, Jamal, once a week. He lives with his grandparents in a household consisting mostly of elderly women. This is a bitter pill for his mother, Wendy, t o swallow. "Since they were taken four and a half years ago, the boys have never lived in the same house; they live a few miles apart. Hesham is very unhappy living where he does. I'm very anxious about the conditions - they're not good, and he has a very solitary existence."

Wendy told us Hesham's tale in the hotel coffee room; in the same room were three women (from the party of eight) whose children had not turned up. They were only just managing to hold themselves together. Those whose children had been brought were also contending with strong emotions. For some, the bittersweet truth was obvious: their children were happy, settled and secure, well loved by their fathers and Libyan families. A bad husband could clearly be a good father, something the mothers of abducted children found hard to accept.

At least, after years of worry, they knew that their children were happy and well cared-for, but this did nothing to ease their sense of loss.

But for some others, matters of welfare were not so clear-cut. One family of three - a boy of 10, a girl of nine and a girl of six - was so disturbed that the boy was showing violent tendencies and the older girl howled like an animal for hours on end. The Libyan committee, normally prone to putting a gloss on the rough justice these children have received from their fathers, was openly shocked.

Wild talk followed about psychiatric examinations and ways in which the children's mother could regain custody, but nothing came of it. At the end of the visit the children returned to their house in the small town of Ajdabiya. (Since then, their mother has been unable to talk to them; every time she tries, the telephone is slammed down.)

After a few tense days, Layla finally arrived at the hotel. She was covered from head to foot, mainly in black - a condition imposed by her strict family. Her reunion with her mother was conducted in private, and nobody was sure whether she would stay ornot. After an hour the pair emerged, arms around each other.

Layla, so unused to being around people, slowly emerged from her shyness over the next few days. She had a sweet, gentle manner and wasn't bitter about her experiences - though she clearly harbours a lot of sadness. Her home is in Benghazi, but she doesn't live with her father. He has remarried and his new wife doesn't want Layla. She lives instead with her grandparents and, apart from school, has no social life outside the home. She has only one friend.

Layla has been living in this way for so long that she has lost the ability to see a way out of it. Even the fact that she can, in two years' time when she turns 18, choose where to live is confusing and incomprehensible to her.

By the end of the visit, two fathers had still failed to bring their children, in spite of repeated promises. In these cases, negotiated access hadn't been enough. The legal system offers some hope, but that will take time - and money. For some mothers the trip has brought some kind of resolution, for others the battle to see their children has only just begun.

For all these children, who are British by birth, there has been no help available from their own government to secure their rights, as children and British citizens, to see both their parents. No attempt had been made until that one trip last summer to negotiate access; there are no funds for the parents of snatched children to fight custody cases in foreign courts.

In a world where more and more marriages are between people of different nationalities and the divorce rate is soaring, the problems facing abducted children can only get worse. The Libyan authorities, to their credit, have recognised that there is a problem and have done their best to find a solution - but with mixed results. Until there is a political will to solve the problem, through negotiation and agreement between governments and welfare agencies worldwide, the problems facing children like Hesham and Layla will continue.

! A documentary about the reunion visit to Libya will be shown on Channel 4 tomorrow at 9pm.