Too little, too late for one little girl?

Nayantara, from east London, and Lindsay, from Yorkshire, disappeared i n November. Esther Oxford reports on how the police dealt with the two cases
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The last person to hold and stroke Nayantara Ali, 11, before she disappeared, was her grandmother. On Friday 4 November, they woke together (they shared the same bedroom), had a glass of milk, then sat in the front room, as the elder woman brushed and oiled Nayan's long thick hair.

At 8.15am, Nayan did as she always did: said goodbye and left the house for school. But this time the daily ritual broke down: she never came back. Some time, at some place along the short route to school, Nayan "disappeared".

Nobody noticed until 4pm. Then Nayan's grandmother and two aunts became restless: their little girl was five minutes late. At 4.10pm, her uncle Aleem Malik, 28, a student at East London University, arrived home. When he heard that his beloved niece had not returned, he burst into tears.

The family contacted the school. Nayan hadn't been in. Frantic, Mr Malik called the police. "They never came," he recalls. At 6pm, he dialled 999 again. Still nothing.

Then at 7.30pm, nearly three hours after the first telephone call, two officers appeared on the doorstep. "Did you force her to wear Asian clothes?" they asked in the interview. "Did you have any plans to send her back to Pakistan against her will? Had an arranged marriage been set up for her?"

"The police decided that this was a family thing - another Asian girl rebelling against her family," says Mr Malik. "I kept telling them `Nayan has been abducted', but they didn't take me seriously."

The weekend passed. Terrible visions of Nayan, her "sexually assaulted body just thrown away", left Mr Malik red-eyed and exhausted with crying. All the next day and most of the night he and his cousins searched - under bushes, around shopping centres, at a nearby circus. Meanwhile, Mr Malik says, the police "just scouted around".

Two hundred miles away, in Hebden Bridge, a small commuter town in west Yorkshire, Geraldine, 42, and Gordon Rimer, 45, unemployed, were preparing for bed. Theirs was a happy life: a cosy home next to a canal, purple and rusty-brown hills high above, friends and neighbours nestled around, four children safely tucked up in bed.

The spell was broken four days later on Tuesday 8 November. At 8.15am, there was a telephone call from the local newsagent: their 13-year-old daughter had not turned up for her paper round. Was everything all right?

Her heart thumping, Mrs Rimer climbed the stairs to the attic room. On the floor she saw her daughter's school satchel. She ran down to the kitchen: there was the 50p lunch money still waiting to be taken.

Then she remembered. The night before, Lindsay had left the house to buy some cornflakes for breakfast. She'd left late - around 10pm. Had she not returned? Her head thumping, Mrs Rimer rushed to the cupboard. The cereal box was not there.

Mr and Mrs Rimer called the police, who arrived in less than 10 minutes. Immediately, the "police machine" was put into action: an incident room was set up, 50 officers were drafted in for door-to-door inquiries and a team of underwater divers were told to begin the long, slow process of turning over the riverbed. All this was done within the first 24 hours.

"They'd do it for anyone," says Mrs Rimer, sitting hunched and tired-looking at the kitchen table. "Anyone," she repeats, stroking the photograph of Lindsay at a wedding, Lindsay baking cakes, Lindsay asleep. "It is their job. And it is in their nature."Lindsay has still not been found.

Lindsay Rimer and Nayantara Ali might have liked each other, had they met. Neither had boyfriends. Both enjoyed school. Both were happy, reliable and stable.

Nayan liked to tease her uncle and grandmother (her parents live in Pakistan). She would raise her eyebrows at her grandmother's bad cooking; rub on her uncle's deodorant when he wasn't looking, then ask him: "Why do you want to go to university, uncle?

You're too old!"

Lindsay had the same playful relationship with her father, enjoying a long-running squabble about where to squeeze the toothpaste tube (he liked to roll it from the bottom, she from the middle). When she wasn't walking in the hills with one of her schoolfriends, she was at home, doing her schoolwork or looking after her 19-month-old sister.

But in the eyes of the press, and arguably in the eyes of the police, the two little girls were quite different. One was white and had her home in Yorkshire. The other was Pakistani and lived in the East End of London, where "Asians" disappeared back to "Asia" all the time.

On Wednesday 9 November, 24 hours after the disappearance of Lindsay, five days after the disappearance of Nayan, two press conferences were held. Lindsay's father was at one; Nayan's mother, who had flown over the previous day, was at the other. Mr Rimer talked emotionally of the child he'd allowed to "unfold her wings". Nayan's mother said very little: she couldn't speak English.

Lindsay's father was quoted widely in nearly all the national newspapers; not one mentioned the press conference attended by Nayan's mother. Mr Malik was hurt by the lack of interest. He asked a police officer why "everyone" seemed to care about the girlin Yorkshire, but "nobody" seemed to care about Nayan. The police officer replied that he could only hold press conferences; he couldn't force reporters to come along.

But there was more to it than that, says Mr Malik: "The police refused to believe that Nayan had been abducted. `Things like this happen every day,' they said. They just wanted to make excuses."

Mr Malik later concluded that the press conference had been the "peak". From then on it was "all downhill". When he telephoned the incident room at night, he says no one was there to answer calls - not even an answering machine. The police "inquiry" van (put there to encourage witnesses to come forward) was taken away after the first week. It had "served its purpose", apparently.

"As the weeks went by, we gave up asking the police for information," says Mr Malik. "It got to the point where we just wanted the body. If Nayan was alive, she would have come home. She hadn't, so she had to be dead."

Then two weeks ago, nearly four weeks after her disappearance, the message came. A body had been found under an arch 20 yards from the home. It was a girl - a naked girl in a green sheet. The girl had a long plait of oiled, dark hair. She had been sexually assaulted. Her face was battered.

Nayan's mother ran out on to the street. "Nayan where are you? Nayan where are you?'' she screamed. She collapsed, pulled herself up. A few steps, then no more. She lay on the ground, the gravel pricking.

Detective Superintendant Douglas Harvey, from North East London's Major Investigation Pool, says he is satisfied that his police team did their best to find Nayantara Ali. "I treated Nayan's disappearance as a potential murder from the day I was put on to the case," he says. "I just didn't tell the family. I didn't want to upset them."

The resources assigned to the investigation were equal to any other major incident, he says: 50 temporary staff and 12 CID officers in the first week and 12 officers thereafter. "I admit that more CID officers would have been useful. But in the London area there is always a shortage."

Acres of open space were searched, he says, and more than 300 people interviewed in the first three weeks (compared with the 1,000 interviewed about Lindsay Rimer). Different "lines" were also pursued with vigour.

"Mr Malik's complaints were without foundation," the detective superintendant insists. "He wanted us to find his niece. We didn't. He is upset. That is understandable."

Chaudhry Anwar, director of the Race Equality Council, in Walthamstow, says that the Asian community's "high expectations" may account for their anger at the police's handling of the case. "People here like to believe that the police are proactive in protecting members of the community," he says Last week a meeting was held by the Walthamstow Race Equality Council; more than 60 people turned up to discuss police handling of the case. "The feeling was one of grief," says Mr Anwar. Eventually, a resolution was put forward calling for improved police protection for people from ethnic minorities.

A full-page article in Jang, the daily Pakistani newspaper for British Asians, did little to dispel the tension. "Why had the police insisted that Nayan left of her own free will when it was obvious to the family that she hadn't?" the newspaper asked.

"The feeling around here is that the police neglected to do their duty," says Mr Anwar. "Asian people feel that they are treated in a different way from the white population."

Det Supt Harvey has an answer to such accusations. Racism has nothing to do with it, he says. The reason Nayan's family is critical of the police investigation is because they are upset ("naturally") and because they are "ignorant".

"Mr Malik doesn't understand police procedure. He doesn't understand that once we've finished searching, there is little we can do but follow up sightings and continue door-to-door inquiries."

His colleague Detective Inspector Frank Weatherley, from Leyton police station, agrees: "Mr Malik has been sitting in his front room for the last few weeks. Just because the search isn't taking place outside his window, he thinks it isn't happening."

Mr Malik shakes his head forlornly. He won't accept their defence. "My niece was alive for four days after the abduction. She might have been saved if the police hadn't stereotyped her.

"To them, Nayan was just another Asian girl who was unhappy at home - another Asian girl trying to escape a strict, traditional upbringing. She died because they did not take her disappearance seriously. There is nothing more to say."

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