'I dream my children call me'

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The Independent Online
THE WIFE of the British ambassador in Washington is separated from her two children by 3,000 miles and she accepts that she may well not see them again. "I believe deep down that one day my children will want to find out who their mother is because children do that," says Catherine Meyer.

Meanwhile she is determined to fight the growing phenomenon of child snatching. "It really is a big issue," she says, "and very little is being done about it."

In her own case, she has discovered that who you are and whom you know makes little difference. Attractive and stylish, able to speak four languages, Lady Meyer has dined at the White House and recently persuaded the President's wife and and Cherie Blair to address a reception she has organised at the embassy in Washington to launch a new charity, the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.

Yet in spite of the powerful connections and having international law on her side, she has still not been able to escape from the personal tragedy that has clouded her life for more than five years and which ought not to have happened if the rulings of international law had been upheld.

In 1994, her two sons, Alexander and Constantin, were abducted to Germany by her former husband Hans Peter Volkmann, and although she has been awarded custody by the courts in Britain, she has still not been able to get them back.

"Imagine how it feels," she says, "not knowing where your children are, not knowing how they feel. As a mother, the bond is so intense I used to have nightmares ... my children were calling me in my dreams and I just emotionally needed to see them."

She has still not come to terms with the horror of discovering that her children had disappeared. "It's difficult to describe the feeling of coming home and finding the rooms of your children empty. Four days before they were due back in London I received a letter saying the boys were not coming back. My whole world in that instant disintegrated."

Before her marriage in the Russian Orthodox church in London to Dr Volkmann, then a medical student, she had been a successful commodity broker. Alexander was born in May 1985, Constantin two years later. She was married for eight years but the relationship became increasingly strained and eventually the couple separated. There was a legal agreement drawn up in Germany which stipulated that she should have custody of the children but that their father should have them in Germany - his home country - for the school holidays. It was after one of these visits that he refused to return them, claiming that the two boys felt they were German, wanted to go to school in Germany and had been taunted by having Nazi nicknames thrown at them while they were at school in London. Lady Meyer tried all the legal routes to getting her children back and eventually pleaded her case with Christopher Meyer, then the British ambassador in Bonn, whom she later married.

Photographs of her children are now arrayed on an elegant table in one of the reception rooms at the embassy. Sitting next to them Lady Meyer told me that she had last seen her children "as a real mother" on 6 July, 1994 and since then had only been allowed to see them for a total of 11 hours under supervision in her former husband's house in Germany. She was worried about what they had been told about her.

"He has obviously said to the children 'see, your mummy doesn't care for you', and that's what the children have told me. I got really upset when I saw Alexander for the first time after a long period of absence and I said to him, 'Look, I've been trying to see you. I love you', and Alexander turned round to me and said 'No, you lie. Papa told me that that you could come and see us whenever you wanted and you never did'. Clearly my children believe they've been abandoned by their mother."

Lady Meyer thinks that the children are going to be damaged for the remainder of their lives. The events of the past years are going to play a big role in their being able to trust people later, she believes.

"I think there is a lot of baggage the boys will have to deal with and I don't know if they will be able to deal with it ... I accept that my children live in Germany. I accept that my ex-husband is having custody," says Lady Meyer. "But the only thing I want is to be able to see my children on holidays. The only thing I want is for my children to know they have a mother who cares for them. I'm not asking for very much."

When I asked Dr Volkmann for an interview he replied: "I appreciate the fact that you offer an opportunity for others to hear my views ... about the Hague Convention. You will, however, understand that 'going public' cannot be - and has never been - in the interest of the children."

David Lomax reports on 'The Child Snatchers' for 'Panorama' on BBC1 tomorrow at 10pm.