'If she goes, Musa's youth will be snuffed out'

Hugh Pope went to meet Jackie Cook and her daughter's new 'family' in Kahramanmaras
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The Independent Online
The wedding henna still stained the palms and fingernails of 13-year-old Sarah Cook as she reached out to hold the hand of her mother, Jackie. Her head nuzzled into the neck of her new Turkish "mother-in- law", to whom she gave a loving kiss.

The three sat side-by-side on a bed in a typically Turkish family scene in the eastern town of Kahramanmaras. But all were exhausted by a second sleepless night, caught up in the storm caused by Sarah's underage "marriage" to her holiday sweetheart, 18-year-old Musa Komeagac.

It was after 2am, and a Turkish friend had brought me to the unpainted three-storey concrete building where they are staying in this busy market town. Jackie Cook had just flown in from London. Newly pressed into her handbag was a writ, in intimidating legal language, apparently ordering her to bring her daughter back, within two weeks, or else.

I was there to translate for them from Turkish, but it soon struck me that the Cook family were in need of much more help than that.

They listened with little comment to the views of a local lawyer, retained by the Komeagac family, Selim Surmen. Over and over again Mr Surmen pushed the same message as he has given in public: his view - possibly inaccurate - that if Sarah returns to Britain, then Musa, who was remanded in custody on charges of underage sex earlier this week, will spend the next six years in jail.

"If she goes, then Musa's youth will be snuffed out. She must stay here for the eight months until she turns 14. Then we can get the judge's permission for her to marry, Musa will get out of jail and everybody will live happily ever after," Mr Surmen said in an interview afterwards.

The terrible dilemma of their situation could be read on the tired faces of Mrs Cook and her daughter, who appear not to have known that the "marriage" two weeks ago was illegal in Turkey. British officials have warned them not to speak publicly about their case, but behind their formal "no comments" it seemed clear they had little idea what was best to do and they had nobody to give them impartial advice. Representatives of the Sun, who had hitherto assumed the role of guards and guides, were suddenly absent.

Their problem is likely to grow worse as the officials and people of Kahramanmaras adopt Sarah's love for, and "marriage" to, Musa as a campaigning cause.

Sarah's "in-laws" listened supportively as the debate moved backwards and forwards. They and a group of young relatives occasionally offered Sarah chunks of bread, cheese and olives from the family's pre-dawn meal. It is Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting between sunrise and sunset.

Her "father-in-law", Ali, is a slight man with kind, quick eyes who has done well out of 15 years as the caretaker of a downtown Kahramanmaras apartment block, earning enough to buy a flat or two, a shop and a car. Her "mother-in-law", Esma, has a gentle, smiling face and often showed her affection by hugging and stroking her new "daughter-in-law", who responded with puppy-like charm.

The "in-laws" showed as much concern for what might happen to Sarah's parents in Britain as what might happen to their son, but they spoke barely three words of English between them. Sarah's Turkish is still elementary.

Sarah, her pale face puffed up with lack of sleep, was by turns attentive and humorous in a schoolgirlish way, then unable to remember the name of the British Embassy official who had come to discuss her legal position, let alone the substance of what she was told.

After two hours, there seemed to be no way forward and no way back for the Cooks. The mother's face was dark and lined after her long flight, the legal sanctions and the verbal attacks from neighbours. Abusive callers had even reached Sarah in Kahramanmaras.

Conversation continued fitfully into the night. Finally, a message was produced from Musa in jail, that spoke of his love for Sarah, how everyone should think of her first but that "he did not know what he would do" if Sarah decided to obey the court and leave.

Sarah fled the room in tears, apparently believing that this meant Musa would kill himself. The room fell quiet. A canary warbled in a cage hanging from the stove pipe, and from the cold earth tracks outside came the booming beat of the Ramadan drummers, waking up the townspeople for a new day of fasting and avid debate about their adopted "bride".