A short and tragic life

Police investigate if body found in river is a victim of an honour killing
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The Independent Online

Shafilea Ahmed had become used to negotiating the difficult path between her duties as an obedient Muslim daughter and life as a typical British teenager. By day, she wore jeans and raved about Justin Timberlake with her schoolfriends. By night, she wore a salwaar kameez, spoke Urdu and said her prayers.

At 17, Shafilea visited Pakistan. Her parents deny that she went there for an arranged marriage. They say there was a marriage proposal made in Pakistan, while they were visiting.

But, for whatever reason, she decided to drink bleach. She was treated in a Pakistan hospital for serious internal injuries. The teenager and her family returned to Britain but within four months, in September last year, Shafilea had disappeared.

Yesterday, forensic scientists were attempting to identify a decomposed body wearing jewellery similar to Shafilea's, found in the river Kent in Cumbria. Friends fear that her troubled life has come to an early end.

The slight build, the age, the gold zigzag bracelet and blue topaz ring, fit the description of the girl known as Shaffi to friends and family in Warrington, Cheshire.

A year after they took their British-born eldest child back to Pakistan, Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed were waiting to hear whether the body in the river was indeed their daughter. No one knows what the last few months have been like, and no one can be sure how she died. The bright, ambitious young woman may have been the random victim of crime; she may have committed suicide.

Police, though, believe she may have been the victim of an honour killing, the ultimate punishment for an Asian woman who brings shame on her family or her community.

She was certainly in some anguish, suffocating in the clash between two cultures. Excerpts from her poetry record: "I don't pretend like we're the perfect family no more, Desire to live is burning, My stomach is turning, But all they think about is honour, I was like a normal teenage kid, Didn't ask 2 much, I just wanted to fit in, But my culture was different, But my family ignored ... I wish my parents would be proud of wot I done, Instead it's 'you've have brought shame', Or something else lame, I don't wanna hear this no more, No no no."

At Priestley sixth form college, where Shafilea was studying A-levels in the hope of taking up a career in law, teachers described her as a lovely girl, a model pupil. But she was obviously not happy. Twice, she had run away for days.

Then, on 10 September, her mother picked her up from the call centre where she worked four nights a week, and Shafilea went to sleep in the bed she shared with her seven- year-old sister. By the time the family awoke the following morning, she was gone. For a week, no one reported her missing to police. Eventually, teachers at her sisters' school alerted the authorities.

Yesterday, as Cheshire detectives travelled to Cumbria to examine the scene where the body was found, a large section of bank was cordoned off while forensic teams combed for clues and divers scoured the riverbed. Both forces said that only the results of DNA tests expected later this week would confirm whether the body was Shafilea. But for some time detectives have believed that the teenager, who still needed regular medical treatment for her internal injuries, was dead.

Family liaison officers were looking after her parents who had confirmed that the jewellery was similar to that worn by their daughter. The 44- year-old taxi driver and his wife have been on police bail since their arrest two months ago on suspicion of kidnapping Shafilea.

Shafilea's parents said that they had always appreciated the eldest of their five daughters had the "world at her feet in England". They had never planned to force her into marriage, they said.

Mr Ahmed said recently: "I love my daughter. Why would I ever want to do anything to hurt her? The police claim there was an arranged marriage for Shaffi - but that's totally wrong."

Acknowledging that during the trip a man had asked him whether his daughter could marry his son, Mr Ahmed added: "I told the man straight that it was up to my daughter ... I blame her friends - they are English and told Shaffi that the only reason we were taking her to Pakistan was for an arranged marriage."

The taxi driver continued: "All I want is to welcome my daughter back into my house with open arms.'

Yesterday, it looked certain that he would never get that chance.