How could anyone be so naive, so foolish, as to smuggle drugs? This is, I am sure, how many view Michaella McCollum and Melissa Reid after their arrest for drugs smuggling in Peru. The women say they were forced to do it, under duress, and that they feared what would happen if they said no. I have sympathy for their plight, because, 20 years ago this week, I came close to being in the same situation.
The train carrying me and my then boyfriend, whom I'll call John, had not long left Tangier when we were approached by a man selling "hashish". We'd been in Morocco for two days, in our first week of InterRailing, and had got used to turning down this offer, but were getting more and more irritated. We ignored him, so he turned nasty. "Are you going to Fez? I'm going to fuck you up in Fez."
We must have looked terrified, two 19-year-olds with our fresh faces and cumbersome rucksacks. A smaller guy opposite us started appealing to our aggressor in Arabic, before turning to us with a kind expression, saying in English: "I can help you. If you get off at the next stop with me, there will be another train to Fez within the hour." Relieved, we stumbled off the train and followed our new friend.
Yet once on the platform, the small man – let's call him Hassan – started claiming there was no train for hours, and we should go with him to his house, where his mother would make us lunch.
Not wanting to shun the famously warm Moroccan hospitality, we agreed. When we got to the house, Hassan's mother was making mint tea.
As we sat in the living room, Hassan went to a side room and brought out a young couple, she with blond hair, the man with long dark hair – they both looked a bit like us, but they were apparently stoned. Hassan said, "These guys are InterRailing, just like you." "Where are you from?" John asked. Switzerland, they replied. "Where else have you been?" Nowhere, for the past three weeks, came the reply.
If that seemed strange, then things rapidly became more alarming. Hassan was now saying we had to stay the night, and it would cost about £30. This seemed very steep at the time, and we said we would need to go to a bank to change more money.
It was what happened next that made me slam on the brakes. On the way to the bank, out of the earshot of John, Hassan said to me, "Our Swiss friends, they're taking things to Spain for me." "What things?" I asked, and he laughed. "You could make money," he said. It was pretty clear that he meant marijuana.
At the bank, as I wrote my signature on the back of the travellers cheque, my hand was shaking so much it didn't match the one on the front. I managed to tell John what Hassan had said. Should we make a run for it, as we had our passports with us? However, we had left our rucksacks at the house and didn't have mobile phones.
Back at the house, the Swiss couple were asleep. Gone was Hassan's mother. In her place was a stocky man, wearing shorts and an expensive watch. Was it paranoia or did it look as if he was carrying a gun?
I could tell what was going to happen next. "We're not doing this," I suddenly blurted out. I was scared of our hosts, but more scared about a lengthy jail term for drugs smuggling. "We're leaving," I said.
Hassan's muscular friend asked to see our passports. He looked up my address. "You're from Liverpool? I have friends in Liverpool...."
He said we could leave if we handed over all our money. So we surrendered our few hundred pounds. Hassan looked through John's bag and came across a Primal Scream T-shirt and took it as a trophy, much to my boyfriend's annoyance. Hassan took us to the bus station and let us go back to Tangier. I didn't feel safe until we landed off the ferry in the Spanish port of Algeciras.
When we got to Spain, I called my dad to tell him we'd run out of money. "What, after one week?" I was too frightened even to tell him what had happened (and only told him several years later).
Looking back, clearly we should have gone to the police, or the British embassy. Should we have told someone about the Swiss couple? Probably. But we were terrified, fearful that Hassan and his friend could track us down, given that they knew our home addresses. It turned out that the town we had been to was in the middle of the Rif mountains, a major cannabis-growing area of Morocco. It was also clear that the man on the train and Hassan were in it together. A gun was never held to our heads – as Michaella and Melissa say happened to them – so, in our case, it was easier to say no. But not that easy. It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.
What would we have done if the request had been firmer, if a gun had been trained on us? If their story is true, then Michaella and Melissa are surely victims.
Lest we forget
While on holiday in northern France earlier this month, we left the beach behind one morning and went into Belgium to visit the war graves at Ypres and Passchendaele. With a year to go until the centenary of the start of the First World War, this is something everyone should do if they have the chance. We went to Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world. It is at the same time beautiful and horrific – more than 11,000 marble gravestones, planted with cottage garden flowers, amid scenic arable farmland.
Although the mothers and fathers of these young men, mainly British and Australian soldiers who fell in the Battle of Passchendaele, are long gone, their engraved tributes to their sons have the power today, nearly 100 years on, to move. "Sleeping far away from his beloved mother," said one. Another quoted Tennyson: "O for the touch of the vanished hand." But the most common inscription, on no fewer than 70 per cent of the stones, underlies the horror of a war that obliterated not only lives but identities: the buried are only "known unto God".Reuse content