Author: Interviews by Julia Stuart
Nadia was 14 and I was 15 when we were invited to go on holiday to visit my dad’s family in the Yemen for six weeks. We were really excited – we were told it was all palm trees and beaches. It was our first time abroad. We were born in Britain and raised as British girls. We didn’t even know that Islamic culture existed.
Our father, Muthana Muhsen, stayed in Birmingham and I travelled with a friend of the family. Within days, a 14-year-old boy called Abdullah was introduced to me as my husband. I’d never seen him before in my life. I thought they were joking. But it was the beginning of the nightmare. I was told if I didn’t sleep with him, I would be tied down. When Nadia came out I had to tell her she too had been married to a Yemeni. We were sent to two isolated villages and only allowed to see each other once a week. We were told that we could never go back to England, or see our family again.
At first I thought my dad didn’t know what had happened to us. When I found out he was behind it, I was in shock for a long time. He had got £2,600 for marrying us at a proxy ceremony in Birmingham.
It was sheer mental and physical torture. There was no running water or electricity. As women we had to get up a six and grind corn for two hours, collect water in steel containers on our heads 12 times a day, and work in the fields. Once I was so hungry, I killed and ate a snake.
I kept looking out for helicopters, or the police – but no one came to rescue us. We expected the British government to do something, and kept asking each other why it was taking so long. At one stage I wondered whether my mum was in on it too. I kept sending her letters but they were intercepted. I missed my brothers and sisters at home, but it was my mum I missed the most. Nadia and I used to talk to the air, pretending we were speaking to her. I can’t describe the pain of being separated from her. It was sheer torture. It makes you go crazy. I think that, if I wasn’t as strong as I am, I would be in a mental hospital.
In 1986, when I was just about to have my first child, Marcus, my mum suddenly turned up with one of my brothers. I didn’t even recognise him, it had been so long. I couldn’t believe they were there. My mum thought she could bring us back, but I knew it would be impossible because of the way the country operated. She left after two weeks. It was awful.
The media took up our story which forced the Yemeni and British governments into action. In 1988 we were told by the Yemeni authorities that we could leave, but not with our children. Nadia had a boy and a girl, aged four and one, and just couldn’t part with them – there was talk of the girl being married off when she was nine. I was told that Marcus could stay with Nadia, and I decided to leave. I felt guilty about leaving him, but thought that if I came home I would stand more chance of being able to get them out.
I was in shock when I got back. For a year I was in trance, thinking I was still over there. I felt so guilty about leaving Nadia and my son, that I couldn’t accept I was home. My mum found some mercenaries based in America who specialised in rescuing children. They agreed to help us and over two years I gave them £185,000 which I’d made from the book, Sold, I wrote about my experience. But they turned out to be con artists. Since then my mum and I have been constantly battling with the Foreign Office. All we get from them is that Nadia’s happy where she is. But she has been forced to stay there because of her children – she’s got six now. I don’t even know all their names.
I have had three children since I came back – one with a childhood sweetheart and two with my partner Paul. But not a day goes by when I don’t think about Marcus. He’ll be 13 now. I’m just hoping he hasn’t been brain washed. But I’m more desperate for Nadia to come back. She was born and bred here in Britain. The Yemen is all Marcus knows.
I find myself thinking about Nadia. Even when I buy a cream cake I think: “Nadia hasn’t seen a cream cake since she was 14,” and I feel guilty eating it. Every day I feel guilty that she’s there and I’m here. I write letters to her and send photographs, but I don’t get any reply.
I hate my dad for what he’s done to us. I saw him just after I came back and asked him why he did it. He said he was sorry, and thought it was for the best.
When Zana and Nadia had been away for two months, and I still hadn’t heard from them, I started to panic. When I asked their father about it he said everything was fine. I eventually heard from my daughters’ school friends that they were married – the other girls had found out from people who had been over there. I just flipped and can’t remember the following two months. I was put on tranquillisers. A social worker helped me find another house so I could leave their father. We’d been together for nearly 20 years. I could have killed him.
The social worker immediately started writing to the Foreign Office and British Embassy, and we started trying to get Zana and Nadia back. The pain of being without them was unbearable. I blamed myself for letting them go.
In 1986 I got compensation from a car accident, and could afford to go and get them. All I knew was that their father had married them off. I had no idea of the conditions they were living in – I was born in Britain and had never been to the Yemen. I found my daughters on a mountain in a mud hut with no sanitation.
I was just stunned by what they had been through. They wanted to come back with me, but the Yemeni and British governments wouldn’t let them. I felt so helpless, it was very hard to leave without them, terrible.
When Zana came back she was totally confused. I understood her leaving Marcus, there was nothing she could have done. She was angry because she thought that when she came back she would be able to get her sister back. She would take it out on me and I would take it out on her. The last time Zana and I saw Nadia was for a day in 1992. She was fully covered – all we could see were her eyes. She said: ”Please get me out.”
I won’t stop writing to officials until Nadia comes back. I used to be meek and mild, but now I’m like a tiger. The Government says she’s a Yemeni national, though we’ve proved she’s not. I’m hurt and angry. Nadia should be with her family. I think about Nadia all the time. We send her letters, but they are never given to her. I love her so much. To me she’s still my 14-year-old.
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