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The following article appeared in Eve Magazine.
Sold... to the gentlemen in Yemen. Two underage daughters, £2,600 the pair. What happened to the two English sisters who were sold into marital slavery in Yemen in 1980?
Zana Muhsen sits in her living room in a quiet Birmingham suburb and winces from the pain of her tooth. Grimly, she recalls the last time she had toothache; she was thousands of miles away in Yemen, effectively a hostage. 'I had cried for days,' she says, 'and they just ignored it. In the end I got some pliers and pulled the tooth out myself.'
Now aged 36, it's Zana's large eyes, rather than her voice, with its strong Brummie accent, that expresses the emotion of her extraordinary story. In 1990, when Zana was just 15 and her sister Nadia 14, their father sold them as wives to the sons of Yemeni families. Zana escaped back to England eight years later, but paid a high price for her freedom: she had to leave behind not just Nadia and Nadia's children, but her own two-year-old son Marcus from the marriage into which she had been forced.
When Zana's story was splashed across the world's newspapers in 1988, she promised to return and free Nadia and their children. Thirteen years later, it's a promise that she's still fighting to fulfil.
Her partner, Paul, brings us coffee. Around the room are photos of the three other children, evidence of the life built since her escape. But the past is never far away.
A Jolly holiday in Yemen….
As children, the sisters were incredibly close. Their father, Muthana, came to Birmingham from Yemen when he was 15, and married their mother, Miriam, a local teenager. A son, Ahmed, and a daughter, Leilah, quickly followed, but Zena and her younger siblings never knew them: two years before Zana was born, Muthana took them back to his parents in Yemen for a 'holiday' and came back without them. He told Miriam they would have a better life in Yemen. She protested bitterly, of course, and wrote to the Foreign Office. But her children were Yemeni citizens, and there was nothing she could do. Soon preoccupied by her growing family – five more children followed – Miriam accepted the situation, and got on with her life.
Zana has happy memories of her childhood. She was, she says, the 'mouthy one' while they were growing up not far from the Birmingham suburb where she now lives. Nadia, a year younger, was quieter. 'We were very, very close,' Zana says, 'Nadia, was the tomboy, always wanting to play football in the park with the boys or climb a tree, getting into trouble wearing trousers to school. But even though I was more girly, I was also protective of her, keeping an eye on her at school, in case she got bullied.' They were raised as a 'typical English family'. They went to a Church of England school and knew little of their father's, a non-practising Muslim, background, though they would see his Arab friends at the family cafe. Zana doesn't recall him being any stricter than her friends' fathers, until they entered their teens at least, though he would claim later he wanted to send them to Yemen as the girls were becoming corrupted by western ways. 'I think he always intended to sell us, from when we were little,' she says, 'just waiting until the opportunity was there. It's evil for a father to even imagine that for his children, but I am sure he did.'
The ordeal began when their father suggested a month's holiday in the Yemen, initially for Nadia only, his oldest friend, Gowad, having volunteered to take her over personally. Though she would travel first, Zana's trip, under the supervision of another Yemeni, Abdul Khada, was arranged later. Their mother did not try to influence them one way or the other. The main purpose of this holiday, the girls understood, would be to visit their long-lost brother and sister. 'Mum was very young at that time,' Zana says, 'and couldn't do anything about it. I think she felt that she and my father had formed a relationship over the years, and he wouldn't do anything like that again. Besides, Ahmed and Leilah were just 2 and 3, we were 14 and 15. She didn't suspect anything. If she had had just an inkling of what was to happen, she would never have let us go.'
At the end of June 1980, accompanied by Abdul Khada, Zana arrived in the Yemen, some two weeks ahead of Nadia. The long, hot journey to Abdul Khada's village, where she was told they were to stay before visiting Zana's brother and sister, began to alarm Zana. As city and town roads gave way to dirt tracks, the nature of the countryside changed. When they reached Abdul Khada's isolated mountain-top village, Zana soon found that living conditions could not be more primitive. Abdul Khada introduced her to his wife Ward and eldest son Mohammed and his wife and children. Zana felt apprehensive but looked forward to the promised visit to Ahmed and Leilah and Nadia's imminent arrival.
Meet your husband (and by the way, he's 13) On the third day, Abdul Khada introduced Zana to his second son, thirteen year old Abdullah. 'Abdullah,' he said, 'is your husband.' 'At first I thought it was a big joke,' Zana recalls. 'When I realised it wasn't I just went into shock, even now I can feel it.' Reeling in disbelief, Zana was told her father had arranged the marriage in England and that the same fate awaited Nadia, who was now 'married' to Gowan's son, Mohammed, also thirteen. 'I thought I would wake up the next morning back in England,' Zana says, 'and discover it was all a nightmare. But I didn't. It was reality. Sheer torment for eight years.'
Though Zana managed to smuggle a letter out to her mother, warning her to prevent Nadia leaving, unknown to her, the letter would be intercepted and torn up by her father. The price he had put on hers and Nadia's head, she later discovered, was £1300 each. Nadia duly arrived and walked into her own nightmare in Gowad's house in a village not far from where Zana was. 'They separated us early on,' Zana says. 'I think they thought that we would adapt to the lifestyle quicker that way.' Zana never adapted. 'For eight years, I fought every single day. I never let the memory of England or my family out of my head for one minute. Whereas, as the years went on, I watched Nadia become more and more brainwashed.'
Under the vindictive supervision of Abdul Khada's wife, Ward, Zana was treated as a virtual slave. And though she resisted as long as she could, she was eventually forced to sleep with her 'husband', 'if I hadn't they would have tied me to the bed.' She remembers her mother-in-law finding blood on the sheets, checking Zana had lost her virginity. Unable to speak Arabic for the first year or so, she was unable to communicate with other villagers. 'The first few months they beat me everyday because I rebelled against what they did to me. One time they threw paraffin over me after I had been badly cut. It stung like hell but that was their mentality.'
Welcome to the Stone Age Abdul Khada did keep one promise, taking Zana on the seven-hour drive to the village where Ahmed lived with their grandfather (Leilah, now married, was away). She recognised Ahmed as a Muhsen immediately, and the two siblings clung to each other crying. But Ahmed hadn't spoken English since he was three; they had to rely on Abdul Khada to translate, and Zana could not tell him the full truth of her sham marriage. It would be seven years before Zana met her brother again. Had he known her dilemma at the time, he told her then, he would have tried to help her.
Zana smuggled a letter out to her mother, warning her to prevent Nadia leaving, but the letter was intercepted by her father and destroyed. So Nadia walked into her own nightmare in Gowad's house in Ashube, a nearby village. The sisters saw each other for a few days, until Abdul Khada took Zana to work in a restaurant he owned in a distant town. 'They separated us early,' Zana says. 'I think they thought that we would adapt to the lifestyle quicker that way.' But Zana never adapted. 'For eight years, I fought every single day. I never let the memory of England or my family out of my head.' Zana and Nadia struggled to come to terms with a male-dominated culture little changed in hundreds of years. Zana rose at 5.30 to work in the fields before the sun became too hot, made constant trips to the well, bringing back the water in a stone pitcher held on her head, and learnt to cook on a stone fire which constantly burnt her hands. Starved as a punishment for disobedience by her mother-in-law, she killed a snake that had tried to bite her and cooked it. She had malaria three times in six months, cured eventually by a local treatment of camel's urine and milk. Over time, by necessity, she hardened.
After six months working in the restaurant, she returned to Hockail and was able to see more of Nadia. By now she was gaining in confidence. 'I wasn't going to let them run my life anymore. To get to where Nadia lived I walked through a valley, along a very hard, winding path. We spent most of our time together crying, keeping our memories of home alive and trying to find ways of getting out, but there was no way. No buses, no electricity, nothing but mountain after mountain.'
On two occasions Zana tried, and failed, to take her life. 'Nadia kept me going,' she says. 'And I believe God was with me there all the time because what I experienced out there, there would have to be a God to keep me alive.'
The worst experience of all was childbirth. Nadia was the first to give birth, to a son, Haney. Then, two years later in May 1986, Zana gave birth to Marcus. At about the same time, Nadia had a girl, Tina. Neither sister was allowed to be present at the other's births, so Zana had no idea what to expect. She had Marcus on a bare mud floor in the house in filthy conditions.
Through the years the sisters sometimes despaired of help from their mother, even wondering if she had been party to their father's actions. In fact, when she eventually realised what Muthana had done, Miriam had left him, taking the three youngest children and beginning the long fight to bring Nadia and Zana home. She had a nervous breakdown and was put on tranquilisers. 'Looking back I realise how hard it must have been for her to fight for us and look after the three children too,' says Zana, without a trace of bitterness.
Miriam had no idea where in the Yemen the sisters were. The Foreign office told her, as they had with Ahmed and Leila. that there was nothing they could do: the sisters had dual nationality and were regarded as citizens of Yemen. Miriam argued that their marriage documents were illegal and that, according to UK law, they were under age. The Foreign Office told her that they could return if their 'husbands' gave them permission for exit visas. After six years, a letter from Zana smuggled out by a sympathetic new local doctor enabled Miriam to track the sisters down. She and Zana's younger brother Mo (she has two younger sisters as well, Ashia and Tina) went straight out to find them.
Zana and Nadia, both pregnant at the time were overjoyed at the re-union, but disappointed to discover that her mother could not take them straight home. Miriam was shocked to discover the full extent of her daughters' ordeal. Zana recorded her story on tape. Back in England, Miriam gave the tape to the Observer, who immediately sent out a journalist and photographer to interview the sisters. 'They were lucky,' says Zana. 'Had the villagers discovered who they were, they would have been shot.'
You can go, but not your children The publicity from the Observer article in 1987 and subsequent pressure on the Yemeni government forced a concession, though it would take another two years to bear fruit: the sisters could return to England, but not with their children. Zana faced the hardest decision of her life. 'Nadia wouldn't leave Tina, her daughter, because she knew how women were treated there. At least I knew Marcus wouldn't have the same kind of life we had. But I thought I would be able to come back for them very soon. I thought the British government would help me. Had I known what would happen, I would never have left.'
Returning to Birmingham, Zana campaigned for the release of Nadia and their children. After her eight years of captivity, though, she found it hard to keep going. 'I became a recluse, my moods just got blacker and blacker.' In the end, salvation of a kind came when she approached a ghost-writer, Andrew Crofts, to help her write the book, 'Sold', which told their story. 'That book was my therapy,' she says. 'It probably stopped me from going mental.'
When the book came out, Zana and Miriam were trying, unsuccessfully, to have Muthana and Gowad charged with kidnapping and false imprisonment, and were advised to avoid publicity in the UK. The reaction to the book in Europe, however, was phenomenal. After an appearance on a French TV show in 1992 with a Yemeni government official, the TV company took Zana back to the Yemen to see Nadia. The trip was a disaster. She did not get to see Marcus, as promised. Nadia became a zombie in front of the TV cameras (her face, terrified eyes staring out from a veil, is now the cover of 'Sold'). 'She'd gone into a shell, like all victims of abuse, to protect herself,' says Zana. But Zana was convinced the old Nadia was in there somewhere. In the few brief minutes away from her husband and relatives, Nadia said simply, 'Get me out.'
Subsequent trips have been equally unsuccessful. During one attempt to go and get them, Mo thought he had won an agreement from Nadia's husband to take him, Nadia and the children to England on a holiday, but her husband reneged when he realised that Mo was offering him tickets instead of money. The Yemeni government still regard Nadia's children - she now has six - asYemenis and she will not return without them.
Nearly all the royalties from 'Sold' were lost in an attempt to have Nadia and the children rescued by an American group claiming to specialise in such situations. After two years and nearly £200,000 had been siphoned off, Zana and her mother finally accepted that attempts to recapture the money would be futile. Last September, with money owing to the Inland Revenue, Zana was declared bankrupt.
According to Foreign Office statistics, three children a day are abducted from Britain, usually by fathers, and most of those are taken to Muslim countries. Zana, who saw two very young British girls in villages when she was there, believes the figure is probably higher. She takes comfort from letters from mothers who say her story has prevented similar things happening to their children.
Today, working as a community nurse, Zana continues her fight. Her youngest three children know about her past, and the plight of their elder brother and aunt, and her partner Paul has been hugely supportive, always on hand to talk to and distract the children if Zana can't cope. 'He's brilliant, if I cut off, if I need time on my own, he'll take the kids away for a few hours.'
Bizarrely, Zana's father - the architect of the sisters' ordeal – still lives just a few streets away, in a new home with his new wife and four more children. 'I don't talk to him, obviously, but I see him driving sometimes. I know he has a terrible guilt for what's he done, I can see it in his face, but I know he won't do anything, though I do believe he could bring Nadia back if he had a word with the right people.' Soon after returning, Zana, restraining her anger, pleaded with her father to get Nadia back. But though he promised to help, nothing came of it. Zana believes he lives in mortal fear of losing face.
Her mother, who also lives nearby, is now showing the results of the years of anguish. An agoraphobic for the last five years, she barely leaves her house. But she still writes to the Foreign Office every day. Zana, who co-wrote a follow-up to 'Sold' last year, 'A Promise to Nadia', hopes other people will write too.
Zana says: 'My mission in life is to bring Nadia home. I think about her 24 hours a day. When I sleep I dream about her, and when I'm on my own, I cry.' She has a photo of Marcus at 12 (he is now 15); when she looks at the picture she sees a stranger and wonders if she will ever see him again. Thoughts of her sister leave her even more anguished. 'Marcus is my first child and I resent the government for taking me away from him and I want him to have the life he should have here, but what he has is the only life he has ever known. But Nadia was with me from the beginning and I think about her more.' The sisters last spoke on the phone in October 1996, Nadia's 31st birthday. Nadia had forgotten how old she was.
You can light a candle for Nadia at www.infiniweb.ca/nadia/
See also 'Hillsborough' another article in the series Stories the World Forgot.