My desperate scramble to freedom… in a short gold dress and wedges: One writer tells how she and her daughter fled war-torn Syria in a nightmare dash across mountains
When her six-year-old daughter May was
abducted by her violent, Syrian ex-husband, Louise Monaghan set out on
an extraordinary mission from her home in Cyprus to rescue her from
war-torn Syria. They travelled hundreds of miles to a safe house in
Damascus, but there, without passports and with Louise’s life in
danger, they were trapped. With the violence mounting, they fled again –
to the unlikely haven of a Catholic convent. Then came their final,
heartstopping bid for freedom . . .
21:44 GMT, 16 June 2012
Safe hands: Louise Monaghan with her daughter, May, who she had to rescue from Syria where her violent ex-husband had taken her
As we pulled up, I saw massive walls, about 40ft high, and a huge iron gate. It reminded me of the convent I attended as a child in Ireland: old blue linoleum on the floors, walls with holy relics on them, statues of Our Lady everywhere.
After a fretful night, a little nun knocked on our door at about 6.30am with a concoction of yogurt with some sort of oil on the top and some olives. I remember thinking that when May, my daughter, woke up she would be in shock at what was for breakfast.
The phone rang. It was the call I had been waiting for: an official from the consulate with news about our appeal to let May leave Syria. She is half Syrian, of course.
‘I’m afraid it’s not good news, Louise,’ he began. ‘The judge said although we have a very strong case, he could not allow May to leave Syria, as they would lose another Muslim.’
I thought I was going to collapse. ‘Lose another Muslim!’
I was disgusted. At that moment, I hated Syria, its religious beliefs, its political bureaucracy and everything it stood for. I said: ‘Please don’t tell me I have to stay here indefinitely. I know you have been very good to me, but I have to get out of here.’ I didn’t mean to, but I ended up shouting.
Then, within five minutes, everything changed. The phone rang again, and this time it was Isolde Moylan, Irish ambassador for the region.
‘Pack your bags now, Louise, you are going home today. You have five minutes. A car is on the way.’ Mandy, my sister, had arranged everything from Dublin after weeks of working behind the scenes. It turned out that the Irish authorities could relay her messages but were powerless to help inside war-torn Syria. I had to organise and fund my own escape. They could assist us only once we had got to Lebanon.
I said: ‘Can I have a quick shower’
‘Absolutely not,’ was Isolde’s reply. ‘The car is coming now.’ I picked up May as she played and said: ‘Quick, May, we are going home. Pack your bag.’
We ran down to the courtyard. I wasn’t wearing a hijab. Instead I wore a gold-coloured dress, tights and a pair of wedges, because I honestly thought we would travel by plane or in a nice taxi.
We drove for about an hour, ending up in a derelict part of Damascus where the roads were just sand and the houses were falling down. There was rubbish strewn everywhere. At a garage we were told to get into a 4×4 with blacked-out windows. May was as quiet as a mouse. I knew she was terrified, but she was being so strong. She cuddled into me. All the men in the garage were staring at my blonde, uncovered hair and short dress.
We drove again for about half an hour through tiny back lanes. Wherever we were, it was definitely the back of beyond. Young children were running around in dirty clothes and bare feet.
Then, after waiting an eternity for new tyres to get us over the mountains, we were off.
Soon, we were going up. Dusk was falling and it was hard to see outside the tinted windows, but I could feel the drag on the engine and the roads were getting rockier. Many times I grabbed on to the seat, terrified that we would go over the side. I remember praying over and over again in my head. The man in the back had a bandana wrapped around his head and a gun on his hip.
All of a sudden, we came to a stop. There was no way we could go any further. The terrain was just too rough and narrow. A bearded man, who had been with us from the start, took my handbag, and his companion simply said: ‘OK. /06/16/article-0-13A401EA000005DC-249_634x441.jpg” width=”634″ height=”441″ alt=”Mountain men: During their night-long trek through the hills to flee Syria, Louise and May had to hide from army convoys” class=”blkBorder” />
Mountain men: During their night-long trek through the hills to flee Syria, Louise and May had to hide from army convoys
In the distance I could make out headlights from vehicles driving below us and hear the slight hum of their engines. They were obviously Syrian army vehicles, and we froze to the spot, deadly silent.
After a few minutes, the man said: ‘Yalla, yalla’ (‘move, move’), and we started off again. I remember we hit one very difficult spot on a mountain as we climbed again, and I looked up and thought: ‘I can’t do this.’ I was distraught. I tried to find rocks to grip with my wedged shoes but kept losing my footing.
May said: ‘Please help my mama, she has very bad legs.’ The man who had already reached the top of the slope with May stretched down and gave me his hand to grab. I desperately clung to him.
Eventually we reached a place with a large rock in the middle. It was clear that this rock was always their stopping point. They offered us some water. Then the man who spoke a bit of English – the one with the beard – said to me: ‘Money. I need money.’ I wasn’t arguing. I would have sold my soul to the devil to get down off that mountain range safely with my little girl.
I took out my wallet and I showed them that all I had left was €150. The bearded man said: ‘Dollar, dollar’ I told him I had no dollars, just euros.
All of a sudden May disappeared, and I heard her laughing and yelling: ‘Wheeeeee!’ She was obviously sliding down the mountain. The man turned to me and said in Arabic: ‘Can you do this’ I didn’t know what ‘this’ was, but I assumed it was going to be worse than anything we had gone through.
I just said: ‘Yes. Yes.’
As I looked down, I saw how steep it really was. I started to slide, and the man was in front of me. As I slid, he would stop me with his boot if I went too far; it acted like a brake for me. This went on for about ten minutes, when I saw a 4×4 vehicle with its headlights flashing in the distance and little May standing there covered with mud up to her chest. I can’t describe the relief I felt when I saw her. I just smiled.
We reached an open-top Suzuki with Lebanese plates, where a tall, very slim man was speaking to the bearded guide. Nothing was said; they simply put May in the back and me in the front. Then the guide asked for my phone. I took a deep breath, because I needed my phone now more than ever, but I had no choice; I had placed my trust in these men through the night and knew they had put their own lives at risk for me and May.
We drove until we reached a huge city
with tall buildings and there, like a mirage in a desert, I saw a big
McDonald’s perched as if calling to us, drawing us into its doorway with
He opened the phone, took out the SIM card and broke it in two. I sat there with my mouth open. It was only later that I realised they needed to do this to protect themselves, because I had made calls in one of their safe houses and if there was a way of tracking my phone, it would pinpoint them.
We drove until we reached a huge city with tall buildings and there, like a mirage in a desert, I saw a big McDonald’s perched as if calling to us, drawing us into its doorway with magnetic force. Right on cue I heard a scream from May: ‘McDonald’s! Mama, McDonald’s!’ I’d never seen her so excited about food. But we hadn’t eaten for hours and hours, and both of us were overcome by hunger.
I could also see that right in front of us was the last checkpoint we needed to go through to get to safety, and sitting there like something from a dream was the Irish diplomatic car. It was such a relief to see the Irish flag again. Finally, I knew we were safe.
No words can express how elated I am to be alive and reunited with my little girl. There were so many days when I thought I would never see my family again, and the fear of being stoned to death under sharia law haunted my every hour.
A world apart: Louise with her then husband Mostafa and May in happier times during a family meal in Cyprus
May went back to school at home in Cyprus, and attended counselling for post-traumatic stress. She is slowly but surely going back to being the happy little girl she was before that horrible day when her father dragged her away. Because of the situation in Syria, I am unsure where her father is right now. I was told he had been arrested and was in prison in Syria. If he is deported to Cyprus, as planned, to face charges of parental abduction, it may well be a landmark case.
Our lives will never be the same again. We live under assumed names because one man has set out to destroy our lives and could strike again. If he does not do it himself, there are others waiting in the wings to help. Next time we might not be so lucky.
I have learned an awful lot about parental abductions on my journey, a journey I wish I had never needed to take, and if I can even save one person, man or woman, from a similar ordeal, then this will have been worth every painful minute.
Stolen: Escape From Syria, by Louise Monaghan and Yvonne Kinsella, is published by Mainstream, priced 12.99. To order your copy at the special price of 10.99 inc p&p, call the Review Bookstore on 0843 382 1111 or go to mailshop.co.uk/books.