When her estranged husband illegally took their two daughters to war-torn Lebanon, a Calgary mother risked all to get them back

May 26 2008


When her estranged husband illegally took their two daughters to war-torn Lebanon, a Calgary mother risked all to get them back

May 26 2008


When her estranged husband illegally took their two daughters to war-torn Lebanon, a Calgary mother risked all to get them back

In July 2006, Melissa Hawach’s estranged husband, Joe, took the couple’s two children, Hannah, five, and three-year-old Cedar, to visit his family in Australia. Two days before they were to have returned to their Calgary home, a family member phoned to say Joe had taken the girls “overseas” for good—in defiance of the Canadian court order that had given sole custody to Melissa. Overseas turned out to be the Hawachs’ homeland of Lebanon, then rocked by the Israeli-Hezbollah war. On Dec. 13, after months of ineffectual court appeals, Melissa went to Lebanon, where she had the help of a “security team” of Australian and New Zealand ex-soldiers and a high-ranking Lebanese “fixer” she refers to only as the General. Once she located Hannah and Cedar at a resort north of Beirut, Melissa had to make a momentous decision. Facing the possibility that her husband might disappear again, and with seemingly little chance of recovering the girls in the local courts—Lebanon, which strongly supports paternal rights, is not a signatory to international conventions on child abduction—she chose to act. The following are

excerpts from Hawach’s dramatic account, Flight of the Dragonfly (HarperCollins):

At 4:35 p.m., Dec. 20, my long wait ended. One of the guys had been checking to see if Joe’s rented vehicle, a brand-new black fourwheel-drive Suburban, had returned. Now the news came that he had arrived, that Joe was at that moment hauling groceries in both arms and Hannah was struggling to close the back door of his vehicle. Almost immediately, I watched as Hannah and Cedar came out to the little park at one end of the resort. They were wearing mismatched track suits, their hair was unbrushed, and they looked dishevelled. They were walking along the paved pathway towards the metal slides and swings, with their two friends and the nanny. I knew Joe’s habits: he would be lying down on the bed, napping or watching TV.

As [security team member] David Pemberton and I walked up the spiral staircase to the sprawling park, we could have been a couple. Just a couple enjoying a walk under the trees as the sun began to set on the Bay of Jounieh.

I was calm and focused and clear. We walked slowly, steadily, towards the girls, still some distance away. We took our time, even let 15 minutes pass. The men had told me: stay calm. No running, no sudden movement. Nothing, they said, creates alarm like sudden movement. Now we were five feet from the nanny. I wore nothing on my head, my blond hair flying in the sea breeze. When the girls saw me, I wanted to look the same as ever. My focus was on Hannah, all on Hannah. Cedar, I knew, would follow her.

“Hannie? Hannie?” I called out.

She had this glazed look on her face. I was out of context, and six months had passed since she’d seen me. This was her mother all right, no question. But what was she doing here? Then, pure instinct kicked in.

“Momma! Momma!” she cried out, and she ran straight at me and launched herself up into my outstretched arms. Now Hannah was in my arms, and Cedar was right behind her, calling my name. “Momma! Momma!” I was not worried that Joe would hear or respond: his unit was far enough away, his window would have been closed in any case due to the cold, and besides, the Lebanese word for mother is close enough to the English. Little girls calling to their mothers was an everyday sound.


I said, loud enough for the nanny to hear and hoping she would be confused by this, “Hey, guys. You’re going to come with me for a bit. We’ll talk to Daddy after.”

I was carrying Hannah, not Cedar. Everything was casual. We walked on, and at one point I wanted to switch the girls, put Hannah down to pick Cedar up. Hannah, of course, was the heavier. But first I asked her permission. Things were going smoothly and I did not want a scene.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Hannah.

In lifting Cedar, my cellphone slid from my hip and hit the ground. Nice and easy, David picked it up, and the four of us walked away. We were so casual. The nanny did nothing, said nothing, just stood there. No doubt Joe had made no mention of their circumstances—on the run, in hiding. It must have seemed to this woman a perfectly ordinary thing. The girls’ mother had come along and taken them for a walk. What could be more natural than that?

There were no tears. The kids were as good as gold, and they were so happy to see me. It had been 174 days since I last hugged them. Everything we had planned for, had hoped for, all just came together at once. It was surreal, just surreal. What I did not feel was any sense of victory or satisfaction. It was all so tentative, and at any moment, I knew, any feeling of a job well done—never mind

the girls—could be snatched from me.

Now things sped up—a lot. One of the guys had stayed in the stairwell, acting as lookout. Carrying Cedar and with Hannah holding my free hand, I and the two men now ran down the staircase, piled into the van with the tinted windows, and the van headed for the resort’s exit. The girls and I were tucked in low behind the bench seat. After the guard lifted the long wooden security arm at the gate, we pulled away, but the guys in the back of the van eyed the gatehouse as we drove

off. Guards had come out, which they do not normally do, and one was writing down our licence plate. The alarm had sounded.

Two minutes later, as per the plan, some of us transferred into a sedan, a regular car without tinted windows. I took to the back seat between Hannah and Cedar, scrunched down low so no one could see us. It seemed like we drove a long time, close to an hour, in gridlocked traffic. Police cars would scream past, sirens blaring, and we would all freeze.

In the car, the girls and I played. I had water for them, and books, and old routines to call upon. For as long as we would remain in the Middle East (and I had no idea then how long that might be), I wanted things to stay light for the girls. Whatever strains and stresses I would feel in days to come, I did not want them sharing my burden. We sang songs and played “I Spy” (a perfect choice, given the circumstances). I had a digital camera with me, so I could show Hannah and Cedar shots of Bumpy and Nannie (my parents), my brothers and their Canadian cousins. I had my iPod, too, so the girls could take turns listening to music. Finally, at dark, we arrived at our destination—an out of the way and empty parking lot at the Hotel Alexandre. Another car, a big Suburban with tinted windows, pulled up immediately. In it was the General’s brother, George, and my dad.

Dad was crying, hugging the girls and

everyone there. But I was all business. I wanted out of that parking lot, fast. The girls, Dad and I all piled into the Suburban. There had been no Black Hawk helicopter, no guns drawn, no commandos in fatigues, no grand escape. Our departure had not gone unnoticed, though, as later that day we would discover.

But at that moment, even without knowing when and how we would ever get home, there was nowhere in the world that I would rather have been than in that vehicle with Hannah and Cedar. I felt such pure joy in

being with them, but I also felt almost sick to my stomach knowing that their father was now feeling the same pain and loss I had felt. I would not wish that on anyone.

Things began to go wrong almost immediately. Pemberton and fellow security team member Brian Corrigan were arrested at the Beirut airport as they attempted to fly out. (They spent three months in prison before being released.) The resulting media uproar meant Hawach and her children had to lie low for far longer than she had hoped. Their first try at leaving the country, by boat on Christmas morning, was dashed when the General detected spies at the port. In lateJanuary an attempted escape by car was aborted when security was tightened at their chosen border point. Finally, on Feb. 10,2006, seven harrowing weeks after she was reunited with her daughters, Hawach made a tension-filled break for Syria.

Beirut to Damascus—downtown to downtown—is a 40-minute drive. But when one hour became two, then three and then four, I began to worry.

Lebanese officialdom was looking for us, and so were people working for the Hawach family. I believed that my own personal safety was an issue if we were to be caught, and my family shared that worry.

I had packed a lot of treats and water for the girls and myself, and we would need them all. We had left behind most of our clothes— the last thing I wanted was baggage. We were travelling through rocky, barren country, and while we encountered soldiers everywhere and security checks, we flew through them without anyone checking our passports.

At one point, we changed into another vehicle. The driver seemed nervous, and I didn’t know why. Neither did I have any idea of where we were. You can drive from south Lebanon at the Israeli border all the way to the northern border at Syria in four hours.

To repeat: Beirut to Damascus is a 40-minute drive. Were we driving in circles? One problem, perhaps, was that every time we approached a small border crossing, we found that it had been bombed out or closed.

Finally, all three of our cars stopped at a cheese factory, as I was told, and the men convened. Two men I had never seen before appeared in a tiny sedan. “We’re parting ways,” the General told me. Then he said, “You and the girls are going to go with these two guys. They’re family.

We trust them.”

Another tearful goodbye.

The General, his brother George, all the men were crying, hugging the girls and me and saying, “Call us when you get to Canada.” We would never have survived without the General and George and all their many contacts. We had been so incredibly lucky to have found these two. But I was starting to get very confused. If the General trusted these men, then so did I. But neither spoke a word of English, and since I had gotten rid of the cellphone card as a security precaution, there would be no reassuring chats with my family along the way. My fate, and that of my daughters, was completely in the hands of these two strangers.

We travelled a short way when one of the men, the one not driving, turned to me and, by sign language, asked me for our passports. He looked inside the passports, and, again, through mime—two hits of the bottom of his right fist into his left palm—asked, “Where are the exit stamps?”

We had no stamps. Of course we had no stamps. Why did he not know this?

We stopped at a small building in the centre of a parking lot. It looked official, with a Lebanese flag out front. The passenger in our car got out, with our passports, and we drove off. I decided I was not going to worry. I was going to read books to my girls and keep them happy as we sat in a car travelling over a dirt road made muddy by recent rains.

We stopped. I remember a man working on a metal roof. There were kids playing in the street, men on scooters, and the air was bracing and cold. We were led across a makeshift corrugated metal bridge and there, on the other side of the bridge, waited a young woman in her late 20s. She was pretty and smiling and dressed in a jogging suit. It felt good to see another woman. I was not frightened, but, on the other hand, no one had prepared me for this.

Were we in Syria?

“Syria hahrií” I asked her, but I got no reply. The driver of our car whistled and a man on a motorbike came straight to us and stopped. Hannah, meanwhile, was fuming because

mud had stained her boots. To avoid the mud of the paths, we were—all three of us—invited onto the motorbike. Four people on a motorbike? Welcome to Lebanon.

We finally arrived at a small house, and entered a room devoid of all furniture. Just rugs on the floor and cushions against all the walls. This delighted the girls, who did somersaults and played on the cushions. It was warm inside, with a little oil heater, and fruit and tabbouleh had been prepared for us. Sev-

eral men and the young woman smoked cigarettes and spoke in Arabic. Some sort of waiting game was in play here. The young woman spoke some English and I also tried my high school French. They were asking me questions about my husband and my instinct was to say nothing. I did not know these people.

She said, in Lebanese, “Na mas hahn.” You’ll sleep here. Was this supposed to be fun? Were they teasing me? Testing me?

“La,” I replied. No.

“Na mas Damascus.” We’ll sleep in Damascus thank you very much, I said, and was not comforted when they all laughed.

Then a man, a big imposing man in his 30s,

pulled up in a pickup truck. He had a pleasant face, but he looked very tense. It was time to go. But where? And where was I? I had no clue. By now I was feeling both anxious and vulnerable: my bag was back at the car, and it had been a while since I had seen our passports. Still, I knew the General would never put us in danger.

I had been wearing a white scarf, called a hijab, and one of the two men from the little sedan—I took him to be the husband of the young woman—kept coming to me and rolling and re-rolling the scarf until it was just so. The General’s wife had given me the scarf. Most Muslim women wear it the way this man wanted it: the long edge of the scarf across my forehead and just above the eyebrows, the ends pulled down and pinned under the chin, then draped over my shoulders. The problem was this: I had no pin and the hijab would not stay in place. My instinct was to tuck the scarf in behind my ear, but no, he wanted the scarf just in front. He was very, very carefully fussing with this scarf, as if might spell the difference between getting across, or not. Between flying home and languishing in a dark jail cell.

I felt a rising panic but I once more reminded myself that the General and his men would never have put me in a dangerous situation. The guy in the truck, though, lacked the General’s charm. He was all business. I had with me a small bag, with little more than baby wipes and the kids’ storybook inside, but he did not want it on my lap. He wanted the bag on the floor. We were driving down a bumpy road on this drizzly miserable grey day. Houses along the road were modest, the children poorly dressed. Now and again a motorbike would pass and give a nod or a wave. Our driver kept turning to me, looking at me and saying :‘Shhhhhhhh.”

Now and again, he would motion to me to re-roll the side of my scarf. I was to adjust my hair—my dyed-black, bobbed hair—and tuck


it in behind the scarf, the scarf to cover the ears, never exposed. Again, that almost obsessive, fastidious attention to the scarf. I was not talking, just trying to keep the girls calm but they were getting antsy. We had been on the road now for five or six hours.

The driver pointed up ahead. Police. This moment was the most intense of the journey. The man wanted the girls’ hoods up, but Cedar was having one of her meltdowns. The driver was miming angrily: get that hood back up! Though there are a lot of fair-haired children in Lebanon, he did not want her blond hair grabbing attention. He put her hood back on, whereupon Cedar had a fullblown three-year-old’s tantrum. The driver went on saying, “Shhhhhhhh!” I could tell he was scared. He made a sign: put my hand over Cedar’s mouth. I just shook my head. I thought, if we get pulled over and I get arrested, okay, but I am not going to cover my child’s mouth to make her be quiet. If this was it, this was it. We were in God’s hands.

The man signalled to me that a van up ahead was driving towards us. “Police!” he said urgently in English. But the van drove right past us and almost immediately we came upon a policeman sitting in a chair outside a small shelter, holding a machine gun in his lap. He did not so much as look at us

when we drove past him. It was like we were invisible, but for 45 seconds I experienced a numbing, heart-pounding intensity.

Cedar was still screaming as we passed the policeman. What felt like a checkpoint, I now know, was the border. I kept my eyes forward, kept rubbing Cedar’s back and saying “Shhhhhh, baby.” We drove on and suddenly our driver turned to me and gave me a big smile and a thumbs up. He was a different person now, proof that he had been truly terrified— despite any and all precautions the General had orchestrated, there was doubt and fear all around. We were in the clear and now I knew we were in Syria. In that moment, I was both angry and glad I had not been prepped. I would never have agreed to a crossing that seemed so much like a wing and a prayer.

We stopped in a village near a fruit stand, and from a taxi that pulled up emerged one of the two men the General had assigned to us. He had our luggage and our passports and he, too, seemed as relieved and elated as we were. Now it was off to Damascus in a different cab—another three hours or more.

The girls and I sat in the back and played “I Spy,” we read books, sang songs. Both girls were by now really tired and hungry and they took turns having meltdowns, but I did not care if the driver was miffed. I went on sing-

ing, and sometimes the General’s man—sitting up front with the cabbie—would offer to take Cedar up there and play with her.

Finally, after an hour of getting lost and the cabbie having to stop and ask directions, we arrived in the cold and the dark at our destination: the Canadian embassy in Damascus. I knew that the consul general’s wife happened to have a sister who is good friends with an aunt and uncle of mine in Yorkton, Sask. Though I had never met these career diplomats, I saw Steve and Carole as family friends living in Syria, which made this a homecoming of sorts. We arrived, I said goodbye to our guy, then we walked in. Canadian flags everywhere, a picture of the Queen, brochures-Niagara Falls, the CN Tower—which the girls now went around collecting.

“Hello,” said an embassy official. “I’m happy to see you.”

Hannah had grown used to hearing a lot of Lebanese, often loud and expressive Lebanese. The language is so guttural that a speaker can sound angry even when he’s not. My daughter looked up at me and said, “His voice sounds nice. Are we in Canada?” M

Reprinted from Flight of the Dragonfly by permission ofHarperCollins Ltd. © 2008 by Melissa Hawach. All rights reserved.