Nineteen years after her four daughters were abducted by her Libyan husband, Jackie Vassallo shares her harrowing ordeal with Ariadne Massa in the hope no more women will have to go through the same trauma.
Watching the Maltese woman sobbing on Sky TV after her two children were snatched by her Libyan husband revived the 19-year nightmare Jackie Vassallo spent battling to get back her four abducted daughters.
“I hope this woman doesn’t have to face the same life I endured.
“It’s a terrifying experience and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” she says.
Leafing through a scrapbook of yellowing newspaper cuttings and legal correspondence, Ms Vassallo takes a deep breath, bracing herself for the psychological turmoil that engulfs her each time she recounts her story.
The 51-year-old mother felt it was her duty to speak out after watching the parallel story of Priscilla Micallef in the news last month. The 30-year-old is still battling to have her two young children returned after her Libyan husband snatched them and took them to Tripoli because the UK was “too Western”.
With Christmas just days away the tragedy holds more poignancy and Ms Vassallo cannot understand how such misfortunes continue to happen.
“I hope this mother will see a way out. When you get married you never expect so many lies, cheating and empty promises,” she says, her eyes glazed with a film of tears as she lingers on the photo of her children.
Her girls – Najla, 10, Nadia, 9, Samira, 7, and Karima, 4 – were abducted by her Libyan husband just before Christmas in 1994 and she spent years battling to get them back. What rips her heart apart is that when she finally succeeded in being reunited, too much time had passed and the girls had become ‘Libyanised’, wrecking her hopes to a happy family life.
Born and raised in Wales, Ms Vassallo moved to Malta in 1995 when Libya was facing UN sanctions following the Lockerbie bombing and her only hope of connecting with her daughters was the 14-hour ferry ride linking the island to Tripoli. She has remained here since.
Her story unfolded in Cardiff when Jackie Roberts was still 15 and her path crossed that of Khairi Mohammed Hanka, a Libyan student five years her senior.
Their romance was frowned upon by her family, but her heart ruled her destiny and the two got married in 1982, even though signs of his abusive nature popped up during their courtship.
“One time when we were dating he’d stabbed me with a butter knife, but I was very naive and I’d never had another relationship to compare it with,” Ms Vassallo says.
Within their first year of marriage Najla was born and that was when her husband started changing.
“One day I walked into our bedroom and found him dressed in a long, white gown, meditating on the floor. I burst out laughing as I’d never seen him like that.
“He also told me that from this moment on I wasn’t to mix with my friends who drink. I took all this with a pinch of salt, but he was becoming more restrictive,” she recalls.
As her other daughters were born, her marriage became more vulnerable and “nothing was good enough” for her husband.
“Khairi cut everyone off and became stricter. I was just his slave,” she says.
After the birth of their fourth daughter – the reaction of the husband who wanted a boy was “oh, another girl” – he started mentioning Libya. He flew out for a month and when he returned he talked about emigrating.
Soon after he took their two eldest daughters for a holiday, and returned within a month, pestering her to move.
“I just wanted to keep the family together,” she says.
So in 1994 she agreed to go on a holiday with him and the girls to visit his family as this would give her the chance to see what the country was like.
As she prepared to board to boat to Libya in the sweltering heat of August, her husband ordered her to wear a long, black coat and headscarf, and threatened that if she disobeyed he would starve the children.
When the family landed, her husband made his intentions very clear – “these are Libyan children and I’m going to marry a Libyan woman. The children are mine and you have no control.”
Within weeks he had placed the girls in a Libyan school and forced his wife to live like a Muslim woman and endure his violent rages. No amount of pleading to return home after their ‘holiday’ worked.
Her contact with her family cut off and with no passport or money, she pretended to settle in, even though her mind was wildly attempting to find a way out.
By September 1994 she persuaded her husband that it was best for her to return to the UK to sell the house and settle their financial affairs. He agreed, but he was going to keep the girls and if she dared “open her mouth about what happened” she would never see her daughters again.
Arriving in the UK, Ms Vassallo started wardship proceedings under the Child Abduction Act and her husband was eventually arrested when he returned to the UK without the girls.
Had I ever known what was in store back then I’d have killed myself
While the case was ongoing, Ms Vassallo was subjected to intense pressure from her husband and his family in Libya who were calling and saying the children were very ill and they were suffering.
Her husband persuaded her that he was the only one who could actually recover their children from Tripoli and swayed her, with promises on the Koran, into believing he would do the honourable thing.
Reluctantly, and believing this was the only way she could reach her sick children, Ms Vassallo went against all advice and her gut instinct and had her husband’s passport released, enabling the two to return to Libya.
She was soon to find out that no promise on the Koran was going to cure her husband of his evil scheming. When she got there she found her children were perfectly healthy, even though they had been separated from one another.
By now their relationship had become tempestuous and her husband tried to kill her by suffocating her with a pillow.
“I knew I didn’t have a chance in hell of ever getting my children out if I stayed in Libya. I knew he would kill me sooner or later, so I agreed to return to the UK alone.”
It was a price she knew she had to pay, but free from his machinations she embarked on a one-woman campaign to force the British and Libyan governments to intervene and get her children out. In April 1995, seeing that Malta had better relations with Libya she packed her life in two suitcases and moved to the island.
“I promised my girls I would never give up on my fight to bring them home and I never did,” Ms Vassallo recalls, excusing herself to light a cigarette and take a break from recounting her harrowing ordeal.
She had no idea what was in store. She eventually succeeded in getting Najla out in 2003 – her eldest had been beaten by her father and was suffering from eating disorders.
By then Jackie had married a Maltese man, but her marriage could not survive the distress inflicted by her previous husband. After six months, around the time Ms Vassallo had to move with her psychologically disturbed daughter to the UK to help her heal, her second marriage ended.
In the meantime, she lost Nadia to an arranged marriage, but she continued crusading to get Samira and Karima out of Libya.
The golden opportunity came in 2011 when the war broke out in Libya and the Maltese government stepped in to evacuate foreign nationals. She wrote in asking if it was possible to evacuate her daughters without a passport due to ongoing chaos.
This is where Mikela Fenech Pace, who at the time was assistant director at the Office of the Prime Minister and is now Ms Vassallo’s close friend, steps in to continue telling the story.
The rescue mission had remained hush until now.
After hearing Ms Vassallo’s story, the instructions from the Prime Minister’s secretariat were “do what is necessary to evacuate the girls safely”.
They managed to contact Samira and Karima by phone and it was agreed they would escape their father’s house as soon as they got the opportunity – they were to jump into a taxi and flee.
In the meantime, together with the British High Commission, a safe house was being sought... not a moment too soon.
“I got a call from Jackie saying they had escaped: ‘They are in a taxi on their way to your safe house. Samira has lost her shoes and Karima has peed in her pants; they are frightened and disoriented’. My mind was racing, we had to find a safe house quicker than anticipated,” Ms Fenech Pace says.
The Corinthia Hotel agreed to keep the girls overnight but security was tight and the team working on this rescue mission were well aware their father would be out with his entire family looking for them; the hotel would be the first place they would search.
“Time was of the essence. An hour seemed like a day or even two. Jackie trembled and shook uncontrollably, not being able to focus and think of what would come next. The reality of them escaping and possibly being caught was too much to bear. The girls were petrified.
“Finally the call arrived – the girls were safely behind the doors of the Lithuanian Embassy. British passports were organised with fake names – we were not going to leave anything to chance,” Ms Fenech Pace says.
Eventually, two places were secured on a Canadian Forces aircraft – one of the last military evacuations to leave Tripoli airport. The next phase of the evacuation was delicate and tense.
The girls were taken to the airport in the early afternoon after a sleepless night. They were dressed up as Western women and handed over to the Canadian Consul at the Tripoli airport who ushered them into a bathroom and hid with them there until the plane was ready to leave.
Ms Fenech Pace recalls: “We were later informed that their family members had set up sentinel at the airport to catch them departing. Our hunch had been right... There was no way of knowing their fate if they remained in Libya.”
The aircraft was delayed a few times and tensions were higher than ever. Passport control was the biggest test. As the aircraft was about to leave, the girls were ushered out of the toilets and slipped through passport control.
After a few very tense hours everybody headed to the Malta International Airport’s ministerial lounge for the reunion – Ms Vassallo had not hugged her daughters in more than a decade and nobody was sure what to expect.
“We often see reunions on movies but this was something entirely different. Jackie was shaking like a leaf, white as a sheet and about to collapse,” she adds.
Finally, the Canadian aircraft landed. Everybody there was gripped by a sense of disbelief and relief.
“The girls appeared – there was no running or screaming, none of that.
“Just a cautious hug, very shy smiles and lots of giggling from the girls who couldn’t believe they were out of Libya and with their mother,” Ms Fenech Pace says.
But the happy ending Ms Vassallo had craved for so long remained elusive. A few months after Samira and Karima underwent this dramatic rescue they wanted to return to Libya – it was the only reality they knew.
“When you’ve been fighting for so long you don’t realise the damage that has been done over the years,” she says, hanging down her head as she recounts how she took an overdose of sleeping pills in a desperate attempt to keep her daughters from returning to Libya.
“The only comforting thing is that at least I know I did all I could to get them back and I’m not living with guilt.”
Crushed and dispirited, nothing prepared Ms Vassallo for a worse misfortune – on October 10, 2012, Samira and her eight-week-old baby Rahaf died in a car accident in Libya.
She has been trying to pick up the pieces since then and even though she still feels psychologically weak she plans to channel her emotions into writing a book about her life.
She hopes it will pressure Libya into signing international conventions that will stop the suffering that parents like herself and Priscilla Micallef have had to endure when their Libyan partner disappears with their children.
“Had I ever known what was in store back then I’d have killed myself – I’ve just been existing for the past years. Now I want to spend what’s left of my life using my experiences to help others. Now is my time.”
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