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Friday 16 November 2018

Zana still suffering the sins of the father

Zana Muhsen survived rape and marital slavery in Yemen. Now she must fight to save her sister, says Mary O'SullivanIN 1980, when Zana Muhsen was 16,

Zana Muhsen survived rape and marital slavery in Yemen. Now she must fight to save her sister, says Mary O'Sullivan

IN 1980, when Zana Muhsen was 16, she was an ordinary Birmingham girl who loved her father. As she explains now, ``He never gave me any reason not to.''

Not until he sent Zana and her 15-year-old sister Nadia ``on holiday'' to his native Yemen, where they found they had been sold and married against their will. It was a massive shock, says Zana, as the truth of their desperate situation emerged and as they realised the betrayal was on their father's part. ``At 15, you can't believe your dad would do such a thing to you, but slowly your eyes are opened and you can see the truth but it's still very hard to accept.''

Zana has had 13 years back in Birmingham to come to terms with her experience in the Yemen, but she explains that the torture is not over yet and will not end until Nadia, too, is free. It has been four years since she has spoken to Nadia, and just less than that since any family member has seen her.

Zana knows second-hand that Nadia, weakened by six difficult, unassisted childbirths, walks with a limp and that her teeth are rotten in her head. She knows her sister to be listless and passive today, but insists that the spirit of the teenager she knew exists yet, as evinced by Nadia's strong Brummie accent. By tiny steps, Zana will win Nadia her freedom.

Zana was in Dublin last week to promote her second book, A Promise to Nadia, the sequel to Sold, which told her own story and became a best-seller all over Europe. A Promise to Nadia was written to bring people up to date with Nadia's plight and money from it will help their case. ``A lot of people have told me that they hoped for a happy ending to A Promise to Nadia,'' Zana says, ``but there is no happy ending yet, just more and more pressure.''

Above all others, Zana knows the life Nadia is leading in Yemen and knows its ability to break a woman's spirit. When 15-year-old Zana had arrived in Yemen herself, she was at first accorded some leniency by her father-in-law as he gradually broke the news of her marriage, but within days her husband Abdullah, a weak and sickly teenager, was introduced to the house and to her bed. She was forced to have sex with him, loaded with gruelling manual work by her mother-in-law and slowly ground into a type of submission.

Unlike what she sees in her sister, however, Zana's spirit remained intact and she never resigned herself to life with Abdullah, what was effectively rape and carrying water in the blazing sun for the rest of her days.

It was Zana's anger and determination which got her out eventually, although she had been denied permission to leave or any access to her family. And it is these same qualities that she hopes will free Nadia. You could say that nothing has happened for Nadia since Zana left Yemen 13 years ago. She is still there, kept from her family and apparently suffering. It is simply a case of making tiny, almost invisible steps towards their goal, Zana explains.

``Every day things change very slightly and you keep hoping. We had a telephone conversation with the Foreign Office not so long ago,'' she says, ``and they said that they have given Nadia a British passport, all her children British passports, and her husband a British overseas passport. But one official told us she had collected them in person and looked fit and well and another said they had posted it to her. So we still don't know if she has it and all we have to work with is hearsay.''

She adds: ``The corruption and the conspiracy and the fact that my sister is still there just goes to prove that the people who are supposed to be there to protect you don't at the end of the day.

``I mean the Foreign Office and the British government. Two British girls are abducted, raped, imprisoned and tortured and nothing whatsoever is done because of the colour of our skin.''

In Yemen, Zana was mother and big sister to Nadia as their mother who split from their father battled on the other side of the world for their return. But Zana also became mother to a child of her own there, a son, Marcus, whom she was forced to leave behind.

That loss is not something from which she wishes to recover but it too bolsters her determination. ``I still wake up sweating and crying at night and have nightmares about Yemen,'' she says. ``It took two years until I accepted I was really home. I started college to become a nursery nurse but couldn't cope and dropped out, and basically, since then, my life has been one big campaign.''

On her return to Birmingham, Zana reunited with her childhood sweetheart and had a son, Liam, now nine. That relationship cracked under the pressure of her recovery but she has since found happiness with a new partner, with whom she has a further two children.

``I have a relatively normal life,'' she says, ``But I'm like a light-switch. In the day, I'm switched on to cope with everyday life and my children, but at night, I'm on my own and I cry and I'm depressed and I'm back in the Yemen with Nadia.

``People ask me what I expect to gain and tell me I can't turn back the clock for her,'' she says. ``But I don't expect to gain anything. I just want my sister's freedom, and everyone's entitled to that.''

* A Promise to Nadia, Little, Brown, £9.99

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