I still hear her news from time to time. She’s still waiting.
I first met Cecilia Castro six years ago. An agricultural engineer, she was working as a cook at the Mexican embassy. It was the only way she could stay in the country. The Peruvian woman had arrived two years earlier searching for her two children.
‘I know where they are,’ she told me, dissolving into tears. ‘I’ve seen them.’
Life couldn’t have seemed rosier a few years ago when she and her Lebanese husband, Mohamed, residing in Peru, decided to move to Lebanon. The couple had met and fallen in love in Moscow while at university. They later married and had two children, Hala and Ahmad.
Mohamed was the first one to move to Lebanon and promised to send for his family once he was settled. A year later, he sent for his children. He couldn’t afford three plane tickets at once and so he sent one ticket at a time. He sent for his son first, then his daughter and told Cecilia to wait for her ticket.
It never came.
Finally, borrowing some money, she flew to Lebanon. She soon found out that her husband had married another woman. Shocked, she began her search for her children. Armed with their picture, she went from school to school.
Finally a school janitor recognized them and let her in the grounds. For the first time in a year, Cecilia held her children close to her. Her distraught children had been told that their mother was dead. A few minutes later, however, school officials ushered Cecilia out.
‘I haven’t been able to see them since,’ she told me. ‘Will you please go and talk to my husband? You speak Arabic. You could talk to him. Please.’
Rather unwillingly, I went.
As Lebanese tradition dictates, visitors are immediately ushered into a home and offered coffee before they state their business. Unfortunately, mine wasn’t welcome and I quickly found myself at the door. A few days later, Cecilia insisted that we both go together.
This time the door was opened by the children. They were beautiful. The nine-year-old girl stared at her mother while her younger brother looked scared. A few seconds later, Mohamed appeared. Immediately the children started screaming at Cecilia. ‘We hate you. Get out. Never come again.’
Cecilia began to cry and appealed to her children in Spanish. The door was shut in our faces.
Every weekend after that, she would travel to the south, knock on her husband’s door, glimpse her children, before the door was slammed in her face. ‘I know that my children see me. And one day they’ll understand that I fought for them.’
Cecilia has since filed a lawsuit against her husband. But Lebanese law is rather complicated when it comes to custody battles. In its most basic form, Muslim law stipulates that mothers get custody of the children until girls are nine and boys are seven. The Christian Maronite church awards custody to the mother until the child is two. Otherwise custody decisions are taken in the child’s best interest.
But all that changes if the marriage is a civil one (Lebanon doesn’t perform civil ceremonies but recognizes them). Then the law of the country where the marriage took place may apply.
Unfortunately, the Lebanese legal system is painfully slow. It can take years for a custody case to be solved.
‘By then,’ groaned Cecilia, ‘the children will be adults.’ I’m sure that’s what her husband is counting on.
Cecilia was not alone in her quest. Just a year earlier, I searched and found two missing children. Their Brazilian mother was holding a hunger strike at her embassy demanding to see her two boys. Her estranged husband had boarded the first flight to Lebanon, having taken the kids on the pretext of giving them an outing. It’s a small country and missing people are easily sought out. And so I shortly found myself staring at the two little boys.
‘I just wanted to bring the children to see my dying father,’ he said. ‘Only for a month or two. I pleaded with Vagna to let them come but she refused.’
He continued to say that his wife used to deny him visitation rights. He then offered to let Vagna live with them in Lebanon. She refused.
I have since come across several kidnapped children. Not long ago, I was in northern Lebanon when a little girl smiled at me. Her grandmother laughed, then lowered her voice: ‘Her mother is Italian but now the little one lives here with us.’
I wondered how long it would be before her mother showed up and I would find myself ringing the grandmother’s doorbell.