By Andria Kades
Margarita Charalambous has not seen her children – Yerasimos and Olymbia aged six and five – since one Thursday afternoon last June when her Syrian husband said he was taking them for a stroll along the promenade in Limassol where they would take some nice pictures.
By the time night fell, and after he had ignored all her increasingly frantic phonecalls, she sought help from police.
On Saturday, her husband contacted his brother in Cyprus and said he was in Turkey. He had arrived there by boat from the north.
On Sunday, he called her directly and said he got the children into Syria via Turkey, and there they would stay.
Charalambous remembers the days that followed only hazily. “For weeks I slept on the couch I couldn’t bring myself to go upstairs. I didn’t shower for a week,” she recalls.
“Eventually I found the strength and with my older daughter (aged 16 from another partner) to go to their rooms and go through their stuff.”
Charalambous is one of 37 parents in Cyprus who have had their children abducted by their non-Cypriot former or present partners, fleeing the island and going to their home country.
The oldest case dates back to 1989.
The most common incidents Cyprus deals with concern Middle Eastern countries such as Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt but also countries like China, Russia and Ukraine.
“This is a huge problem,” one police source told the Sunday Mail.
Asked how many of the children are returned to Cyprus, the response is silence. It’s rare.
And that’s exactly what plagues Charalambous and the two other mothers and one father the Sunday Mail spoke to.
Charalambous’ overwhelming pain is compounded by the fact that she never saw it coming. They didn’t have a fight, they didn’t have any major problems in their marriage “it never ever crossed my mind he would do this.”
“I’m a wreck. I don’t know if my children are alive, the only thing I have is their pictures.”
On a few occasions since he took the children, he asked her for money which she sent, with the promise he would bring the children to Turkey and she could pick them up.
“But one day he called me and told me ‘Why would we come back, I got married?’”
Recalling the last time she saw her children her voice breaks. “I always bathed my children at night. On that day I swear, I had such a strong feeling that I should give them a shower in the afternoon. If I had then maybe they would still be here with me.
“And my baby Bia (the nickname for her abducted daughter) she came up to me and told me to feed her. I hadn’t fed her in so long. And as I was giving her food she told me to buy her diapers.”
With a choked voice Charalambous remembers her joking response saying, “Bia mou you’re going to school soon and you’re going to wear diapers?”
“Yes mum I will.”
“And now I don’t know where they are.”
The distraught mother can no longer control her tears. “I never used to part from them. Over Christmas I was a mess, New Year’s was the same. Every day is a living hell.”
And rather than get as much help from authorities as possible, when her plight was made public, the state then moved to cut benefits she received for her children.
Child abductions are a problem the government has been promising to try and resolve, but dealing with some countries is almost impossible.
Syria, for instance, is a particularly difficult case. There is no longer an embassy there. The closest one is in Lebanon, Tonia Siamptani from the Children’s Rights Commissioner office told the Sunday Mail.
It is also not part of The Hague convention where member countries, including all EU states, Australia and USA assist each other in such cases.
Cases in countries which have signed The Hague convention are dealt with by the justice ministry which sends all the relevant information to the authorities. If the child is found, court proceedings begin which aim to determine which country any custody proceedings should be heard. It requires the return of a child to its habitual residence.
Countries however which have not signed The Hague convention fall under the auspices of the foreign ministry.
Diplomatic means are used to exert efforts on embassies to try and find the child.
They also do their best to push for better communication between the left behind parent and the parent who abducted the child, according to head of the consular division, Martha Mavrommati.
Other than that, however, it seems like the government’s hands are tied despite international arrest warrants having been issued against the abducting parent.
Earlier this week, the House Human Rights committee met to discuss setting up a coordinating committee to deal with the issue.
The last time they did so was a year ago. Still in theory stage, if implemented the committee would be a means for the welfare office, justice and foreign ministries, Interpol, legal services, the child commissioner’s office and NGOs to brainstorm, Mavrommati told the Sunday Mail.
But Chrystalla Panagiotou, whose husband also took her children to Syria, dismissed the idea as a farce, saying their plight was only on the agenda now because “it’s elections, they want votes. I’m going to vote for the person who brings back my kid.”
Married for six years, she feels, like Charalambous, that her husband never even gave her a hint of what he planned to do.
In 2013, the couple, their two sons, four years old and 18 months, and her teenage daughter from a previous marriage flew to Lebanon.
Arriving at the hotel, the husband went to buy some take-away and when he brought the food and drinks, Panagiotou now believes he must have drugged them all.
“In the morning I woke up in a haze. I didn’t see anyone. I couldn’t remember anything.”
She still remembers his voice on the phone when he told her “I’m in Damascus now and you’ll never see your kids again. Forget them.”
Scrambling to make sense of everything, her daughter managed to book them both the first flight back to Cyprus.
“I wanted to come back to my home country because I believed they would help me…There’s not a stone I left unturned to try and find my children.”
Borrowing money she then flew back to Lebanon to file a complaint, but by then his traces were long gone.
“It’s not my clothes I lost; it’s my children,” she screams.
“My children are in a war zone, I don’t know where they are.”
Her panic is only fuelled by scenes she sees on TV of bombings and child soldiers trained to become jihadists; yet although her fear for their lives is palpable, she retains a deep seated belief – whether you call it faith, mother’s instinct or just hope – that her kids will be fine.
“May God put his hand in this, I have faith in Him. I will fight it to the end.”
Unlike Panagiotou, who does not know exactly where or how her children are, Andri Demetriou considers herself to be one of the ‘lucky’ ones. She knows her child is in Damascus.
Her son, Avraam, would often travel to Syria to visit his grandparents.
“I had excellent relations with my in-law’s,” she says.
She had been with her husband for 10 years but she says that after he began to turn violent, gamble and hit her – to the point where her daughter, from another marriage called police – they separated in January 2012.
Each summer, Avraam had travelled to Syria where Demetriou, as required by law, would give her consent in written form for review at departure.
In June 2012, the day after schools closed, her son who had just completed his first year in primary flew to Syria as usual. His mother consented for the dates of June 22 until August 30.
He was six and a half at the time.
“Shortly after my son went, the foreign ministry announced Cypriots were advised to leave Syria due to the dangerous situation.”
Both parents went to the ministry where the consensus was the best person to pick up Avraam was the father as he knew his way around and spoke the language.
Alarms however went off in Demetriou’s head when she heard him casually ask an official “if I go and stay what will happen?”
The answer he got, according to the mother was “we don’t think you’ll do that.”
“After he had left he told me, ‘you’ll never see me again’,” says Demetriou.
“I blame everything on the foreign ministry.”
Now, Demetriou says her husband has banned her from speaking to the children.
When the mothers do occasionally speak to their children, they often find they can no longer speak much Greek and resort to more Arabic.
Some mothers say they also know for a fact that the fathers have people in Cyprus who report back to Syria every time the mothers make a public appearance, and this has a consequence as to whether they’re allowed to talk to their children.
They say they choose to speak out in the hope that something will change, that the government will be able to better coordinate and help future cases or better yet prevent them from happening.
When it comes to Middle Eastern abductions, it is mainly the father who is the culprit. In eastern countries such as Russia and Ukraine, the mother is often the abductor.
Savvas Chrysanthou is one such father who had his daughter Myria taken by his ex-wife from China.
Divorced in 2006, he says his former spouse had repeatedly told him she wanted to take the child to China to stay with the grandparents while worked in Europe.
He immediately proceeded to put his daughter’s name on the stop list and says he staunchly refused to give his consent allowing them to travel. He claims she then took his daughter, aged 10, in December 2013 via the occupied territories and fled.
Chrysanthou has a lot to say about police’s behaviour, calling them an abject failure.
“When I started asking around to find my daughter, and her friend told me she had told her she was leaving for Christmas, I told police she might be leaving from the occupied territories and they told me I had no proof.”
He claims he had more help from police officers in the north who confirmed that his daughter had left from Tymbou (Ercan) airport to Istanbul. Chrysanthou has since discovered that on December 22, Myria arrived in China. Who was with her, he does not know, as according to his information, his ex-wife did not arrive until four days later.
He has not spoken to either of them since despite desperate attempts to do so.
The police’s failure to act was outlined in a similar case in a report by the Children’s Rights Commissioner Leda Koursoumba in 2013, where she outlined they “failed to take the necessary measures to protect the child”.
“To have a child and lose it this suddenly, it’s a crime,” Chrysanthou said.
On December 20 last month – the same date as his daughter had gone missing – the Chinese foreign minister arrived in Cyprus, and Chrysanthou had hoped the matter could be brought up to push his case forward.
Nothing happened. “That’s when my flame of hope died.”
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