Selected writing: Europe

Bobby Fischer’s final manoeuvre

April 20, 2008

Bobby Fischer was a genius, a recluse and a political outcast. Our correspondent examines the controversial life and legacy of one of the world’s greatest chess players, whose last move has sparked a vicious wrangle over his fortune

Snow fell so heavily on the morning of January 21 that the priest feared he might not make it to the remote country church in time. So secretive were arrangements for the funeral, even he had not been told about its location until a few hours before; a small chapel in southwest Iceland, where a grave had been dug overnight without the knowledge, or permission, of its minister.

But as Jakob Rolland struggled along the road to that tiny cemetery, he rehearsed the address he would give to the five people waiting beside the coffin, brought there under cover of darkness. He would compare the genius of the man he was burying to that of Mozart and Jesus Christ.

“Like them he was buried with few present,” the diminutive Frenchman said, “and like them he had an intelligence that could see what others could not even begin to understand.”

It was a tribute that might grate on those alienated by the man he was laying to rest: Bobby Fischer, arguably the greatest (and most controversial) chess player of all time.

Fischer was best known for his defeat of Boris Spassky in 1972 – it was a chess match like no other. Yet in his final years he became notorious more for his virulent anti-Semitism and attacks on the US; he was both American and Jewish.

To many Fischer had long ago become a crazy recluse, a cracked wild man of the north; an image shored up by sightings of the dishevelled 64-year-old shuffling round the streets of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, where he lived out his last years in exile after the US revoked his passport. Having been once hailed as an all-American hero, he became an international outcast. So much so that when an ugly row between potential heirs to his estate erupted after his death, the news was greeted with gloating satisfaction by those who had turned their backs on him.

According to the few friends he had left, the only person Fischer believed would benefit from his fortune of more than £1.5m was his longtime Japanese companion Miyoko Watai, a chess grandmaster herself. Under Icelandic law, the estate of a person with no children automatically passes to their spouse, unless a will states otherwise – and Fischer had not made one.

Apart from the priest, Watai was the only person to speak at his graveside. After listening to Rolland deliver his few words, the softly spoken 63-year-old stood in the morning twilight whispering the Buddhist prayer for the dead, before trudging away through the snow in the company of the man who had cared for Fischer to the end, his friend Gardar Sverrisson, who was there with his wife and grown-up children.

It was Sverrisson who made the arrangements for Fischer’s funeral. The church at Laugardaelir, near the southern town of Selfoss, was originally built on farmland belonging to his wife’s family. For that reason he seems to have felt no need to inform its minister in advance that a grave was to be dug there. While Watai flew back and forth every few months from Tokyo, where she edits a chess magazine, to be by Fischer’s side, Sverrisson was his constant companion. He was one of the few who knew Watai and Fischer had married.

He also knew that as soon as his friend died, there would be a fight for his fortune. Within hours of Fischer’s death from kidney disease, on January 17, Sverrisson received a call from the chess champion’s ex-brother-in-law, Russell Targ, the former husband of Fischer’s late sister, Joan, whom Fischer never forgave for leaving her. Targ was not calling to commiserate, but to make it clear he would be flying to Reykjavik to secure the interests of his two sons, Fischer’s nephews.

Unsurprisingly, the clandestine burial caused an outcry. Not only was Targ furious at missing it; so too were many of Sverrisson’s countrymen. Despite the controversy that surrounded Fischer in his later years, it was acknowledged by many that he had put Reykjavik on the map. So electrifying was the 1972 championship that 40 films and TV documentaries and 150 books – including the bestseller Bobby Fischer Goes to War and the upcoming film of the same name – have been made about it. In recognition of this, some had wanted Fischer buried in a historic cemetery in the capital. There his grave would have become a tourist attraction – something Fischer would have loathed.

Little surprise, then, that Rolland describes the discreet funeral as the chess champion’s “final checkmate”. “Bobby Fischer played his last move very well,” he says. “He finally got what he wanted, peace and quiet.” But now it seems the funeral might not be allowed to be his final move. There is talk of Fischer’s body being exhumed.

In addition to the claim on Fischer’s estate by Watai and Targ, a third party has now stepped forward demanding a cut of his fortune. She is the mother of a seven-year-old Filipina girl, Jinky, who she says is Fischer’s daughter. In the Machiavellian world of international chess, some believe Jinky’s mother, Marilyn Young, a 29-year-old management-studies student, is being encouraged to pursue her claim by those whom Fischer ostracised. But Young’s lawyer, the Filipino chess grandmaster Samuel Estimo, says she is so confident of her claim she will pursue it to the point of requesting a DNA test be carried out on her daughter and Fischer’s corpse.

Those few people who have remained loyal to Fischer are horrified at this prospect. In stark contrast to the perception of him as a deranged, often greedy and bigoted recluse, the picture they paint is of a far more complex character deserving of greater understanding than he ever received.

As Fischer’s health failed during his final years, and he fell out one by one with those he once counted as friends, he sought the company of just three men – Sverrisson, the Icelandic chess grandmaster Fridrik Olafsson and Magnus Skulason. Skulason, also a chess player, is more significantly a psychiatrist, who spent hours by Fischer’s bedside talking about a wide range of subjects, including the grandmaster’s past.

It is easy to see why Fischer, prone to paranoia, trusted Skulason. He is a kind and sensitive man. Underneath a pile of documents he gives me about Fischer, I find pages of poetry photocopied “to help me rest” after our long interview. But the psychiatrist is also used to plumbing the depths of the most tortured psyches. He is head of Iceland’s hospital for the criminally insane. His insights into what drove Fischer are telling.

Bending low over the desk of his private clinic in Reykjavik, Skulason jabs his thumb repeatedly into his forehead as he struggles to decide what he can and can’t tell me about what he discussed with Fischer, though he stresses he was a friend, not a patient. “I never asked him questions about himself, you must understand. He became very irritated if you did that,” Skulason begins tentatively. “But he once asked me about the origins of psychiatric illness. I think he realised there was something missing in himself. In a way he was searching like a young boy, still trying to understand himself and the world.”

Some have speculated that if Fischer had been born today he might be diagnosed as suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, because of his difficulty in socialising, his tendency to sudden outbursts, and also his phenomenal recall; he could repeat lengthy conversations in Icelandic without understanding the language. Skulason does not agree with this, but stresses that he did find it hard to form emotional bonds with others.

When they talked, he says, Fischer often showed interest in the meaning of dreams. “He told me he kept having the same dream. But he never wanted to talk about it. It seemed memories were trying to come out,” says the psychiatrist.

“I don’t believe Bobby was badly treated as a boy. But he was lonely. He missed having a father, and his mother was often outside the home.”

Born Robert James Fischer in Chicago on March 9, 1943, he never knew the man listed on his birth certificate as his father: a German biophysicist and communist named Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, who divorced his mother, Regina, when he was two. But declassified FBI documents suggest Fischer’s real father was Dr Paul Nemenyi, a Hungarian-born physicist with whom Regina began an affair in 1942 and who paid for some of Fischer’s schooling. The FBI had kept Regina, of Polish-Jewish origin, under surveillance for decades as a result of her own communist sympathies.

Apart from this help from Nemenyi, however, Regina raised her son and his sister, Joan, alone. They struggled financially. After moving briefly to LA and Phoenix, they settled in Brooklyn in 1948. When Fischer was six, his sister, then 11, bought him a plastic chess set and together they learnt to play. By 13 Fischer was US junior champion, by 14 US champion, a title he would win eight times, and by 15 the world’s youngest grandmaster. With an IQ said to be higher than Einstein’s, he was hailed as remarkable talent. But even at this age, it was clear that his extraordinary ability was matched by an unpredictable and increasingly demanding personality.

At 16 he dropped out of school. Then he asked his mother and sister to move out of their Brooklyn apartment so that he could live alone. Visitors noticed he slept in all three beds in the flat in rotation, keeping a different chessboard with a game in play beside each. Though Regina encouraged her son’s chess career, it was only one of many causes she championed. A committed pacifist, she once spent months walking across Europe in an anti-war demonstration.

The lack of any strong parental presence meant Fischer’s sense of identity and basic feelings of trust never developed fully, says Skulason: “Without basic trust, a person relies far too much on such primitive defences as building walls, blaming others and projecting negative feelings onto them.” Fischer himself once said of his aggression: “Those who don’t have fathers become like wolves.”

Fridrik Olafsson, who first met 15-year-old Fischer at an international chess championship in Slovenia, tells an unsettling story about how, at breakfast one morning, Fischer took his knife and started slicing up wasps crawling across the table, saying: “That’s how I’m going to squeeze my opponents.” In the years that followed, Fischer did not just defeat opponents; he crushed them. By the time of the 1972 world championship, he was described as “the most individualistic, intransigent, uncommunicative, uncooperative, solitary… champion in the world”. But also “the strongest player who ever lived”.

He had also gained a reputation for being money-grabbing. As well as moaning about his chair, the lighting and the whirring noise of TV cameras in Reykjavik, Fischer complained that the prize money of $125,000 was not enough. Spassky had taken home just $1,400 when he won the world title three years before. But Fischer would not agree to play in Iceland until the British financier and chess fan Jim Slater, of Slater Walker Securities, upped the winning pot to $250,000. Skulason and others believe it was not the money that was important to him, rather that the size of the prize made Fischer feel valued. After winning the 1972 championship, he would turn down far larger sums offered to tempt him out of seclusion to defend his title; the Shah of Iran once offered him $2m, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines $3m and a millionaire in Spain $4m if the matches were played in their countries.

But it seemed his fear of losing was too great. When Fischer returned to New York from Reykjavik, he was given a hero’s welcome and handed the keys to the city. After that he shunned the limelight, moving to California for a while and leaving $5m-worth of unsigned endorsement contracts on his lawyer’s desk.

The international chess community tracked his subsequent decline like the path of a dying comet. After refusing to defend his world title in a dispute over match rules, he lost it by default in 1975 to Anatoly Karpov. It was then only a matter of time before his anger overwhelmed his brilliance. In California he became involved with an oddball fundamentalist cult, was arrested on suspicion of armed robbery – a result of mistaken identity – and subsequently became lost in his own world, dressing like a hobo and drifting from one seedy hotel to another.

The next, and last, time he would step onto the world stage to dazzle enthusiasts with flashes of his old talent was at a controversial rematch against Spassky in Belgrade in 1992. Ignoring threats of 10 years’ imprisonment and a hefty fine from the US government because of a UN trade embargo against the former Yugoslavia, he beat Spassky again and received $3.5m. But a warrant for his arrest was also issued by the US. He would remain a wanted man in his country of birth until the day he died; a source of anguish, says Skulason, and the likely reason for his Uncle Sam-bashing. Fischer had gone to Belgrade because he needed the money. It is what remains of it that now constitutes his disputed estate.

For more than a decade following this last match in Belgrade, Fischer roamed restlessly around central Europe and the Far East. He spent much of his time in Budapest and visiting Watai in Japan. But he also lived for a while in the Philippines. Periodically, journalists seeking interviews would smoke him out and he would agree – if the interviews were broadcast live. He would then use the airtime to launch vicious diatribes against the US, Israel and the Jews. It was his outburst following the 9/11 attacks in New York that finally tipped the balance.

The full vitriol Fischer unleashed is unprintable. But the bottom line was that he described the attacks as “wonderful news”. Three years later, as he was about to board a plane in Tokyo, he was arrested on charges of travelling on a revoked US passport and tax evasion. He spent the next eight months in jail in Japan while the Americans sought his extradition. It was during this time in prison that Fischer obtained a special licence to marry Watai. Few appear to have known about the nuptials, one of the reasons for the ensuing row over his fortune.

Desperate at the prospect of being extradited, Fischer began calling old friends in Iceland for help. A committee of chess enthusiasts, the RJF committee, including Skulason, Sverrisson, Olafsson and Fischer’s former bodyguard and driver, Saemi Palsson, was formed to petition Iceland’s government to grant him exile. Despite fierce opposition from the US, the parliament voted unanimously to grant him full citizenship.

In March 2005, a scruffy-looking Fischer stepped off a plane in Iceland to the full glare of the media. But for the next 2½ years he virtually disappeared off the radar. Occasionally he would be spotted sloping along the streets of the capital in his baseball cap, eating in a hamburger joint called American Style and sitting reading in a bookshop called Bokin.

But the public left him alone. Far from being the lost shadow of a man he was often portrayed as, friends say he enjoyed being treated as an ordinary citizen. “Becoming so famous at such a young age had placed a tremendous burden on him. So many people had tried to make money out of him. He was glad to be rid of that,” says Skulason. Even in Iceland, anyone who vaunted their friendship with him and tried to profit from it, like his old bodyguard, Palsson, were banished from his inner circle. In the end it was Sverrisson and his family that Fischer spent most time with.

Tall and softly spoken, Sverrisson was once head of Iceland’s association for the disabled and understands life’s hardships. So does his wife, a nurse. The couple often took Fischer on long walks around Laugardaelir, the reason its churchyard was chosen for his burial. In the final months of his life, Fischer bought a flat three floors above Sverrisson’s on the outskirts of Reykjavik, and the 48-year-old would often alternate with his wife sleeping there so that Fischer was not alone.

From time to time Watai would come to stay. But with work in Tokyo, she never moved there. How she would have felt about the visit Fischer received in September 2005 from Marilyn Young and her daughter, Jinky, is uncertain, though she was in Iceland at the time. Young was certainly unhappy.

A stone’s throw from the Bokin bookshop where Fischer spent so much time is a shop selling oriental food. Young would go there to buy items she missed from home. The owner’s sister is the Philippine honorary consul, Priscilla Zanoria, whom Young contacted after arriving because she was homesick. “She was lonely and asked if she could stay with me for a few days,” says Zanoria.

Fischer had rented a small apartment for three months for Young, Jinky and the girl’s nanny. But Young felt so isolated that she left after just three weeks. “She was an innocent young woman,” says Zanoria. “She asked a lot of questions about Iceland, but she didn’t feel comfortable here. Her daughter was very lively. She kept talking about her daddy. She was very excited to see him. When Fischer came to see her, he was very sweet with her, holding her and playing with her.”

How Fischer came to know Young is unclear. Some say they met at a country club in Baguio City, the summer capital of the Philippines. Others that Fischer was a friend of Young’s parents and it was for their sake that he offered to support her baby financially when she fell pregnant after a relationship with someone else. Friends say Fischer loved children. “No-one talks about it, but Bobby often gave money to poor people when they needed it. I’m almost certain he was just a friend to this woman’s family,” says Skulason.

Young’s lawyer, Estimo, claims otherwise. He says Fischer lived for two years with her in Baguio City from August 2000 and that their child was born on May 21, 2001. Among the documents he says they will present to the Icelandic authorities to support this claim are the child’s birth certificate, her passport, signed photographs and postcards Fischer wrote to the girl, and copies of bank statements showing that he regularly sent her the equivalent of around £1,000 a month. Estimo says the last of these payments was made the month before Fischer died and that he would often send his daughter stuffed dolls and helicopters with the message “I hope you enjoy these nice toys, love Daddy.”

Although Estimo describes Young as a kind woman who would like the disagreement over Fischer’s estate settled amicably, what he goes on to say suggests the opposite is likely. Firstly he casts doubt on the legitimacy of Fischer’s marriage to Watai, saying the chess champion was stateless at the time of the ceremony. He then raises the spectre of ordering Fischer’s body be disinterred for DNA testing. “We are willing to go that far,” he says, then confirming that he is seeking precise information on the size of Fischer’s estate: “We have heard there are gold deposits and stockholdings and then there is the big film Bobby Fischer Goes to War being made. Jinky might want to claim royalties from that.”

Much of this is news to Watai’s urbane Icelandic lawyer, Arni Vilhjalmsson, who produces a copy of a marriage certificate showing Fischer and Watai were married in Tokyo on September 6, 2004. “This is published by the Japanese authorities and confirms they were married,” says Vilhjalmsson, who was also Fischer’s lawyer. Vilhjalmsson was trying to help the chess master resolve a dispute with the Swiss bank UBS, which had, without asking Fischer, transferred 3m Swiss francs (nearly £1.5m) he had deposited with it to an Icelandic bank after he was granted citizenship there. Fischer was convinced the move was part of a Jewish conspiracy against him and insisted the money be transferred back to Switzerland. This dispute was still going on when he died, one of the reasons the exact location and worth of all his assets is unclear.

In addition to the claims by Watai and Jinky, there are two other parties circling; the US government, seeking to recoup unpaid taxes, and Fischer’s nephews, Russell Targ’s two sons – on the basis that his marriage might not have been legal. According to Targ’s lawyer, Gudjon Olafur Jonsson, Icelandic law states that surviving relatives – Fischer’s mother and sister died – can make a claim on a person’s estate if that person dies intestate and is neither married nor has children. If the person is married with no children, the spouse inherits the entire estate; if married with children, the spouse inherits one third, the child or children two-thirds.

All parties now have until May 17 to file their claims with Iceland’s justice ministry, which could then rule that it is a matter for a district court to decide, or, ultimately, the supreme court.

Despite interpretations of Fischer’s secretive burial as the last convoluted twist in a life as complex as the manoeuvres he once executed on the chessboard, his friends say he would be deeply upset at the legal wrangles taking place.

They believe he had little idea he was so close to death, which might have been the reason he made no will. Even though he refused to be put on a dialysis machine for the treatment of a kidney disease and spent the last months of his life in and out of hospital. Shortly before he died he had been released from Reykjavik’s central clinic to recuperate at home.

It was here that Skulason saw him for the last time. The kindly psychiatrist would offer him grapes and goat’s milk, neither of which Fischer could keep down. “I had the feeling he wanted to talk more about himself,” says Skulason. But he did not then, nor ever again. The next morning Sverrisson rushed him to hospital, where he died.

The last words Fischer spoke to his friend were a poignant reminder of what he had perhaps missed most all his life and why he left behind such confusion. Suffering from severe pains in his legs, he asked Skulason to massage them a little, then whispered: “Nothing is as healing as the human touch.”

Private eyes, public lies

February 10, 2008

Paid £50,000 a month to find Madeleine McCann, the Spanish detective Francisco Marco said he hoped to have her home for Christmas. He issued this photofit of a suspect last month; it set off a media frenzy, but Portuguese police say it has ‘no credibility’. Christine Toomey turns the tables on a private eye who is anything but

Francisco Marco might have been thinking about other matters on the day he apparently spoke out about his hopes that Madeleine McCann would be home for Christmas. It was the day his Spanish private detective agency, Metodo 3 – paid an estimated £50,000 a month to help find Madeleine – moved from cramped premises above a grocer’s shop specialising in sausages in Barcelona’s commercial district to a multi-million-pound suite of offices in a grand villa on one of the city’s most prestigious boulevards.

When a taxi driver drops me off at Metodo’s new premises, he tilts his finger against the tip of his nose and says “pijo” – meaning stuck-up or snobbish. Pointing to the restaurant on the ground floor, he says: “That’s where people who like to show off go – so others can see their Rolex watches and designer clothes.”

It is in his office on the second floor that Marco has agreed to meet me, the first British journalist, he says, to whom he has ever granted an interview. When I point out that he was filmed by a Panorama documentary crew in November claiming he was “very, very close to finding the kidnapper” of Madeleine, he corrects himself: “Well, apart from that.” Marco will tell me later how who he has spoken to, and what he has or has not said, has been misunderstood.

But first I must wait, taking a seat at a long, highly polished boardroom table surrounded by pristine white-leather chairs. At one end of the room, discreetly lit shelves display an impressive collection of vintage box cameras and binoculars. Stacked against the walls are modern paintings waiting to be hung. It feels more like an art gallery than the hub of one of the most frantic manhunts of modern times.

There is no discernible ringing of telephones; little sign of activity of any kind, other than a woman searching for a lead to take a pet poodle for a walk and the occasional to-ing and fro-ing of workmen putting finishing touches to the sleek remodelling of the office complex.

It is not clear whether this is where the hotlines for any information about Madeleine are answered. Opposite the boardroom is an open-plan area of around half a dozen cubicles, equipped with banks of phones and computers. Most are empty when I arrive; admittedly it is lunch time. But I cannot ask about this.

“We won’t answer any questions about Maddie. Maddie is off limits – is that understood?” Marco’s cousin Jose Luis, another of the agency’s employees, warns me sternly.

Catching me eyeing the setup, he is quick to explain that Metodo 3, or M-3, bought the premises earlier last year. Though I say nothing, I get the distinct impression he wants to make it clear that this was before M-3 persuaded those involved in decisions regarding the £1m Find Madeleine Fund – partially made up of donations from the public and partly from business backers such as Brian Kennedy – to sign a six-figure, six-month contract with the firm, whose financial fortunes now seem assured by the worldwide publicity they’ve since received.

“All the remodelling work took months, so we only moved in on December 14,” he says, hesitating slightly before adding: “Moving is better at Christmas.” The implication that this was a quiet period for M-3 is strange, as it was exactly the time Marco is reported to have said his agency was “hoping, God willing” that Madeleine would be imminently reunited with her family. Marco has since denied he said this.

I cannot ask him to clarify what he did say, or whether talking about an ongoing investigation is potentially detrimental. Instead, I am left to discuss the matter with a handful of other private detective agencies in Barcelona, the private-eye capital of Spain. What they tell me is disturbing.

I expect a certain amount of rivalry, and some of what they say about M-3 could be dismissed as jealous gossip. But they claim otherwise.

They say there is nothing they would like more than to see M-3 succeed in solving the mystery of Madeleine’s disappearance. But they worry that M-3’s inflated claims of progress in the case is making a laughing stock of the rest of them. References to Inspector Clouseau cut deep. They are proud that, unlike their UK counterparts, Spanish private detectives have to be vetted and licensed. They must also have a specialised university degree in private investigation. More importantly, in a profession where discretion is critical, they worry about the effect of such public declarations on the progress of any investigation. It is in the days following reports that the Find Madeleine Fund is considering sacking M-3 that I talk to Marco – though of course I cannot discuss this with him.

Clarence Mitchell, the spokesman for Kate and Gerry McCann, Madeleine’s parents, says he believes M-3 “put themselves forward” for the task, as did a number of other companies. Just a week after the four-year-old’s disappearance from the McCanns’ holiday apartment in Praia da Luz in the Algarve on May 3 last year, Portuguese police had announced that official searches were being wound down. Initially, the British security company Control Risks Group, a firm founded by former SAS men, was called on for advice. Mitchell confirms that the company is still “assisting in an advisory capacity”, but he says that the reason the

Spanish detective agency was hired was because of Portugal’s “language and cultural connection” with Spain. “If we’d had big-booted Brits or, God forbid, Americans, we’d have had doors slammed in our face, and it’s quite likely we could have been charged with hindering the investigation, as technically it’s illegal in Portugal to undertake a secondary investigation,” Mitchell explains. “But because it’s Metodo 3, [Alipio] Ribeiro [national director of Portugal’s Policia Judiciara] is turning a blind eye.” Portuguese police are reported to dismiss M-3 as “small fry”.

Mitchell says the decision to hire M-3 on a six-month contract from September was taken “collectively” by Gerry McCann, and the family’s lawyers and backers, on the grounds that the agency had the manpower, profile and resources to work in several countries. “You can argue now whether it was the right decision or not,” he says, referring to widespread reports that M-3 will find its contract terminated in March – if it hasn’t been already – and not just because the Find Madeleine Fund is dwindling. “But operationally Metodo 3 are good on the ground,” he insists.

It was M-3, for instance, who recently commissioned a police artist to draw a sketch of the man they believe could be involved in Madeleine’s disappearance, despite Portuguese-police claims that the sketch had “no credibility”.

Clearly, the McCanns are desperate to keep Madeleine’s disappearance in the public eye. And the release of photofits by M-3 will help to achieve this. The McCanns insist, however, that they are not engaged in a bidding war for interviews with American television.

But when 35-year-old Marco finally breezes into his company boardroom and throws himself into a chair opposite me, I do not get the impression that the prospect of losing the contract that has brought his company such notoriety is playing much on his mind.

Marco slaps on the table a 144-page pre-prepared dossier of articles written in the Spanish press about himself and M-3. He goes on to list some of those in the city he says I have already been speaking to about his company. Had my movements been monitored? If so, why would a private detective agency be interested in this at a time when they were supposed to be tirelessly searching for the most famous missing child in the world? This confounds me until, after talking to Marco for half an hour, I conclude that what motivates him – as much as, if not more than, his professed desire to present Madeleine with the doll he boasts he carries around in his briefcase to hand to her when he finds her – is a sense of self-regard, self-publicity and money.

) ) ) ) )

In most of the many pictures of himself included in the material he hands me, Marco looks a little nerdy. He wears the same serious expression, slightly askew glasses and suit and tie in nearly all of them. But when we meet he has a more debonair look. He is wearing a black polo-neck jumper underneath a sports jacket, sharper, and better-adjusted half-rimmed glasses, and a fringe that looks as though it has been blow-dried. It is as if his image of how a suave private eye should be has finally been realised.

In contrast to the other private eyes I meet, however, Marco is anything but relaxed. While most of them sit back easily in their chairs, trying to size me up, Marco leans towards me as we talk. He presses his hands hard on the table, almost in a prayer position, to emphasise a point, and has an intense, slightly unnerving stare.

He seems eager to please. He summons a female assistant on several occasions to bring me material, including a book he has recently written, to illustrate what he is talking about. Even when I make it clear this is not necessary – aware that these distractions eat into the time we have to talk – he insists, partly showing off.

When I ask about his background, Marco summons her to photocopy the first pages of his doctoral thesis on private investigation: he has a master’s degree and a PhD in penal law. He gets strangely agitated when she can’t find it, telling her to carry on looking, then mutters that he will have to look for it himself. Eventually he starts to reminisce about his youth. As a teenager, Marco says, he was so keen to become a private detective that he would get up at 5am to follow people on his scooter and record their movements before starting and after finishing his studies. His mother, Maria “Marita” Fernandez Lado, founded M-3 in 1986, when he was a boy, and he used to help out in the agency every holiday.

I hear several different accounts of what Marita was doing before she set up the agency. According to her son, she was working on a fashion magazine when, by chance, through Marco and his brother’s boyhood love of sailing, she met and became friends with a private detective. “From that moment, she decided she wanted to create her own detective agency, and wanted it to be a big company with big cases, a real business. She wanted to change the public image of a small private detective concerned with infidelities,” Marco says.

In Spain, private eyes are sometimes called huelebraguetas – “fly [zip] sniffers”. One of the reasons Barcelona has always been the home of so many of them, Marco explains, is that Catalonia – traditionally one of the wealthiest regions in Spain – had many rich families wanting to safeguard their inheritance. So parents would employ “fly sniffers” to check out the backgrounds of the people their sons or daughters wanted to marry. M-3 took a different track. It started specialising in investigating financial swindles, industrial espionage and insurance fraud. His mother was the first private detective, Marco says, to provide video evidence used in court to unmask an insurance fraudster: she filmed a man reading who had claimed to be blind. Marco also speaks about how in the early 1990s his mother had helped advise the Barcelona police, who were setting up a new department dedicated to investigating gambling and the welfare of children. He says his mother advised them on how to track adolescents who had run away from home, helping them to trace 15 or 16 of them at that time. (It is when I try to bring the interview back to this subject, to see if these were the children the agency has talked about finding in the past, that the interview grinds to a halt.)

But the agency almost came to grief early on, when police raided its offices, and Marco, his mother, father and brother were arrested and briefly jailed in 1995 on charges of phone-tapping and attempting to sell taped conversations. They were never prosecuted, as it was clear that the police had entrapped them.

Their big break came nearly 10 years later, when M-3 was credited with tracking down one of Spain’s most-infamous spies, Francisco Paesa, a notorious arms dealer and double agent also known as “El Zorro” (The Fox) and “the man with a thousand faces”. Paesa fled Spain after being charged with money-laundering. His family claimed he died in Thailand in 1998 and arranged for Gregorian masses to be sung for his soul for a month at a Cistercian monastery in northern Spain. Acting for a client who claimed to have been defrauded by Paesa’s niece, M-3 traced the fugitive to Luxembourg. At the behest of the Spanish national newspaper El Mundo, the agency then traced him to Paris. Paesa remains on the run, however.

“This was just one of our great achievements. Our biggest successes have never been made public,” boasts Marco. “If you speak to other detectives in Spain, I don’t think they will speak very highly of us because they are envious. But as far as other detectives around the world are concerned, we are the biggest, the most famous; the ones who work well.”

Again in collaboration with El Mundo, and again by following an illegal money trail, M-3 last year tracked down the daughter of the wanted Nazi war criminal Aribert Heim to a farm in Chile. “This was pro-bono work, and we only do it when we have time,” says Marco. The hard-pressed detective did have time just before Christmas, however, to launch a book he had co-written with a Spanish journalist. The book claims that clients of M-3 sacked directors of a charity involved in sponsoring children in the Third World, were victims of a plot to discredit them by people associated with a Spanish branch of Oxfam who were jealous that the public was giving them large donations. The sacked directors are still under investigation for fraud.

It is perhaps because Marco has spent so much time collaborating with journalists in the past that he feels so comfortable talking to the press – the Spanish press, at least – about his investigation into Madeleine McCann. In November he gave two lengthy interviews about the case, one to El Mundo and another to a Barcelona newspaper, La Vanguardia.

In the interview with El Mundo, Marco talks touchingly about how his six-year-old son asks him the same question every evening when he kisses him goodnight: “Papa, have you found Maddie?” Because the little boy is learning to read, the article continues, he knows that his father is “the most famous detective in the world”.

But why, the journalist Juan Carlos de la Cal asks, would anyone in the UK, “the country of Sherlock Holmes, with all its cold-war spies and one of the most reliable secret services in the world”, have chosen M-3 to help? “Because we were the only ones who proposed a coherent hypothesis about the disappearance of their daughter,” Marco replies, explaining that M-3’s “principal line of enquiry” at that time – the article was published on November 25 – was “paedophiles”. He talks about how he “cried with rage” when he investigated on the internet how paedophiles operate.

Apart from these comments made by Marco, little concrete is known about how M-3 has been conducting its investigation. In the same article, Marco’s mother says the agency, which she claims has located 23 missing children in the past, has “20 or so” people working exclusively on the McCann case. M-3 was said at that time to be receiving an average of 100 calls a day “from the four quarters of the globe”, and to have half a dozen translators answering them in different languages. The agency has distributed posters worldwide bearing Madeleine’s picture with the telephone number of a dedicated hotline it has set up to receive tip-offs. The interview was carried out just after Marco returned from a two-week trip to Morocco, a country he describes as being known for child-trafficking and a “perfect” place to hide a stolen child. The north receives Spanish TV, he says, but the rest of Morocco knows nothing about the affair.

Yet in an interview published three weeks earlier in the newspaper La Vanguardia, Marco claimed that the agency had “around 40 people, here and in Morocco” working on the case, on the hypothesis that the child was smuggled out of Portugal, via the Spanish port of Tarifa, to Morocco, “where a blonde girl like Madeleine would be considered a status symbol”. At that time he said he didn’t want to think about paedophilia being involved. Asked how often his agency contacts the McCanns with updates, Marco replies “daily”. He adds that the fee that M-3 is charging for its services is not high. He says that it is “symbolic”.

In the same article – accompanied by a photograph of Marco holding a Sherlock Holmes-style hat – he says with absolute certainty that Madeleine is alive. “If I didn’t think she was alive, I wouldn’t be looking for her!” At first he states categorically that he will find her before M-3’s six-month contract runs out in March. But also in the same article the journalist explains that Marco proposes taking him out to dinner if he does not find the missing four-year-old before April 30. Unless all such statements are “misunderstandings”, Marco is in danger of leaving everyone with hopes that are not fulfilled.

When I start to touch on these themes – the claim, for instance, that M-3 traces around 300 missing people a year – Marco is quick to clarify. He says that, of the 1,000 or so investigations his agency undertakes every year, “between 100 and 200 involve English people who owe money and have fled England for Spain; the same with Germans, etcetera, etcetera”. This makes it sound as if much of the agency’s work

is little more than aiding bailiffs or debt-collecting, though I do not believe this to be the case. But when I ask him to elaborate on the 23 missing children his mother is reported to have said the agency has located in the past, Marco eases himself away from the table for the first time, tilting far back in his chair. He cannot talk about that on the grounds of confidentiality, he says. Shortly after this, his cousin Jose Luis, who has sat mostly silent until now, calls time on the interview with a chopping motion of his hand.

As I leave M-3’s office I pass another door discreetly announcing it is that of a private Swiss bank. As I take a seat in the restaurant downstairs for lunch, I notice Marco’s father, Francisco Marco Puyuelo, sitting close by. I nod at him and smile. He does not smile back. I have heard unsettling reports about Puyuelo.

He is rather menacing-looking, and I feel uncomfortable as he sits staring at me, slowly spooning chocolate ice cream into his mouth.

) ) ) ) )

It is easy to feel a little paranoid in Barcelona. Nearly every quarter seems to have its own private detective agency. Offices are prominently advertised; on the short ride in from the airport

I pass four. The city’s yellow-pages directory has six sides of listings. According to Catalonia’s College of Private Detectives, the professional association to which private detectives working in the region are obliged to belong, of the estimated 2,900 licensed private eyes in Spain – around 1,500 of them actively working – 370 are in Catalonia, mostly Barcelona.

The city has traditionally had a prestigious record for private investigation. One of Spain’s most well-known detectives, Eugenio Velez-Troya, was based in Barcelona, where he helped set up the first university course in private investigation, covering subjects such as civil and criminal law, forensic analysis and psychology.

One of the largest private detective agencies in Spain, Grupo Winterman, founded by Jose Maria Vilamajo more than 30 years ago, is based in Barcelona, though the company now has 10 offices in different cities with a staff of around 150. Vilamajo is the only detective prepared to talk on the record; the others prefer to remain anonymous for fear of professional reprisal. He talks about how Barcelona came to have so many private detectives, pointing out that competition in the field is now so intense that it is pushing individual agencies to “specialise”.

Vilamajo is the only private detective apart from Marco to receive me in a spacious company boardroom, which, it strikes me, might be the model on which Metodo 3, anticipating rapid expansion, is basing its new office setup.

I meet the other private eyes either in bars or in their more modest premises, with more cloak-and-dagger decor, though nearly all have an impressive array of certificates praising their work. One has the theme music from the film The Godfather as a mobile-phone ring tone.

All talk of the “different way” M-3 has of operating from other agencies in the city. Most of what they say I have no way of substantiating. Traditionally, they say, M-3 has wined and dined clients more than others, sometimes holding grand “round-table” suppers to which it invites important figures in the community.

One ageing sleuth slides across the table a Spanish newspaper article entitled “Detectives with marketing” , in case I might have missed it. A short piece referring to the book Marco recently co-wrote about the alleged charity conspiracy, it makes the point that the book “is another step in the direction of incorporating marketing into the business of private investigation”.

When I ask what’s wrong with a business marketing itself, my question elicits a long sigh. Suddenly I can see that underlying much of the rancour M-3’s rivals feel towards it is a sense that they are not “old-school gumshoes” working in the shadows. One of their criticisms of Marco is that “he doesn’t know much about the street. He’s good at theory. He’s like a manager, always dressed up in a suit and tie”.

So he has a team of others to do the legwork, I argue. Another long sigh. “Not as many as he claims,” comes the response. On this point, all those I speak to agree. None believes M-3’s claims that it has 40 people working on the hunt for Madeleine, since the maximum number M-3 employs in its Barcelona office, they believe, is a dozen, with another few in its Madrid branch.

But again, I point out, it could have any number of operatives working for it in other countries, namely Portugal and Morocco.

My comment draws a weary smile. Metodo 3 company records for the six years up to 2005 appear to show a decline in the number of permanent employees listed – from 26 in 1999 to just 12 in 2005 – although there could be some accounting explanation for this.

Perhaps the most worrying of the detectives’ concerns is the consistent complaint that M-3 is using its involvement in the search for Madeleine to raise its profile and that Marco’s statements about how close he is to finding the child could be seriously prejudicing attempts to find out the truth. “If the agency fails to solve the mystery of Madeleine’s disappearance, that failure will be forgotten in a few years,” said one. “But M-3 will be famous and, ultimately, that is what they want.”

“They are making us look ridiculous,” says another detective. “The English are looking at us and laughing and we are very worried, very upset about it. They [M-3] are denigrating the ethics of our profession.”

To seek guidance on how private detectives are expected to behave, I visit the president of Catalonia’s College of Private Detectives: Jose Maria Fernandez Abril. After making the point that he is unable to speak about any individual member of his professional association, he proceeds to carefully read me a statement that begins: “Following the media impact of affairs in which detectives belonging to the college are involved…” It clearly echoes the concerns that others I have spoken to voice about the conduct of Metodo 3.

“No general conclusions should be drawn about the profession from the actions of any individual,” Abril reads, before helpfully explaining that this means: “You can’t go around saying you are the best in the world, implying that everyone else is somehow worse.”

More importantly, there are repeated references to how members are obliged to comply with the college’s strict code of conduct, which includes: not stating with certainty the result of an investigation and not revealing information about an investigation without agreeing it first with the client.

In other words, if M-3 was to argue that announcing just when it believed it would find Madeleine would help its investigation, the announcement should have been cleared with the McCanns. Given the deep dismay Gerry McCann is reported to have expressed over Marco’s comments about how close the agency was to finding his daughter’s kidnappers and about her being reunited with her family for Christmas, it seems unlikely any agreement over such statements was ever made.

As I leave, Abril informs me that the college has in recent years organised an annual “Night of the Detectives” supper. This year it will be held in March. He invites me to attend. At the supper, various prizes are presented. Among them is one for the fiction author they believe has contributed most to the public understanding of investigative work. This year they have awarded the prize to Dan Brown, author of the worldwide bestseller The Da Vinci Code.

They are a little hurt that he has not replied to, or even acknowledged, their invitation to attend.All this could be almost funny if I were not constantly aware that the reason I have come to Barcelona is because an exhausted little girl enjoying a family holiday went to sleep in pink pyjamas alongside her twin brother and sister on the night of May 3 last year, then disappeared. The anguish and desperation of her parents account for the Spanish detective-agency’s lucrative contract. The boasting and apparent false hopes fed to them by Marco could yet prove to be his downfall.

Shadows in the sunshine

May 13, 2007

Spain is being forced to look again at the bitter schisms created by its civil war, as thousands of bodies are exhumed from the mass graves of republicans killed without trial. But will unearthing the past lead to reconciliation?

There is a place of eerie silence close to the centre of Malaga. Outside its walls, the roar of traffic tearing at speed to tourist destinations is almost constant. But inside this sad oasis of calm, the only sounds are the delicate scraping of trowels and brushes against human bones and the soft weeping of the elderly relatives of those whose skeletons are being exposed.

Walking into this place, just a few miles from the airport that decants thousands of visitors every day onto the beaches of the Costa del Sol, is chilling; a jarring contrast of cheerfulness and sorrow, prosperous present and the remains of a devastating past, thinly carpeted with red earth. It takes a few moments to register what that earth is now yielding up. At first, the four large rectangular pits in an unkempt corner of the now disused San Rafael cemetery, overlooked by cranes from adjacent building sites, appear to be preparations for another construction project. But look down into them a few feet and a giant white jigsaw puzzle of bones emerges. Stare a bit longer and the outlines of individual skeletons become clearer. Follow the lines of splayed arms and legs and you realise that their crooked positions reveal the way each man and woman fell or was pushed into this series of mass graves.

Seventy years have passed since the estimated 3,600 buried here were lined up against the cemetery wall or at the edge of these trenches they themselves had been forced to dig before being shot. This is the site of just one of the innumerable massacres carried out by both sides during Spain’s barbarous 1936 civil war. Those buried here, however, are all from that war’s losing side. All denounced as republicans – supporters of the democratically elected Second Republic, known as “la nina bonita”, or “beautiful child”, which was eventually crushed.

The memories of what happened during those brutal years are all that the families of those killed here had, until work began a few months ago to exhume their remains. This exhumation comes at a time when Spanish politicians are locked in a bitter struggle over a proposed law that would help fund such work. It is part of a broader move to make remembrance of the civil war and its victims legally mandatory – an initiative that has provoked much painful debate in a country that has chosen for decades to draw a veil over the past. Yet the past has dominated the lives of many whose loved ones lie buried in the killing field that San Rafael cemetery became during the conflict. Those such as Francisca Cordoba, whose father was brought here in the early hours of July 21, 1937. Francisca vividly remembers sitting as a small girl on her father’s knee just hours before he was taken from Malaga prison that day to be shot. “He wrapped his arms around me, hugged me tight and kissed me. I never saw him again,” the 74-year-old grandmother recalls as she huddles in a makeshift waiting room at the entrance to the cemetery.

Her father, Vicente, had been a cobbler. His only crime was to pay a compliment to a woman customer who took offence at his attention. She denounced him as a republican sympathiser to the nationalists, who had seized control of Malaga in February of that year – one of the war’s early offensives by the military fighting to crush the left-wing Popular Front coalition government.

The Spanish civil war, in which an estimated 500,000 died, was hailed internationally as an ideological struggle between the “two Spains” of right and left, a curtain-raiser for the global war between fascism and communism that was to follow, a battle between authoritarianism and democracy, rich and poor. Yet the mutual killing was also a cover for the settling of personal scores.

Unlike the families of many of those whose remains lie piled in the pits of San Rafael in layers five or six deep, Francisca had always known that her father was buried here. Shortly after her husband was killed, Francisca’s mother went to the cemetery’s perimeter wall, notorious as the site of dawn executions. As she washed the blood from the face of his corpse, she was spotted by a cemetery worker who had been a friend of her husband. He promised her he would lay her husband’s body on the top layer of one of the pits and would make sure no lime was spread at that spot to speed the rotting of his remains. Once the fighting stopped, Francisca’s family hoped to be able to move him to a decent resting place.

Every week for years after, Francisca and her mother stole into the cemetery to the place they knew her father was buried. Her mother hid, leaving the laying of flowers to her daughter, whose tender age she believed would protect her if she was caught. But instead of peace or reconciliation after General Francisco Franco declared the war over in April 1939, more blood-letting ensued, with violent reprisals against the vanquished republicans. It is estimated that between 60,000 and 100,000 more were killed or died in prison in the early years of Franco’s dictatorship. Any hope Francisca’s mother might have had of giving her husband a burial was lost in the climate of fear endured for more than three decades by any who opposed Franco.

The generalissimo ensured the remains of thousands of his nationalist supporters were exhumed and reburied – in the case of Malaga, in an elegant crypt in the city’s cathedral. But those of tens of thousands of republicans were left to rot in mass graves across Spain. Even after Franco died in 1975 and democracy was restored, few dared raise the subject of these graves for fear of stirring up the ghosts of the past. A shroud of silence regarding the years of bloody conflict descended on the country as a pact was sealed by politicians for peaceful transition to democracy.

The movement to start exhumations began slowly seven years ago, but has gathered pace since the prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and his centre-left Socialist party won a surprise victory at the polls in March 2004 – just days after the Madrid train bombings, after which voters had lashed out at the ruling conservative Popular party for its support of the Iraq war. Zapatero’s grandfather had been a captain in the republican army and was executed by Franco’s military. During his election campaign, the would-be prime minister repeatedly spoke of his grandfather’s life and death, as a rallying cry to the left. In his inaugural speech, he quoted his grandfather’s last words as “yearning for peace, love of good and the social betterment of the less fortunate”.

After decades during which the civil war had largely fallen from public discourse, if not private grief, remembrance of the conflict was suddenly thrust to the top of the legislative agenda. To mark the 70th anniversary of the coup to defeat the Second Republic, Zapatero last year drafted legislation called the Law of Historical Memory, intended to heal with “justice and concord” hidden scars from the country’s civil-war past. Among the proposals is the removal of reference to Franco from public places. Hundreds of street names and squares are still named after him. The law also demands the drawing-up of “morbid maps” marking the sites of known and suspected mass graves of those killed during the civil war and shot without trial during the dictatorship. Further financial and technical help for exhumations would follow. The law also offers former exiles, political prisoners and relatives of the victims the option to apply to a committee to clear their names. If successful, prison sentences and death penalties meted out during this time could be declared “unjust” – though not illegal, given the huge financial implications for the state in terms of compensation this could entail.

Far from healing rifts, however, the planned law has become mired in controversy. The left condemn it for not going far enough. They believe the law should annul all convictions of Franco’s courts on the grounds that his regime was illegitimate. The right have dubbed it “a necrophilic way of doing politics”, denounced it as divisive, and called for it to be thrown out. With little hope of reconciling these views, the government is deadlocked. But as far as many are concerned, the genie of the country’s internecine conflict is once more out of the bottle. The spectre of its past again haunts Spain. With the bandage that had so long covered wounds lifted, still-festering sores have been exposed.

Psychologists called in to counsel those now seeking to exhume the remains of loved ones – an estimated 5,000 applications by groups and individuals have been lodged – argue that this is the result of a society trying to cover up its trauma for too long. Finally facing the truth 
of the past will, they say, lead to healing and reconciliation. But it is only through talking 
to those like Francisca, and others who have 
lost loved ones at the hands of the republicans, 
that it is possible to understand how deeply 
these injuries are still felt.

It was a cold day in October last year when excavation work began at San Rafael cemetery, which had been closed for nearly 20 years. For decades it was known that thousands of republicans lay here in unmarked graves. But when Malaga city council announced plans to turn the cemetery into a municipal park, more than 300 families who believed their relatives were buried here formed an association to halt the plan until their remains had been recovered. It was not until the families set up an association and approached Malaga University to undertake the excavation work, however, that both the council and regional government agreed to back and fund the exhumations.

On the first day work began, Francisca brought a chair to the cemetery and sat waiting for what her mother had sought to do all her life. Because her father’s body had been placed near the top of one of the pits, as his friend had promised, what are believed to be his remains were among the first to be recovered. They now sit in a 1ft-by-2ft box, one of hundreds that contain the remains of 445 corpses recovered in the first six months since the work began, and which are stacked in two Portakabins. None of the boxes carry names, just numbers – according to which level and in which pit they were found.

Only DNA testing, which the association has not yet secured funding for, will determine if 
the bones Francisca believes belong to her father are his. But a plastic bag lying on top of the bones, containing a few personal effects found with them, confirms their identity to her. As well as a zip, a buckle and a few buttons, are the soles and fragments of boots her mother had described her father as wearing when he was hauled off to jail. “I won’t rest in peace until I can give my father’s remains a dignified burial,” says Francisca. “I still come here every day out of solidarity with others seeking their parents or grandparents.”

One of those who accompanies Francisca is 76-year-old Juliana Sanchez. She makes a round trip of over 100 miles a day from her home near Cordoba to be near the archeologists as they crouch on their hands and knees prizing skeletons from the soil and lime. She too hopes to recover the remains of her father, also called Vicente, whom she last saw when she was six.

Vicente Sanchez was a hairdresser in a small community near Cordoba called Ruete, where Francisca still lives. As Franco’s forces swept north from Seville in 1936, Juliana’s father was among the masses that fled for fear of being killed. The only contact his family had with him after that was a letter sent from Malaga prison to one of his brothers in March 1937, pleading him to take care of his wife and five children. But, like hundreds of thousands of families left without their main breadwinner, Juliana, her mother and siblings were left destitute. Juliana worked as a maid at just nine years of age in the house of a local landowner, and in the evenings swept the streets.

The harshness of her life is etched in her features as she recalls her lifelong quest to discover what happened to her father. “The head of the household where I worked as a child used to taunt me that my father didn’t care about his family because he had abandoned us. Those fascists made my aunt parade through the streets with a sign around her neck denouncing her as a communist, and forced resin oil down her throat to purge her of the devil.”

For over 20 years following the fall of Franco, Juliana sought the help of authorities in Cordoba and Malaga for information about her father’s fate. She was consistently stonewalled by officials with little interest in dragging up the past. “But after the new government was elected, some of these officials became more helpful,” says Juliana. Two years ago she received a letter confirming her father had been taken from Malaga prison, almost certainly to San Rafael cemetery, on March 12, 1937, and shot. “The man whose name appears on documents as having denounced my father to the military was the head of the household where I worked. All those years he had my father’s blood on his hands,” Juliana says. “For me, all of those who lie here are my father. My heart breaks for all of them,” she continues, tears rolling down her cheeks. A member of the excavation team takes me aside. He tells me how Juliana has wept every time a comb has been recovered. “She thinks it must be her father’s because he was a hairdresser. But many men would carry a comb in their pocket as a sign that however poor 
 they were, they kept themselves tidy.”

Though years younger than Juliana, Emilio 
Silva, 41, understands this longing to know the truth about the past. His efforts to find out what happened to his grandfather led to the first mass exhumation, at a grave in Leon province in 2000. His intention was to write a novel about his grandfather, who was only ever mentioned in hushed tones when he was growing up. “If ever my father or uncles mentioned him, my grandmother would shout, ‘That’s enough!’” says Emilio, a TV producer living in Madrid.

His grandmother’s fear was that the lives of the six children she was left to raise alone would be in danger during the Franco dictatorship if they spoke openly of a father denounced and killed by nationalists. Her husband had been deemed “unpatriotic” because he wanted local schools to offer a secular education. This fear was transmitted to his father, says Emilio. “Even when my father did begin to tell me a little about how his father had gone to New York and ran a shop before returning to Spain, marrying, and running the shop in his village until he was killed, he would always finish by saying, ‘Never talk about any of this!’ And of course if there is something you know you should not discuss, that is what you feel compelled to find out more about.”

What Emilio discovered when he returned to his grandfather’s village was that there were still elderly residents there who remembered the events of October 1936. They talked of how his grandfather had been hauled from jail at night together with a dozen others and taken for a “paseo” – a walk – the euphemism at the time for summary executions. They knew where his body was buried – at a spot under a walnut tree that local children called “the place where people run”, believing it was haunted by the ghosts. With the help of a local archeologist and a team of volunteers, 13 skeletons were recovered from the site. Through DNA testing, Emilio was able to identify that of his grandfather, whom he 
then laid to rest beside his grandmother. She had died three years before.

As news of these first exhumations spread, Emilio was contacted by the families of others who had long sought explanations for what had happened to republican relatives missing, presumed killed, during the civil war. A national Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory was formed, which lobbied the previous conservative government of Jose Maria Aznar to help it open military archives and 
open hundreds of suspected mass graves. Though the government did authorise regional authorities to set aside some funding for exhumations, if requested, its response was deemed lukewarm by the association, which then lobbied the UN for help. Its response, however, was to rule that it had no jurisdiction to investigate the cases of those who had gone missing before it was founded in 1945.

Yet even when Zapatero’s government drew up its memory bill, those within the association complained it did not go far enough. “The law is very light. It doesn’t attempt to rectify what it should. It says very little, for instance, about the Valley of the Fallen,” says Emilio, referring to the giant mausoleum hollowed out of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains near Madrid where Franco is buried. Though the site professes to pay homage to all of the civil-war dead, many consider it an affront. They point to the only two tombs being those of the generalissimo and Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the fascist Spanish Falange party, and the fact that the complex was built by political prisoners during Franco’s dictatorship. “Franco’s family should take his body and bury it privately, not expect Spanish taxpayers to maintain his tomb,” argues Emilio. He, like many others, believes the site should be turned into a museum to educate the public about the truth of what happened during the war. But whose truth?

About as far from Madrid’s Barajas airport as 
San Rafael cemetery lies from Malaga airport, there is another mass grave of civil-war dead. Unlike San Rafael’s unmarked pits, this site can be identified from a huge distance by a giant white cross and rows of smaller ones, most without names. They honour the estimated 4,600 prisoners brought to this hillside of Paracuellos del Jarama by republican militias in the winter of 1936. All were executed and their bodies dumped in seven pits. Some are thought to have been buried alive. Among those killed here is Tomas Garcia-Noblejas, grandfather of Araceli Ezquerro, whose own father, Felipe, also narrowly escaped execution at Paracuellos. Felipe Ezquerro is 95, but vividly recalls the day republican soldiers burst into his home on November 16 that year and arrested him. “They told me, ‘You have the face of a priest,’ which in those days of anti-clericism was a grave accusation,” says the former businessman, referring to the estimated 6,500 priests and nuns slaughtered by republicans during the war.

Felipe narrowly escaped being killed because a sympathetic prison warden warned him that the car waiting for him in the dark outside the jail when he thought he was being released would take him on a paseo – to his death, not freedom. He fled. The father of his future wife was not so lucky. Garcia-Noblejas was arrested for belonging to a Roman Catholic association and was held briefly in Porlier prison, in the centre of Madrid, before being bundled into the back of the last truck of those destined for Paracuellos. “Everyone has their own history of what happened to their family in the civil war. But what good does it do raking all this up now and making it into a new confrontation?” asks Araceli, as she stands at the gates of Paracuellos cemetery. “I respect those who want to recover the remains of their relatives. But there are many who prefer to leave the dead resting together. People need to remember that we all have our own personal histories, our own truths.”

To make this point, Araceli and her father were among those who recently placed prominent death notices in national newspapers in honour of family members killed over 70 years ago. “I would not have thought of doing this if Zapatero had not started talking about his grandfather. But people need to remember there are those on the other side who had grandfathers who died. Their memories need to be respected too.”

Some criticise the present government for reviving the issue of the civil war for political gain. They argue Zapatero is trying to entrench support for the left and undermine the right – especially among younger voters with no memories of that time – by conjuring up the spectre of Franco. “I believe what is going on now is a selective recovery of memory for political reasons,” says Antonio Nadal, a political prisoner under Franco and now professor of contemporary history at Malaga University.

Nadal wrote the first comprehensive account of the fate of thousands of republicans killed by nationalist forces in this southern city. “Historical memory is being used as a weapon to further fracture the unity of this country at a particularly sensitive time,” says Nadal, referring to the increasing autonomy being granted to regions such as Catalonia and the Basque country, which many fear is destroying Spain’s sense of national identity. The government’s controversial anti-terrorism policy – including the recent release from prison of a Basque terrorist convicted 
of multiple murders – and the ongoing political fallout of the Madrid train bombings have polarised public opinion. “Calling up the ghosts of the past like this is madness,” warns Nadal. “There is little understanding of where this could lead.” Some of Nadal’s fears are also expressed by Victoria Prego, a columnist for the right-wing El Mundo newspaper and an expert on Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. “Nobody opposes the right of those who want to recover the remains of their relatives. This should be left to the families to decide,” says Prego. This is not always simple, as is illustrated by the controversy surrounding the proposed exhumation of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca (see panel, left).

“The Spanish people know very well what went on here in the civil war. There never was a pact of forgetting, but one of forgiveness, so that we could move on,” says Prego. “Our history has been a very tragic one, full of negative emotions being stirred again by this law of historical memory. My view is that we should look forward and be positive. The younger generation isn’t interested in what happened 70 years ago.”

Paul Preston, an authority on the civil war, reflects the views of many, however, in saying that Spain is poised at a unique moment in time for work to be carried out to uncover the 
truth about the extent of republican casualties and to collect testimonies of those who lived through those bloody years. “There is an urgency to what is going on now. Survivors are dying off,” says the London School of Economics professor. “Forgetting does not mean reconciliation, just as remembering does not mean vengeance. It is simply a matter of elemental justice that people know where their loved ones are buried.”

But one sign of the extent to which the exhumations and proposed law have fuelled controversy, Preston admits, are the calls he has received from young Spanish journalists asking if there will be another civil war as a result. “I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous. Spain is a strong democracy, a country of huge wealth,” he says. “I only hope the political nastiness surrounding these issues will die down soon.”

Far removed from such debate, the work at San Rafael cemetery continues. With the help of student volunteers over the summer, there are hopes that it could be finished by autumn. The remains will then be placed in a memorial in the planned park, each in a separate vault. Some of these vaults could be individually named if future DNA testing permits identification.

“It is fundamental to human nature to want a place to mourn,” says Maria Victoria Alcantara, 51, whose grandfather was gunned down against the wall of San Rafael cemetery after appealing against a 30-year prison sentence for belonging to a bakers’ union. “My father went to the cemetery that day and recognised his father’s body from the jumper he wore. My brother and I grew up knowing about this, and want to give him a proper burial. Perhaps this is the last moment to do such things. I don’t believe the next generation will be interested.”

Poetic injustice

A few miles from the grandeur 
of Granada is a desolate 
hillside spot that has become the focus of fierce controversy. 
It is believed that buried 
 here among the olive trees, close to the small community of Fuente Grande de Alfacar, are the remains of Federico Garcia Lorca, hailed as the greatest Spanish poet of the 20th century.

Lorca, 38 and at the pinnacle of his career when the civil war broke out, was handcuffed to a local schoolteacher and dragged to this spot, together with 
 two bullfighters, on the night of August 18 or 19, 1936, shot by Falangists and buried here in a mass grave. While those shot with Lorca were targeted as trade-union members and leftist sympathisers, there were suspicions that Lorca was killed because he was homosexual. Some even believe he was killed on the orders of his cousins, who were jealous of his success. A recent film has claimed that one relative boasted he had “put two bullets in his [Lorca’s] arse for being a homo!” Such speculation is thought by some to explain why Lorca’s family have resisted proposals to have the grave 
site excavated in order to give the poet a proper burial. Although his family argue that his remains should be left to 
rest in peace, there is talk that they long ago secretly moved 
his body to another site.

While Lorca’s family oppose the exhumation, however, the grandchildren of the teacher, Dioscoro Galindo, and one of the bullfighters, Francisco Galadi, have petitioned the local council for it to go ahead.

The conflicting families’ wishes have led to deadlock. 
For some, this is a metaphor 
for the likely fate of the 
current socialist government’s Law of Historical Memory.

Tender loving care homes

March 10, 2007

Regular massages. A friendly, nurturing environment. Communal meals… and academic success. Why are Germany’s children’s homes achieving so much more than our own? Christine Toomey reports. Photographs: Pepa Hristova and Simon Roberts

The moment of the day children most look forward to in one children’s home in the heart of Hamburg is just before lights out, when they are asked if they want a massage. Most do. So for 10 or 15 minutes, each child will have his or her back and shoulders rubbed by whichever female social workers are on duty. “It’s the most relaxing part of the day. I love it,” says 15-year-old Janina, who on her own admission was so aggressive before she came to live in the home six years ago, she used to spit at her mother and chew the carpet.

For the six older children like Janina in their mid- to late teens, all of whom have been living in the home for six to eight years, these moments of calm come in the hour before 10pm. For the younger children it is earlier: their lights are turned off at 8.30pm. Everything in this comfortable, colourfully furnished four-storey house in Hamburg’s central Schanzen district runs like clockwork: lunch is at 1.15, homework between 2.30 and 4pm; teeth are brushed at a certain time. But this is where such strict order ends. Every other aspect of the children’s lives, particularly their emotional welfare and contact with their families, is handled with emphasis on their individual needs.

Younger children, who have arrived more recently and might be coping with fresh traumas or consequences of abuse, are also offered nightly massages. “But I will make a game of it: run a toy car across their shoulders or pretend I’m kneading dough to make a pizza on their backs,” says Maria Nemitz, a social worker who has worked at the home – known by its initials, SME – for 16 years. “We have no problem with physical contact with the children,” she adds. “Some have had such negative experiences, we need to help them learn to trust again, and this includes trusting being touched by another person.”

When I relate this ritual to the manager of a local-authority-run children’s home in London’s Hammersmith, he nods. “There is clearly some serious therapeutic work being done there,” says Philip Craig, who for the past six years has managed the Dalling Road home, designated an “emergency unit” by Hammersmith and Fulham council, which houses up to 10 children for periods of up to three months. Yet when I mention the routine to one of Craig’s part-time workers, she says most staff at Dalling Road would “shudder at the thought” of being asked to give the children a massage. “There are all sorts of child-protection issues involved,” says Norma Mann. “We wouldn’t chance it. In everything we do, we work according to strict protocols.”

To emphasise this point, I am shown two ring folders bulging with statutory regulations and policies. One contains 47 separate procedures, ranging from how to deal with bullying, discrimination and substance abuse, to what to do if a child tries to make contact with a member of staff once they have left Dalling Road (in short, the advice is “Don’t allow it”).

Staff are expected to keep three simultaneous daily logs. The first is a handwritten diary noting the movement of staff and children in and out of the home; no Tipp-Ex corrections are allowed and all unused parts of pages must be crossed through and initialled. The second is a round-the-clock record of the children’s activities and staff registering, for instance, if a child gets up for a glass of water in the night. The third is an individual log compiled each day for each child, noting their activities and behaviour. All these logs and diaries must be stored for a minimum of 75 years – partly in case a child makes an allegation of abuse against a care worker. So many need to be held onto that thousands are kept at a disused salt mine in Kent.

“What these procedures do,” says Craig, “is offer a form of safety for staff. If you work outside of procedure and an allegation is made against you by a child or family member and you have nothing to refer to, chances are you’ll be hung, drawn and quartered. But sometimes we get so caught up with procedures, we lose sight of the child,” says Craig, who describes this pressure of paperwork as “a nightmare”. Add to this climate of paranoia the government’s obsession with progress targets and performance indicators, and what Craig concludes seems self-evident: “Many senior managers in this field are more interested in reports, statistics and numbers than the individual needs of the children we look after.”

Many would assume that a childcare institution in Germany would be run along more bureaucratic lines than one here. But it is to throw light on one of the most shameful records to which this country can now claim that I visit Dalling Road and SME. This is that, compared with other countries in Europe, when it comes to children in care – “looked-after children” as they are now called in the UK – those here face the bleakest of futures.

Despite the amount spent annually on the 60,000 children, on average, looked after each year in this country having doubled to nearly £2 billion in the past decade, both their short- and long-term prospects are devastating. In 2005 only 11% of those in care attained five GCSEs at grade A-C, compared with 56% of all children (59% of children in care were not entered for GCSEs at all). Of the 6,000 who leave care on average each year, many experience mental-health problems, drug and alcohol addiction, and end up on the streets (one-third of this country’s homeless were raised in care). Fifty per cent find themselves unemployed within two years. A quarter of girls are pregnant when they leave care and half become single mothers within two years.

In Germany, where fewer statistics are kept, it is estimated that three-quarters of those in care pass the General Certificate of Education taken at 16 and 95% go on to vocational training. Only 2% of children in care under 16 are out of school (in the UK it is 12%) and less than a quarter of those over 16 are neither in employment nor education (here it is 55%). As a result, fewer resort to crime; children in care in Germany commit on average 0.09 offences a year compared with 1.73 committed by those here. In the UK, 60% of young offenders and 27% of the adult prison population have been through the care system.

While statistics only offer a glimpse of reality, the stark differences in all of the above have so embarrassed this government that in the last year senior ministers have made several pilgrimages to care homes in Germany and the Netherlands, to see what they are getting right and what we are getting so wrong. Some of the lessons learnt are included in the green paper called Care Matters – a wide-ranging package of proposals aimed at improving the lives of children in care.

Unveiling the package last October, the education secretary, Alan Johnson, conceded it “inexcusable and shameful that the care system seems all too often to reinforce early disadvantage rather than helping children to successfully overcome it. Our goals for children in care should be exactly the same as our goals for our own children. We want their childhoods to be secure, healthy and enjoyable… providing stable foundations for the rest of their lives. Fine words. But will it work?

It is not the government’s first attempt to tackle the problem. In the wake of the appalling death of Victoria Climbié in 2000, an initiative called Every Child Matters was forged to better co-ordinate children’s services through the work of GPs, health visitors, social workers and schools. This latest package is more far-reaching when it comes to older children. A significant change being proposed is that children will be able to veto any decision that they leave care before they are 18, with some given the option to live with foster families until they are 21. At present, many are left to fend for themselves once they reach 16.

There are also plans to pay set salaries and provide training for some foster carers (British ministers visiting care homes abroad have been particularly influenced by the training there of those working with children.) To improve the education of children in care, the green paper proposes that every local authority appoint a “virtual head teacher” to monitor their progress and promote them being admitted to the best schools available. Moving children around from the care of one local authority to another – frequently to save money – would become harder to do.

But many believe a more fundamental change is needed – a change that involves us all: a profound shift not only in how we view and support those who work with children in care, but also how we view the children they look after. Otherwise we will continue to be marked by the dubious distinction of being one of the richest European countries to educate its most vulnerable children to the lowest standard, see more become homeless, fall prone to mental illness and serve repeated spells in jail. Those who observe us from abroad believe much of our problem lies in the peculiar harshness with which we in this country view childhood in general. Untangling a society’s attitude towards its children is a complex affair. But what those at SME, Dalling Road and a privately run children’s home in West Sussex have to say exposes some sobering realities.

Rudiger Kühn has spent the past 22 years working with children referred by the city of Hamburg to the care of the SME home he now manages. SME had been open for only a few years when he started working there in the early 1980s. Just as in the UK, Germany underwent a rethink in the late 1970s and early ’80s of the way children in care should be looked after. As in the UK, large institutional-type homes where children led regimented lives in long dormitories were closed and alternative forms of care were sought. This is where much of the similarity between the UK and Germany ends.

The alternative the UK developed was foster care supplemented by smaller children’s homes regarded as a last resort for children for whom foster families either could not be found or were not thought suitable. Two-thirds of all children in care in this country are now fostered. Fostering was promoted because it was thought that children would thrive best in families. How important a factor money was in developing this policy is debatable. But the fact is, fostering is on average four times less expensive than residential care, where the cost of looking after a child can run from £1,500 to £3,500 a week.

Germany moved in the opposite direction. There fostering is seen as a last resort. Over two-thirds of children in care are looked after in residential homes, most of them relatively small like SME, which caters for 16 children. Most children who are fostered in Germany are those who it is believed are unlikely to be able to have a successful relationship with their own family. Though many feel residential care lays the child open to being institutionalised, after listening to the experiences of Kühn and the children in his care, this approach begins to make sense.

Janina did live with a foster family before coming to SME, and is in no doubt which she prefers. “I had my own family. I had a mother, even if she and I didn’t get on. I didn’t like being put in another family where I was forced into close relations with complete strangers,” says the teenager as she perches on the edge of her bed surrounded by posters of her pop idols and school books. “I prefer living here. I feel more free. If I have an argument with someone here, there’s enough space for one of us to get out of the way. I still see my mother a lot, but here everything’s more ordered; they help you with your school work. When I finish school, I hope to move back to live with my mother.”

Janina’s view is echoed by other children whose families live close to the home. For Kühn and his co-workers, this seems completely natural. In foster families they say there are serious issues of split loyalties. “We often find children feel they are somehow betraying their natural parents by living with another family,” says Kühn. “As a result, the children behave as if they do not have permission to be successful.”

Kühn and his staff spend a great deal of time promoting good relations with the families of the children in their care. “We accompany our children for just a piece of their life, show them how they can live in a different way in the hope that they will take something of this with them when they leave, either to return to live with their families or to live independently,” says Maria Nemitz, explaining that great emphasis is placed on homework. The extent to which all the children at SME stress how determined they are to do well at school bears this out.

There are also historical reasons why children in Germany are fostered less frequently than here. This is because parental rights there are considered stronger. These rights were enshrined in the German constitution to counter the threat of totalitarianism in the country’s past by strengthening the power of the individual. Most parents in Germany, for instance, retain their parental rights even if their child is in residential care. Also in the wake of Nazism much emphasis was placed on developing a system of education and care for children that ensured teachers and others with educational responsibilities be as highly qualified as possible, partly to impress on children the need to be good citizens.

The reasons children are taken into care in Germany are similar to those here: most because of abuse or neglect, a smaller number because of family dysfunction, such as absent parents or a child’s socially unacceptable behaviour. Yet the stigma children in care suffer in Britain does not seem to be the same in Germany. In Germany there is a much greater sense that there are educational and therapeutic reasons, rather than reasons of protection, for a child being there. This partly explains why children stay on average three times longer in residential care in Germany compared with this country, and why the proportion of children in care there is higher: 65 per 10,000 young people compared with 44 per 10,000 in the UK. Some argue that this higher proportion of children in care in Germany means those in the UK come from more extreme circumstances. But after hearing what the children at SME say about their backgrounds, this hardly seems the case.

In a room alongside Janina lives Johana, 17, who together with an older brother has been living at the home since she was eight. Johana talks about how she first ran away from home at six, after witnessing her elder sister being raped by her stepfather. Ulaf, 15, talks of how his father could not cope when his mother walked out on the family home when he was nine. Two floors below, 13-year-old Patrizia, whose mother suffers mental-health problems, admits to getting into trouble for aggressive behaviour. Zara, 14, who shares a room with her, says she came to live at SME last year after being beaten up by an elder brother.

Joachim Genuneit, 50, who has worked at SME for the past 24 years, says: “At first, many parents whose children come here regard this place as a sort of workshop where their broken kids can be repaired. While the kids themselves think they have been sent here because there is something wrong with them, and they are being punished. But we work with parents and children to help both understand we are here to show them a different way of life is possible. We always emphasise it is the natural parents who are the most important people in a child’s life.”

Like the UK, Germany has had shocking instances of child abuse exposed. “The reaction of the German public when these happen is it wants its children protected, whatever it takes. Few questions are asked about cost, especially in a city like Hamburg, which is booming,” explains Dr Herbert Wiedermann, who oversees children’s services for the city authorities. “We take the attitude that if something has gone wrong in a family, there are external reasons, and we trust the professionals to help solve them. In the UK, it seems both children and their parents are seen as good or bad, and if they’re bad they’re punished. The UK policy of handing out Asbos would be unthinkable in Germany.”

Such a vote of public confidence in those who work with children in care can only be dreamt of here. “In countries like Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, working with children in care, particularly in a residential setting, is seen as a plum job. Not here – hence the reliance in many places on agency staff,” says Professor Pat Petrie of London University’s Thomas Coram Research Unit, which was commissioned by the government to make a study of how work with children in care in the UK compares with that of other European countries.

This study highlights staff training, approach and commitment as key to determining whether the long-term prospects of looking after children were positive or not. In continental Europe, a whole profession exists that does not here: social pedagogy. This is considered much broader than social work and puts more emphasis on education and a deeper psychological understanding of a child’s development. By employing more highly trained staff, children’s homes in countries like Germany can function with fewer workers. SME, for instance, has nine members of staff for 16 children, while Dalling Road has 18 members of staff for 10 children. More highly trained staff also results in lower staff turnover (18% in Germany compared with 27% here), which means greater stability for the children. In recognition of this, our government is proposing improving training for those who work with children in care to include aspects of social pedagogy.

According to the latest annual report of the Commission for Social Care Inspection, released in January, 35% of children’s homes in this country are inadequately staffed. Children’s homes in Germany are also generally larger than in the UK, catering for 22 youngsters on average, compared with six here. In Germany, most homes are run by regional authorities or on a non-profit basis by the voluntary sector. In the UK, just 6% are run by the voluntary sector, 32% by local councils, and 61% are privately owned and run for profit.

As a local-authority run home catering for nearly twice the number of children than average, Dalling Road might not be typical of most homes in this country. Nor is it typical – though more so in London and the southeast than elsewhere – in that, at the time of my visit, only two of the nine children resident were what the manager, Philip Craig, terms “citizen children”, ie, British. The rest were unaccompanied asylum seekers. “We are not a specialised asylum unit, so we are basically doing the asylum team a big favour looking after these kids,” says Craig, who hopes from this spring that the home will be used for longer-term therapeutic care of children.

But the fact that the London home cares for children for a maximum of three months is far from unusual. Compared with children’s homes in Germany, where children stay on average for nearly three years, the average length of stay in this country is less than a year. Craig and many others argue there is a desperate need for those who work in children’s homes here not to be seen simply as “firefighters” who intervene in a crisis but are not allowed to work with children for long enough to make a real difference to their lives. The extent to which children feel let down when moved from one children’s home to another, often after passing through the care of a number of foster families, is evident from the accounts of boys at another children’s home: Hillcrest Slinfold, near Horsham in West Sussex.

Hillcrest Slinfold, privately owned by a company that runs a dozen children’s homes around the country, caters for up to 20 boys aged 11 to 16. But at the time of my visit, there are 16 boys living in three separate houses on the site, which includes its own school. “In some ways this is the last of the last resorts,” says Tony Ross-Gower, manager of the home for the past two years. “Many of the boys sent here by local authorities have been deemed ‘unfosterable’ and unmanageable by other children’s homes. It is not unusual for them to have been placed in several dozen other care settings before coming here. But once here I fight hard for them to stay as long as possible.” Because of the on-site school, Ross-Gower says he is often successful in keeping boys until they have finished their education. This means the average length of stay is three years – similar to the national average in Germany.

The sense of security this gives the boys at the home is palpable. Ross-Gower says most of them have been subjected to severe abuse or neglect. “Some have lived on the street; others are persistent young offenders. Most are perceived by a certain sector of society as a complete menace who should be locked up, or at least be kept out of sight and out of mind.”

The boys are fully aware of this. Jay, 14, says: “People looked at me like I was some sort of gangster. But my old man used to beat me up and I was always getting into trouble with the police for drink and drugs. ”

In just one year before being sent to Hillcrest Slinfold, Jay, whose younger brother and sister are also “looked after”, had been placed with, and moved on by, four foster families and four children’s homes. “I couldn’t get on with foster families. It’s like they were trying to behave like my parents when they weren’t. So I kept running away. But the amount they moved me around after that felt like they were taking the piss. I couldn’t settle anywhere,” says the softly spoken teenager, who one day wants to work for the RSPCA. “Then I came here and it felt like the staff really cared. If you try to run away, they come looking for you. It’s like they want you to stay here and do well. When you know you can stay somewhere, you begin to think ahead.”

Thinking ahead is what worries David, 16, who has been in care since he was a baby and came to Hillcrest Slinfold 31/2 years ago after living with a succession of foster families and in other children’s homes. “I was assaulted by staff in some of the other homes, so I kept absconding and getting into car theft and burglary. Then I came here and began to sort my behaviour out. But I have to leave in June when I’ll be given my own flat. If I can’t cope, I guess I’ll end up in prison.”

Curtis, 15, was moved more than 30 times between foster families and children’s homes before coming to Hillcrest Slinfold a year ago. He feels the ordered regime of the West Sussex home has helped turn his life around. “All those other places were very chaotic. But here I go to class and now I’ve begun to think maybe I can follow my dream to become a mechanic.” That is if he’s given the chance. “If you say you’re in a children’s home, people put their hands in their pockets to protect their stuff. They think we’re all troublemakers who should be put away. They haven’t been through what we’ve been through. Nobody wants to hear your side of the story.”

“There is something deep in our culture that leads to a belief that we should be punitive towards children who are difficult,” says David Jones of the International Federation of Social Workers. Many believe this notion came from the industrial revolution, when so many children were set to work and residential care evolved from the Poor Law workhouses and draconian reform schools for those who misbehaved. Add to this history the recent trend for selling off school playing fields and closing down recreation facilities for children to save money – even the way education is now assessed using business terms such as performance leagues and value-added indicators – and it is not hard to see why some, such as Wiedermann, say our way of placing the care of children in the marketplace is “loveless and cold”.

Brief snapshots of life at SME compared with that at Dalling Road and Hillcrest Slinfold – the lunchtime routine – are telling in this respect. In the Hamburg home, lunch is prepared by whichever staff member was responsible for waking the children that morning. Children and staff sit down to eat together and nobody touches their plates until everyone is seated. The youngest and shyest boys are given regular hugs and encouraged by their carers to join the discussion around the table. At Slinfold Hillcrest, lunch is also cooked by the care workers on duty and the boys sit down to eat together in small groups in the house where they live.

At Dalling Road, meals are prepared by a professional cook and children drift in and out of the dining room helping themselves to whatever they want. At the lunch I visit, most staff are upstairs seated around a table for a meeting, “project-managing” the future for the children at the Hammersmith home, whom they sometimes refer to as their “client group”. When I ask to speak to one of the home’s “citizen children”, I am told he has gone missing. The staff will then follow procedure: if they have not tracked him down by phone by the end of the day, a missing- person report will be filed with the police.

“Sometimes we lose sight of the child,” says Philip Craig. Judge for yourselves.

Some names have been changed to protect identities

Turkey’s forced ‘suicides’

March 10, 2007

As Turkey edges towards membership of Europe and western equal rights, Christine Toomey reports on the violent clash of East and West, and the deadly social divide it is leaving in its wake

The room the father ushers me into is small and bare. In one corner stands a tall wooden wardrobe; in another, a television concealed beneath an embroidered cloth. The floor is covered with a carpet that is ragged but clean. It must have taken his wife many hours to wash it of their daughter’s blood. For an hour before the father arrives home, his wife has been describing events on the morning 14-year-old Berruan died. As difficult as it is to comprehend any such death, the more she talks about what happened, the less what she says makes sense.

Snow lay thick on the ground that day last January. Her husband and 15-year-old son had left the house. She was tending to domestic chores outside when she heard a gunshot. She immediately thought it must be a hunter shooting birds, she says. “But then my little boy ran outside screaming, ‘Come quickly! Come quickly! My sister has killed herself!’”

The mother ran inside and saw her daughter’s body lying on the floor of the cramped room that the father later shows me. “At first I thought she must have fallen and hit her head. But then I saw the gun. There was no reason for her to do that,” Berruan’s mother insists. “She was so happy with us. She had no problems – no problems at all.”

As she talks, we sit on the doorstep of the family’s dilapidated home in a small village near Batman in Turkey’s southeastern Anatolia. This area has become notorious in recent years for the high number of suicides, particularly of girls and young women whose despair is said to stem from their severely restricted lives. But women’s groups and human-rights workers believe a more sinister explanation lies behind many of the deaths. They’re convinced a growing number of girls and women are being locked in rooms by their families, with a gun, poison or a noose, and left there until they kill themselves.

Such deaths are referred to here as “forced suicides” – murder by any other name. Whether Berruan was one of those pressured by her family to take her own life is impossible to know. But such suspicion now surrounds any such death in the community that, shortly after she died, one local Batman newspaper reporting her death carried the headline “Was it suicide or murder?”

Yet those who expose domestic violence risk being rapidly silenced in this country. In recent months, three national TV talk shows have been pulled off the air after two women appearing as guests were shot shortly afterwards – one by her son, another by her husband – for denouncing domestic abuse and so “tainting” their family’s honour. Turkey is not a country where the concept of free expression has as yet sunk deep. Those in the media who touch on other subjects considered too sensitive also risk breaking the law – 33 journalists and writers currently face trial on charges of “insulting Turkey’s national character”. For, as far as many are concerned, Turkey is a country on a knife edge.

That this vast, mainly Muslim country of 71m is where East meets – and often clashes violently with – West, has become a hoary adage. But rarely since Kemal Ataturk founded this republic in the ashes of the Ottoman empire in 1923 and ordered it to “face west” has this been truer than now. As the country battles to balance its aspirations to continue to modernise, and so improve its chance of becoming a member of the EU, with the desire of many to maintain conservative and often religious tradition, many subjects are thought best swept under the carpet. In recent years it has been Turkish women who have been at the forefront of this battle.

As Berruan’s mother speaks, her grandmother kneels close by and mutters: “It was her destiny.” Berruan’s mother nods. “What can you do if God writes on your forehead that it is time to die?” When I ask them to describe what sort of girl Berruan was, they use words like “beautiful”, “strong” and “fearless”. They say she did well at school until she left when she was 11, as most girls in this area do – if they go to school at all.

They insist again and again that she was “a good girl” who “never cast her eyes outside the home”. But to be born strong-willed or beautiful or clever can be a curse for a girl in parts of Turkey such as this. To attract attention can be a death sentence. Once the words “adi cikmis” – translated roughly as “her name is known” or “she has become notorious” – are uttered, the girl or woman of whom they are said stands little chance of survival. A “family council”, or kangaroo court, is convened at which it is decided how she who is “notorious” should die. Such ritualised deaths are deemed by those responsible to be an “honour killing” – a deadly oxymoron meaning her behaviour has offended the “namus”, or honour, of male members of the family. Only by killing her, they believe, can the family’s honour be restored and its “slate be cleaned”.

Turkey is not, of course, the only country where honour killings take place. The United Nations states – and it is believed to be a great underestimate – that more than 5,000 women are killed across the world every year by relatives who accuse them of bringing shame on their families. The majority occur in the Middle East. But British police are currently investigating more than a hundred such suspected crimes among minority communities in this country. In Turkey over the past six years, an average of one or two women have died every week owing to honour killings and blood feuds. According to a recent Turkish police report, the true figure is believed to be three or four times higher.

Such wholesale blood-letting, believed by many to be on the increase, appears to be of little concern to more than a third of the population. A Turkish parliamentary commission set up last year to investigate honour killings found that 37% of those surveyed thought a woman should be killed for committing adultery, while many others supported punishments such as facial disfigurement, with 64% thinking the husband should be the one to carry out such punishments.

In communities such as Batman, and where Berruan died, it is enough for a girl to glance for a few seconds too long where men are gathered to cause lethal offence. Or to request a love song on the radio, or wear jeans, or a skirt that is a little too short. Or, however unwittingly, to catch the eye of boy or man who then flirts with, seduces or rapes her. Death sentences have been imposed here on daughters, wives and sisters for all of the above. The “guilty” have been shot, strangled, stoned, had their throats slit or been buried alive.

Nobody in the small village will say if young Berruan’s “name became known”. But this is not a place where strangers are welcome. Life here, as in many other rural areas of Turkey, is run along feudal lines little changed for centuries. It is also a predominantly Kurdish area and the heartland of the Kurdish separatist PKK guerrilla movement. Berruan’s father, he later mentions in passing, was imprisoned for 10 years as a terrorist. So, as a foreign woman asking awkward questions, my presence on his doorstep triggers alarm.

“What are they doing here?” he shouts at his wife when he returns to find my male interpreter and I in front of the family home. For us to have gone inside would have exposed his wife to the risk of being “talked about”; only he is permitted to show us into the three-room dwelling, which he does, eventually, to point to the room where his daughter died. He eyes us suspiciously, but then decides to adopt a more conciliatory stance. He eventually takes pictures of his daughter as a young girl from his pocket. “How sweet she was then,” he says. “She used to talk about wanting to join the police and even about becoming a lawyer. I told her, ‘You are free to do what you want.’ But then she decided to stay at home, watch television, help with the cleaning,” he says. “Maybe it was from the cleaning that she learnt that I kept my gun on top of the wardrobe.”

When I ask if he has any recent photographs of his daughter, he says every trace of her has been removed from the house. “We put everything that could remind us of her in a bag, including her Koran, and gave it to the poor.” When I ask his reaction to the newspaper headline raising questions about her death, he swats the air with his hand, as if batting a fly. The interview comes to a swift conclusion after that.

During the past five years, 281 girls and women have attempted suicide in Batman (population approximately 250,000) – three times the number of attempts by men – and 43 succeeded, the youngest being a 12-year-old girl. “Every suicide of a girl or woman should be looked at with suspicious eyes,” argues Nebahat Akkoc, the director of a women’s support organisation called Ka-Mer in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. Just how many suicides are “forced”, Akkoc and other human-rights workers admit, is impossible to say. “One girl who survived told us how her family stood watching as she cut her wrists. They then silently closed the door on her and walked away.” Akkoc also talks of other survivors, who have made it to the shelter her organisation runs, describing how their families have told them: “You are going to die anyway, so why let your brother go to prison for killing you? Why not do it yourself?”

In the twisted minds of those who would force a wife, daughter or sister to end her own life, there is a lethal logic. Tragically, it has to do with EU demands for Turkey to improve its record on human rights if it is to stand a chance of being admitted as a member in the next 10 years. (Accession talks formally began in October 2005.) In response to EU demands to crack down on the widespread problem of honour killings in Turkey, punishments for such crimes have been increased. In the past a male relative could argue he had been “provoked” into killing a female relative because she had offended family honour. This would be enough to diminish the severity of his sentence to little more than a small fine or short prison sentence or, in the case of a minor, usually a matter of a few months – a legal get-out that often resulted in a young brother or cousin being ordered by his family to become the one to carry out the murder. But since Turkey reformed its penal code in the past two years, minors are no longer entitled to a reduction in sentence for committing such crimes. The conditions under which “provocation” can be entered as a plea in mitigation have also been severely reduced – though not abolished entirely. On March 3, for instance, a brother convicted of killing his sister by stoning her in a small community near Diyarbakir had his sentence of life imprisonment reduced to 13 years on the grounds that he had been “provoked”. His sister, Semse Allak, had been raped by one of her father’s friends. It took Semse months to die of her injuries. Her family refused to give her a burial; her body was claimed and buried by a women’s organisation.

That those who give voice to women, exposing such atrocities, together with those who dare to speak out on other subjects long considered taboo in Turkey, should be silenced, both by the state and private enterprise, is a damning condemnation of a modern democracy.

Ayse Ozgun drinks coffee in an elegant Istanbul restaurant as she rages against the cancellation of her TV programme Every Day last year.

“There is a volcano of women’s screams building up in this country, and we were one of the only ways this pent-up anger could be vented,” says Ozgun. “They’ve pulled the shows that looked at the serious problems women face in our society and replaced them with a lot of music and dancing. Ha! Much easier,” she laughs bitterly.

Ozgun says she was warned more than 20 years ago, when she was the first to host a talk show aimed at women, that her job was to “entertain, not educate”. After just three months the state TV show, considered too controversial, was cancelled. After four years abroad, Ozgun moved back to Turkey and began hosting her new show, Every Day – again aimed at a largely female audience – this time on a private channel. But following a lengthy run, this show was again cancelled in November, after a woman who appeared on the show to discuss how her family had forced her into a marriage was shot dead by her father. “You’ve ruined the reputation and honour of our family in front of millions of viewers,” the father shouted at his 32-year-old daughter, a mother of two, before killing her.

“You cannot change such a sick mentality by expecting rapid change of men, but rather by educating women, informing them of their rights, giving them a voice,” says Ozgun. “What we did was go to the nucleus of society, that of the mother and child. Tell people what was going on… This country will only develop if women are allowed to develop, and I won’t shut up about that until they shut me up completely,” says the feisty 61-year-old, who is now planning to start another programme for women – this time on the radio. “Where can girls and women go if they have a problem? They have nowhere.

I believe there should be a social worker in every mosque in this country,” she says, while stressing it’s not in the teachings of Islam that the fault lies, but in many of the country’s outdated customs that regard women as subservient.

Yet Aysenur Yazici, host of one of the other cancelled shows, believes it was partly because she exposed the custom of religious marriages that her programme You Are Not Alone was pulled by managers who claimed it had become “a social problem”. This custom, where marriages are sealed with an unofficial religious ceremony and are not registered as civil unions, affords women no marital rights or protection. They can be instantly dissolved by the man, but not the women. “Nobody was killed as a result of my show,” says Yazici, for 20 years one of Turkey’s most respected news anchorwomen. “But I kept talking about these religious marriages. I kept telling women, ‘You don’t have to put up with the way you are being treated. You can go to the police, to a lawyer. You can fight!’And many did.”

She cites one 15-year-old girl who came on the show who had been sold by her father as a bride to a man in his early sixties for 38 gold coins. “We phoned the gendarme where she lived and her father, husband and the imam who married them illegally were arrested and jailed for six months. We gave girls like her a voice. Now they have no voice again… Maybe I talked too much about democracy and this made a lot of people in the government feel very uncomfortable.”

Since 2002 the government of this secular republic has been led by the charismatic ex-mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Islamic Justice and Development party. While Erdogan’s government is moderate and pro-western, he presides over a complex country increasingly torn between conservative, often religious, tradition and modern western values. The conflict this creates is visible in the contrast between the lives of the metropolitan middle classes, where there is genuine equality between the sexes, and the rest of the country, where the majority are forced to scratch a living in feudal poverty, and where illiteracy – particularly among women – is entrenched.

Since taking power, Erdogan has focused on such uneven development. But he has also made moves to increase religious freedom. His efforts to end the ban on women wearing headscarves in schools and state offices has caused furious debate, as has his unsuccessful attempt two years ago to re-criminalise adultery; in a country where polygamy, though illegal, is practised by about 25% of the population, it was widely believed the latter would mostly be used to prosecute women. Such moves have fuelled accusations that the government is seeking to steer Turkey, the only predominantly Muslim country with strict separation between state and religion, towards Islamic rule.

In addition to highlighting the problems of this sexual battleground, Yazici says her show operated as an informal support network, with viewers offering women refuge and financial help. “Those women have been silenced now. Shows like mine have been replaced with dating games and light entertainment.”

This appears to be the fate of Yasemin Bozkurt, the host of the third TV programme recently cancelled, Women’s Voice. The show was pulled off air after a mother of five appeared to complain about being forced to marry an abusive husband. When she went home she was shot five times in the head and chest by her 14-year-old son, yelling at her that she’d “disgraced the family”. Bozkurt’s show has since been resurrected on a smaller private channel. But the day we arrive to speak to her, its content consists of an ageing actress reminiscing, a 77-year-old retired sea captain wanting a new wife, and a man looking for his sister. “Of course, I am very embarrassed murder is committed in the name of honour in my country, and many women here are seen merely as possessions,” Bozkurt says defensively. “But men in Turkey are simply not ready to see women talk about such problems. And people had to learn that television is not a court where you can solve your problems.”

Critics of the cancelled shows, including members of Turkey’s parliament, condemned them for discussing domestic problems “in an indecently open way”. But one of Turkey’s leading columnists, Haluk Sahin, also a respected academic, has compared watching the original version of Bozkurt’s show to “reading Emile Zola or Charles Dickens”. Sahin is among the 33 journalists and writers who face up to 10 years in jail for speaking too openly on matters that “denigrate Turkishness”. In Sahin’s case, this meant daring to write about the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians during the first world war – the same taboo subject that saw the prominent author Orhan Pamuk facing similar charges, until EU pressure led them to be dropped. Up to the late 1990s, only China had more writers and journalists in jail than Turkey.

Regarding the cancelled shows, Sahin argues that it was the “sincerity” of the Turkish shows that was so striking, even “suffocating”, he says, in the extent to which they showed the “degree of helplessness of the participants”. Part of the reason for this helplessness is that Turkey has just two dozen shelters for battered women. “There is a desperate need for more shelters – if we were to follow EU standards, there should be one per 10,000 head of population,” says Hulya Gulbahar, a lawyer defending victims of domestic abuse. There are signs of hope. In addition to tightening its penal code to increase punishment for honour killing, Turkey is one of the few countries where sustained domestic abuse is now legally defined as torture. But in many conservative communities, neither the police nor the judiciary show signs of upholding the new laws. “The key to closing that gap is education, letting men and women know things are changing, and that they must change,” says Gulbahar.

In communities such as Diyarbakir and Batman, it is a long haul. Last autumn the British Council helped fund a poster campaign in the area to highlight the problems of domestic abuse, and encourage victims and those who witness it to seek help. While the campaign showed some signs of altering opinion, many of the posters were torn down by those who considered even the mention of such a problem shameful.

More recently, Amnesty International has run a nationwide letter-writing competition in Turkey to raise awareness of honour killings, entitled Talking to Guldunya – Guldunya Toren being the country’s most notorious victim of such a crime. The 24-year-old fled her town in the region of Diyarbakir after being raped by a cousin and discovering she was pregnant. When she defied her family’s order to marry the cousin, she was given a rope by one of her brothers and told to hang herself. Instead, Guldunya made the long journey to Istanbul to seek refuge with a sympathetic uncle. When she gave birth to a son in early 2004 she named him Hope, believing neither he nor she might have long to live. Weeks later her brothers tracked her down and shot and wounded her. In hospital, she made a heart-rending plea for the state to protect her. “Why do they shoot me? They should shoot the one who raped me,” she told a newspaper. “I want to live with my baby. But I know they won’t want me to live. I’m scared.” Soon afterwards her brothers entered her unguarded hospital room and shot her in the head. Her baby was taken into care for fear they would kill the child too.

Sermons delivered in mosques are written by the state, and Guldunya’s murder was strongly condemned shortly afterwards at Friday prayers nationwide. Her two brothers were sentenced to life imprisonment. Yet even though the killing received wide attention, a song written about Guldunya by one of the country’s well-known singers was banned from state-run TV and radio.

But against the odds, women in Turkey whose expectation of life has been little more than that of a domestic chattel, are learning to stand up for themselves. Even in such conservative regions as the southeast – with a little help.

The fortress-like building that houses one of Turkey’s few women’s refuges is patrolled by 16 armed guards. The safety of the eight women it shelters is considered so precarious, we have to swear to keep the location a secret before talking to them. It is here that we meet Zozan, 22, from a small community near Batman. Zozan talks nervously of how she was passed from the hands of one man to another after her mother died. She was first pressed into a religious marriage by her father, who threatened to kill her if she dared to disobey him. But when he failed to provide her with the expected dowry, even though she was by then pregnant, her husband beat her, divorced her on the spot and threw her out. After a period of sleeping rough, during which she lost the baby, Zozan entered into a second religious marriage with a total stranger, because she thought this would restore her “honour” in the eyes of her father. He, too, quickly became violent.

“My father told me I was an embarrassment, and in his eyes I was already dead: it would be better if I killed myself, and if I tried to go home he would kill me.” These were not idle threats. When Zozan was growing up, one of her neighbours, a teenage girl, was buried alive by her family after “the word went out” that she had a boyfriend and was pregnant. An autopsy later revealed that the girl was still a virgin.

Zozan eventually went to the police for help. Instead of returning her to the house of her violent husband, as would have traditionally been the case, a sympathetic police officer took her to the refuge where we meet.

Despite the hardships, Zozan is optimistic. During the few months she will be given shelter, she hopes to learn a skill so that she can support herself. “I don’t intend looking back. I don’t even blame my father, I blame the traditions he grew up with,” she says. When asked what she most looks forward to, she does not hesitate. “For the first time I’m going to celebrate July 2,” she says, smiling broadly. “That day is my birthday.”

Some names have been changed

Dumped on our doorstep

February 4, 2007

Thousands of children traumatised by civil war or trafficked for profit are abandoned in Britain every year. But this is no safe haven. Asylum is routinely refused — and now they face being sent home to be exploited, tortured or raped

The language of the letter will make you blanch. The scepticism and sheer inhumanity of its tone cannot fail to anger you. Or it could not if you had sat, as I have for the past hour, listening to Maria describe how her childhood was brought to an end when her father was slaughtered in front of her by government soldiers, and how she was then imprisoned, repeatedly raped and tortured.

As Maria’s slight frame begins to tremble when she comes to the darkest details of her account, her young niece Madalea, who has been lying curled up by her 19-year-old aunt’s side, gets up and leaves. From the next room I hear the 11-year-old singing to herself, as if to block out memories of the atrocity she too witnessed.

Maria and Madalea, 15 and 7 at the time, had tried to escape the soldiers, like everyone in their small community in a remote part of Angola, by fleeing into the forest. But most were captured and forced to march through the night to a prison, where they were abused for five weeks until soldiers opposed to the government freed them. The two girls spent the next 18 months in a refugee camp, before being smuggled over the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo in the back of a lorry by an aid worker who had befriended Maria.

Though Maria does not say so, I later see documentation that suggests she was abused by the aid worker, who was white but whose nationality the girls did not know. Perhaps owing to a guilty conscience, he then took the two girls to an international airport and, using hastily acquired documents, accompanied them on a flight to London. From the airport he took them to a restaurant in east London, where he left them, saying he would return. When he did not come back, the girls were found crying by a customer who knew enough Portuguese to realise what had happened. She took them to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the Home Office, where they claimed asylum. Little over six months later their request was refused.

Like so many of the thousands of children who arrive alone in this country claiming asylum each year, many on the basis of appalling violence, deprivation and abuse they’ve suffered in their own countries, the two girls were held to be lying. As far as the government is concerned, the main reason nearly all have come here is to improve their education or standard of living.

The wording of the Home Office letter in which Maria and Madalea’s plea for safe refuge was refused illustrates how entrenched this culture of disbelief is. It throws into stark relief how some of the world’s most vulnerable children are treated on arrival here.

The girls’ account of being helped out of the country by a man the letter refers to as “the Good Samaritan” is dismissed as “implausible”. “She [Maria] would then have me believe that a complete stranger helped them,” it scoffs at their explanation of what happened when they sat crying in a restaurant after being abandoned. “It beggars belief,” the letter continues, that neither Maria, nor her legal representative or a medical professional, had “sought to elicit information” from Madalea about her experiences in the camp, nor have her “medically tested”. This takes no account of the fact that for two months the girls, whose only support initially came from the Refugee Council, repeatedly sought help at the offices of social services in the London borough where they were staying, and were refused.

As to what it calls Maria’s “alleged rape”, the letter says: “There was no evidence that she suffered untoward consequences like HIV

or sexually transmitted diseases. Even assuming she was raped, I do not find that it was for Refugee Convention reasons but for reasons of sexual gratification…” In other words, her rape did not contravene the Geneva convention, which defines a refugee as a person persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion – although her father was an opponent of the government. So, in the eyes of the immigration authorities, such abuse was not their concern.

A sinking feeling overwhelms me as I read the conclusion that the immigration official “does not accept” that returning them to Angola “to live in conditions, wretched as they are” would breach their human rights. Only when Maria leafs through her folder of correspondence from the Home Office and produces a more recent letter do I see that a year later, after two appeals, their account of what happened to them was finally believed and they were granted refugee status. Maria and Madalea are among the lucky few.

Of the 2,500-3,500 children who have arrived in this country seeking asylum alone every year for the past eight years, on average just 5% or fewer are granted permanent refuge. Most are brought on planes by adults they hardly know, and abandoned at airports before immigration control or later at the roadside, in restaurants or close to Home Office buildings. Others are smuggled in via ports and caught by immigration authorities or dumped by the road. They are usually brought in by agents paid by relatives or others, or by traffickers trying to sell them for domestic servitude or sexual exploitation.

Until now, most such children have been given leave to remain in the UK until they are 18, after which, like unsuccessful adult asylum seekers, they are liable to “removal” . But this temporary safety net now looks set to be taken away from thousands of children from some of the world’s poorest and most dangerous countries, such as Angola and Congo, and from Vietnam, where children are particularly vulnerable to being trafficked abroad. Plans are being drawn up to repatriate children from these countries once their asylum claims are rejected and appeals denied. This is part of the government drive to step up removals amid mounting pressure over immigration controls, which culminated in the home secretary John Reid’s admission that the Immigration and Nationality Directorate was “not fit for purpose” in the wake of the foreign-prisoners scandal. If such a “pilot project” is deemed a success, child-protection experts fear it will mean the start of children from many more countries being swiftly dispatched back home.

I set out to speak to 10 youngsters – the average number arriving alone seeking refuge every day in this country – from the three countries initially targeted, to hear their stories and put names and faces to that stark statistic. Finding those willing to speak is no easy matter. Many are afraid. Since news of the government plan leaked out several months ago, some have gone on the run out of fear they will be returned. Of those I meet in different parts of the country – four boys, four girls and two young women, including Maria, who arrived here as children – only Maria and Madalea have been granted asylum. Half have already received the standard letter sent out to failed asylum seekers offering them financial incentives worth around £3,000 to go home voluntarily before risking arrest.

When I listen to the children’s stories it becomes clear – as the British charities that work with them say – that the government views them as foreigners first, children second. That is if they are seen as children at all. Their passports frequently having been kept by those who bring them into this country, many cannot prove their age. In recent years, growing numbers are not even believed when they say how old they are. Many are wrongly deemed to be already adult, often after little more than a swift visual assessment by immigration officials..

Such age disputes have serious implications for the level of support the children receive. Those who are believed when they say they are 16 or under are placed in the care of social services, many of them with foster families. Those aged 16 to 18 receive more limited support in bed-and-breakfast accommodation or shared housing, and can gain some access to further education, while those who are deemed to be adults receive the most basic support and face being sent to immigration detention centres, where it is prohibited for children to be held.

Maria, for instance, was initially held to be lying about her age and told she must be “at least 18” on the basis, she says, “that they didn’t believe a 16-year-old would be able to look after my niece the way I did”. Even when social services did finally help, she was treated as an adult, left to care for her young niece alone in a hostel, then put in a shared house with adult asylum seekers. “It was terrible,” she says. “As a child you know your age, but they don’t even believe that.”

“The culture of disbelief is so widespread that these children are thought of just as people who have been sent by their parents to get a job or an education,” says Nadine Finch, a barrister and co-author of the recent report Seeking Asylum Alone, partly sponsored by Harvard University.

“All too often the children are not held to be credible because what they have gone through is beyond the experience of the person assessing them,” says Sheila Melzak, principal child and adolescent psychotherapist at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, which counsels hundreds of such children every year. “There is this dance that goes on between adults who don’t want to hear and don’t want to think about a child experiencing grotesque violence, and the children themselves, who don’t want to, or are unable to, speak about what they have gone through.” The halting steps children take in such a dance begin to fall into a familiar pattern, marked by long silences during painful recollections.

Hien is unable to keep still as he talks hesitantly of how he arrived here at the age of 11. “It’s hard to remember if I was in a happy place in Vietnam,” he says, fiddling with his anorak zip. “I know I did not feel safe. I was taken to a family and asked to do housework and sell bricks.” This is all he will say of the people his aunt left him with after taking care of him for six years following the death of his mother, father and sister in a flood when he was five years old. One day his aunt returned, he says, and told him he was going “on holiday”. Thinking she was going with him, he was taken to an airport and handed over to strangers, who brought him to the UK with a group of four or five others.

After a night in a hotel, he says, he was taken to a house “full of Vietnamese”, then driven to a town in the West Midlands, dropped at the roadside and told to wait until someone came to pick him up. “I was really scared,” says Hien, who had no idea where he was. When nobody came, he went up to a passer-by, a woman he describes as “looking Chinese”, for help. She took him to the police. They referred him to the immigration authorities. An asylum appeal was lodged before he was placed with a foster family.

There are striking similarities between Hien’s early life and that of 17-year-old Viet, whom I meet at the same location on the outskirts of Birmingham. Viet’s family was also drowned when he was young and, after being looked after for several years by a neighbour who he says did not treat him well, he made his way to Hanoi, where he scraped a living cleaning pots and sweeping floors in a street market. It was there that a stranger found him sleeping under a market stall, took him home and, after several weeks, told him he was going to a “better” country. “I thought he was a good man, but now I think he sold me. Sometimes I worry he will still try to find me,” says the teenager with spiky dyed-blonde hair and low-slung jeans.

Viet’s journey to the UK was more tortuous than Hien’s. After being flown to Russia, he was squashed into the back of a series of lorries for an overland journey to this country lasting several months. “One day I was in the back of a lorry full of wooden boxes. The door opened and I saw we were in an area of many trees. From there I was taken by bus to a city and left by the road and told to wait until someone came to collect me. But I was too scared to wait… I asked some people to take me to the police.” Viet, then 15, was put in a police cell for the night before being taken to the same immigration centre as Hien, where a statement was taken before he was placed in a hostel with two other boys seeking asylum.

Both Hien and Viet describe coming from “poor” families. The possibility that they were trafficked seems very real. Christine Beddoe, the director of the anti-child-prostitution and anti-trafficking group Ecpat, identifies Vietnam as a “very high-risk country” for traffickers. “It’s pretty outrageous that the government should be even considering sending children back to Vietnam, where we know there would be a very considerable risk of them being re-trafficked.”

It was partly in an attempt to crack down on trafficking that a national register was recently set up to log the whereabouts of children who arrive unaccompanied seeking asylum. But Beddoe warns that hundreds of children are still “going missing” – slipping from the care of the local authority that registered them. Many are not even registered, disappearing within 24 hours of coming to the attention of social services. Some are believed to be quickly tracked down by the traffickers who brought them here.

Some children do not come to the attention of local authorities until suspicions are aroused that they are being abused. Anh was referred to social services only after teachers noticed how tired and hungry she was. She will say little about her background in Vietnam before she arrived in the UK at 14 – only that she has no idea if her mother and handicapped older sister are still alive and that “police often visited” her father. When she was brought here by a man her father had handed her over to, he abandoned her before passing through immigration control at a London airport, leaving her with only the telephone number of a friend of her father – someone she had never met.

Speaking no English, she was detained by immigration control and, after 24 hours, asked if she was happy to go to live with her father’s friend; not knowing what else to do, she went. Anh was taken by him to claim asylum, but was told she looked 18, not 14, so would have to go through the asylum procedure as an adult, which meant she had to make a statement of why she was claiming refuge directly to immigration officials, rather than being able to submit the statement with a lawyer’s help. Her claim was refused, though her age was believed on a subsequent appeal and she started school. When her father’s friend separated from his wife, Anh was made to sleep under a table by his wife, and only given scraps to eat. Anh is now studying to be a nurse, but has just turned 18 and knows she is liable for deportation. “I am afraid,” she says. “I don’t know what is going to happen to me.”

Although children who are trafficked are victims, often of organised crime gangs, this does not entitle them to protection as refugees under the Geneva convention. For this reason, and because the experiences of many children who arrive do not fit easily within the terms of the convention, child-protection experts are calling for their claims to be assessed in a broader way that takes into account child-specific forms of persecution, such as child exploitation and the recruitment of child soldiers. While they do not claim that it is never in the best interests of children to be returned to their home country, every child, they stress, should be assessed much more carefully than is the case at present.

Those children who need it, they argue, should be given longer than the standard four weeks – compared with 10 days for adults – to disclose through a lawyer in a written statement what has happened to them. They should also be allocated their own legal guardian to protect their interests during the asylum procedure, rather than, as at present, having their fate left in the hands of immigration officials who start from the presumption that most are lying.

As I listen to Hien, Viet and Anh, I recall the words of Rhona Blackwood of Save the Children that “children are often given a story to tell by the person who brings them to this country, and these stories can be quite similar, while the true story of what has happened only emerges slowly and is often much more relevant in terms of asylum”.

Sheila Melzak has worked with traumatised children for 17 years. She stresses that boys in particular find it difficult to speak up: none of the adolescent boys she has counselled has been able to divulge that he has been sexually abused or raped until she has worked with him for at least six months: “Many children come from cultures where their private experiences are so perverse they simply cannot speak of them.”

Oswaldo has a haunted look when he says: “I think they don’t know what I have been through. If they did, they would never consider sending me back.” The 17-year-old Angolan has struggled to reveal the extent of the trauma he suffered before arriving in the UK. His father, an outspoken critic of the government, was killed after being arrested on suspicion of possessing material that would compromise a leading politician.

Oswaldo was arrested and tortured in prison before a friend of his father secured his release and paid for a flight to the UK. Yet he is one of those who has recently received a letter offering him money to return to Angola after his request for asylum was turned down. “How could they believe any amount of money would make me want to go back?” he says through an interpreter.

Antonio, also from Angola, who arrived in the UK at the age of 13, says: “I don’t like to talk, or even think, about what happened before I came here.” The broad-shouldered 16-year-old is full of swagger and bravado as he kicks a ball around with friends. But when we sit quietly to talk, he fights back tears as he explains how his parents were taken away by soldiers when he was just six, and his elder brother was recruited as a child soldier. Antonio spent the next seven years in a refugee camp until friends of his parents arranged to bring him here. One accompanied him on a flight to London and took him to an immigration office, where he was refused asylum but given leave to remain until the age of 18. He has since been living with a foster family but knows he now faces being returned.

In contrast with the reticent Oswaldo and Antonio, Mami, 17, from Congo launches straight into some of the most wretched details of her abuse by soldiers. Mami, whose mother had been killed by soldiers when she was 10, was arrested after her stepfather forced her to attend an opposition rally. “I was afraid they would kill me like they did my mother,” she says. “The soldiers kept taking me away at night. But one who came did not touch me. He said that he had a daughter the same age as me. He helped me.”

The sisters Vanessa, 17, and Aurelie, 15, also from Congo, talk only of the day their father’s body was brought to their house and their mother collapsed before being taken away by soldiers. “She was kidnapped; I don’t know where she is,” says Vanessa. “You know she’s dead,” says Aurelie, abruptly leaving the room as her sister sits with tears rolling down her cheeks. They say they were brought here two years ago by a friend of the priest at the church their family attended. They too have been refused asylum. All have been sent letters offering financial incentives to leave.

When I explain a little of what I am writing about to the taxi driver who takes me to the church hall in east London where I meet the sisters, his response is: “Shit happens everywhere. I bet these kids know more scams than any of us brought up in this country.” It is hard not to conclude that, as far as the majority of children who arrive here alone are concerned, many immigration officials hold a similar view.

The Home Office stresses its proposal to return many of these children is still “at an early stage”. But if the scheme is introduced – and many child advocates are convinced it is only a matter of time – it confirms that it would “most likely be applied to those already in the country”, not just new arrivals. Since the 1971 Immigration Act includes the provision that unaccompanied children whose asylum request and all appeals have been refused can be returned if “adequate reception and care arrangements are in place in the country to which the child is to be removed”, the scheme would not require new legislation. It could be implemented with speed if such arrangements could be proved to exist.

The Home Office insists the proposal is “not far advanced”, yet a team of its experts is known to have visited Congo, Angola and Vietnam in the past year, the last twice, to assess the suitability of various reception centres if they were provided with extra British funding. The Home Office says only that the visits were “fact-finding opportunities to see how to take things forward”.

In Congo the team is understood to have discussed funding an Italian monastic order in Kinshasa to look after returned children. In Vietnam the option being considered is to return children to state-run orphanages. Jeremy Stoner, director for Save the Children in Vietnam, who met the Home Office team, points out that traffickers are suspected of having drawn children from state orphanages in the past. “If those children were trafficked to the UK in the first place, there is a considerable risk they would be re-trafficked,” he stresses. “We are very concerned about this. We do not feel it would be appropriate in any context.”

The Home Office says Vietnam, Congo and Angola were chosen because of the large and growing numbers of children coming from these countries. Yet numbers from all three declined in 2005 – to 120 compared with 185 in 2004 from Vietnam; 145 compared with 150 from Congo; and 35 compared with 60 from Angola. The countries from which the greatest numbers have come in recent years are Afghanistan (530 in 2005), Iran (450), Somalia (235), Eritrea (195) and Iraq (170). The Home Office may balk now at returning children to countries with which we have tense diplomatic relations, or which we have recently bombed or which are in the throes of ethnic slaughter, anarchy and famine. But what does it say of its ethics that it does consider returning them to Congo, a country emerging from a civil war that has claimed the lives of 3m and where sexual violence against women and children has been widely used as a weapon of war, and to Angola, recently ranked by Unicef as one of the worst places in the world to be a child?

If you adopt the same degree of cynicism towards the motives of the Home Office as it does towards these children, you might simply conclude that they are easy targets. Unlike many of the estimated 250,000 illegal immigrants in this country, the government knows where these children are. (Apart, that is, from those who have “disappeared” from the system.) They are with foster families or in supported housing, and most are receiving some kind of education, perhaps for the first time. Many are beginning to nurture hopes about the future. Anh, Mami and Aurelie dream of becoming nurses. Oswaldo wants to become a computer engineer, Antonio a sports teacher. Hien says he wants to be an astronaut.

As with other recent proposals to move child asylum seekers to parts of the country where they can be looked after more cheaply, there is little doubt that the main reason for the proposed return of such children is cost. “This is being driven by concerns about the expense of looking after children the government doesn’t think should be here in the first place,” says Syd Bolton, the legal and policy officer for children at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. “But what price do you put on the life of a child?”

What beggars belief is not that a teenage girl who has seen her father murdered and been repeatedly raped and beaten will not pressure her equally traumatised younger niece to speak about the horrors she has gone through. What beggars belief is that we, one of the richest countries in the world, treat some of the world’s most vulnerable children in such a callous way and are now considering washing our hands of them even further.