This is a story about an Estonian citizen and how her former husband, a Russian citizen, abducted her children. The mother tried to collect her children from North Caucasus – a place the Estonian foreign ministry suggests you avoid – but ended up being abducted herself. When she escaped, local law enforcement labeled her a terrorist. A Russian court has decided that the children need to be returned to their mother, while nothing has changed. Both Russian and Estonian authorities remain helpless onlookers to the tragedy that has lasted for four years.
“It has been very difficult for me emotionally. Especially when I first went home… (Bursts into tears before drying her eyes – G. B.) … and saw the children’s things.
“I’m much calmer now. I’m used to it. I go about my business, meet friends, go to work. It helps keep my mind off it. Without those things, I would probably just lose my mind. I cannot help but feel sad when my lawyer gives me news of the children… or when I look at old photos of us on my phone.”
Postimees will not disclose the woman’s real name or those of her two children and ex-husband. Many of her acquaintances have no idea what she has gone through. Therefore, we will simply call her Leila.
Leila grew up in Estonia. She has worked her way to the top, has a good job and speaks perfect Estonian, even though it is not her mother tongue. Our conversation takes place in Russian.
Perhaps a shrewder observer would suggest she is from the Caucasus based on her eyes, but there is hardly anything else to suggest it. There is also nothing that betrays her great pain.
Not only did her ex-husband abduct her children and take them to Dagestan, Leila was forced to spend years in an unhappy forced marriage Estonian officials cannot do anything about. It was arranged by her traditional father, and the young woman obeyed.
Even though it was clearly difficult for Leila to tell her story – we had to make several pauses so she could compose herself – she got through it, so people would understand what a mother or a father whose children have been abducted and taken abroad by their other parent go through. Leila is not the only such parent in Estonia.
Securing the return of an abducted child from abroad is difficult if not impossible. In addition to working against great distances and the clock, the parent who took the children usually poisons them against the other. In some countries, local authorities are of no use, and one must rely solely on one’s own mettle and hope.
Part 1. When Leila went to pick up her children from the kindergarten on the evening of February 4, 2016, she discovered they were not there. It turned out the kids’ father had taken them in the morning, having told the teacher he was taking them to the doctor.
“Even though our divorce was in its final stages by then, he occasionally picked them up. That is why the teachers did not worry or notify me. They did not find it dangerous,” Leila says. She hurried home. The children were not there.
“I called my husband to ask whether they were in the city. His phone was switched off. I heard from him half an hour later,” Leila recalls.
The man said he drove the children and his brother, living in Estonia at the time, to Saint Petersburg. He added that from there, they would be going to Dagestan to visit his parents.
“I asked him how he could do such a thing – without my consent. We hadn’t even discussed it,” Leila says.
Here she pauses, her eyes well up with tears and her voice trails off.
Negotiations were hopeless. She could not go to Russia straight away for lack of a visa. The paperwork took time.
“I called my lawyer the next day. She said it would be wise to notify the authorities. So I did.”
It later turned out that the children’s father had been planning the move with his family for some time. She got new Estonian passports for the children without Leila’s knowledge, saying the old ones had gone missing.
It is not clear at this time which passports – the children have double citizenship – were produced on the border as the couple was still officially married at the time. Joint custody of married parents means that the border guard assumes one parent has the other’s consent when crossing the border with children. That is why their mother’s consent was not verified at the time.
On top of everything, the father’s sister-in-law, Leila’s sister, stayed behind to convince her that if she wants to see her children again, she must go to Dagestan.
Part 2. Leila flew to Dagestan on March 3. Having arrived at her in-laws in the capital Makhachkala, she was told that she must stay with them if she wants to see her children in the future. Leila guessed the family was blackmailing her to remain in the arranged marriage.
On March 9, the message was driven home. Leila was taken to her bother-in-law’s apartment. Her husband’s brother, a policeman, pointed a gun at her and told her to forget about Estonia if she wants to be with her children. Next morning, Leila’s passport had been taken out of her purse.
“I was being monitored. I couldn’t go outside. I was not allowed to see the children,” Leila says.
It could not go on. Leila contacted the Estonian embassy in Moscow.
“I was told that if I saw a change to leave, I should take it, and if not, they would notify Russian authorities of the need to free me. But they added the latter might take some time.”
Leila eventually managed to escape her captors, largely by coincidence. None of the brothers who usually kept watch over her were around. Only the wife of one of them.
“It was necessary to go to the store around the corner. I told her I would be back. There was no chance to take the children with me.”
Leila had with her a phone, debit card and some cash. She went out wearing clothes worn around the house to see if luck would be on her side.
“I called a cab. I thought that if I could get one, I would go for it, and if not, I would return to the house,” she recalls.
The cab came.
Following the recommendation of the embassy, Leila headed west, to Chechnya where she could grab a flight to Moscow. She could not board a plane in Makhachkala because she didn’t have her travel documents. The Estonian foreign service was still in the process of preparing them.
Just like in a thriller, Leila switched taxis to cover her tracks.
Having arrived in Grozny, Leila checked into a hotel under a false name to wait for her papers.
Leila befriended a female administrator of the hotel and told her of the escape.
“She told me that if the police asked her about any new check-ins, she would be obligated to report me. But she invited me to stay with her and her mother because it was safer. As a former police operative, she knew it would be safer to fly to Moscow not from Grozny because by the time I’d receive my papers, they would already be looking for me in Chechnya, and I would be an easy target at the airport.”
There was plenty of cause for concern. Not only was Leila’s husband’s brother a policeman who could use his contacts all over North Caucasus, the Estonian citizen was declared a terrorist to make it easier to find her (there are a lot of rebels, also Islamists labelled terrorists in the area). Declaring someone a terrorist results in faster exchange of information but could end tragically for the person in question.
“I’ve read and heard that women who run away from their families can go missing without it producing any consequences. They can even bury you alive. The whole of North Caucasus lives like that,” Leila says.
Her eyes well up again. We take a break.
“A lot of time has passed since then, but I still cannot shake it.
In North Caucasus, a woman belongs with her family, with her husband and his parents in this case. Divorce is seen as shameful. A woman who chooses to seek a divorce brings shame on the family and could become the victim of an honor killing.
Her Chechnyan friend helped Leila make her way to Beslan in North Ossetia-Alania, from there to Moscow and on to Helsinki and eventually Estonia.
“I’m glad she helped me. I suppose Caucasian women help each other more often,” Leila says more optimistically.
It later turned out that Leila was tailed as far as Grozny by questioning the taxi drivers who had given her a ride.
Leila paid for her odyssey out of her own pocket. The foreign ministry said that if a citizen needs financial aid abroad, they must first turn to their relatives and friends.
“Estonian consuls or honorary consuls can contact a person’s loved ones and give advice on how to make transactions,” Liisa Toots, spokesperson for the ministry, explained. She added that consular aid might be difficult to come by in areas like the North Caucasus the Estonian foreign ministry discourages people from visiting.
Part 3. Back home, Leila decided she would not let sleeping dogs lie. It was summer and the divorce had gone through.
“I did not want to go through that nightmare again. I did not want to go by myself again, to try and get my children peacefully only to end up held against my will. I realized they were going to do this the hard way. Well, it is just customary there,” Leila says.
Leila hired Oksana Stadchikova, a custody specialist, as her lawyer in Russia. Her case came up at the Pyatigorsk court in Stavropol Krai that summer.
There, the other side went all out. It was claimed that Leila was a drunk. Next, she was described as a woman of loose morals. Even Leila’s sister – the one who had to convince her to go to Dagestan – was brought in to testify against her.
It took a toll on the woman. The court ignored attempts at slander and ruled that the children need to be returned to their mother.
It did not happen. The children’s father and his relatives simply ignored the ruling.
Turning to a bailiff did not help either.
Leila saw her children again last year, two years after the ruling. It was impossible during proceedings. The meeting happened thanks to Leila’s lawyer who managed to defend her right to see her kids. The meeting took place under the watchful eye of the children’s father and relatives.
“Oksana is a brilliant and professional lawyer. I don’t know what I would have done without her. But I could see my younger child had grown distant. It is understandable, so much time has passed. The older, who recognized me, was convinced not to talk to me. They were told their mother has abandoned them. When I asked a question, they looked at the family to see what they could answer,” Leila says.
She sighs: “They have turned the children against me.”
Part 4. Leila last saw her children on May 22 of this year. An agreement had been reached for her to be able to meet them. The meeting took place in the apartment of the ex-husband’s parents in Makhachkala. It turned out the children did not want to meet their mother.
“I suppose my ex-husband’s family wanted to do away with future meetings,” Leila believes.
Once the bailiff had once again shrugged and left the apartment, all hell broke loose. Former relatives threw verbal abuse at Leila and her lawyer. They repeated their old mantra that if Leila wants to be with her children, she needs to come live in Dagestan.
“Quite frankly, it is peculiar for me to hear people tell me where I must live,” Leila says.
The lawyer eventually called the police who took her and Leila away. They were thrown in the local jail where they spent several hours among other detainees.
“I’m often asked whether such conduct is widespread in North Caucasus. While I can honestly say it is different from other regions of the country, at the end of the day, it might happen anywhere in Russia,” Oksana Stadchikova says.
Part 5. Leila has spent a lot of money on legal assistance in Russia. The Estonian state can do nothing to support her.
“Because the application for the return of a child and the relevant decision are up to the country where the child was taken, administration of justice will follow that country’s laws – Estonia has no right to intervene,” said Anastasia Antonova from the Estonian justice ministry’s international legal cooperation department.
At first, Leila was alone and even had to take a loan from a bank, but she now has people who help her.
Leila could not have imagined her life would turn out like this in her worst nightmares. True, a marriage was arranged for her that was not her choice. She had to put up with her husband’s rough treatment and settle in as the family’s sole breadwinner while the man failed to contribute anything. But…
“I hoped he would change when we had children. That he would start taking family life seriously. Learn the language and get a job. But I was wrong,” Leila says.
Leila has stopped talking to her father who laid the foundation of her troubles by forcing her to marry.
She will not be renouncing her roots. “But how they treat women there is not right. No way.”
Leila has not given up either. She is not about to put up with getting to see her children only when her ex-husband allows it. “I want to get them out of there, just like the court ordered.”