Last week I got a call from a couple I’d not seen for five years. They had been in hiding for the last ten years and on the run for three before that.
‘It’s finally happened,’ said Jack. ‘After thirteen years we’ve been given the all clear by Special Branch. We’re coming out.’
The police had decided, he explained excitedly, that there was no longer ‘any credible threat to our lives’. This didn’t mean they were going back to their old home town of Leeds. Or even revealing where they live now. But, after three sets of name changes, and one complete identity transfer, they were being given leave to get off the Witness Relocation Scheme (WRS) they’d been on since 1993. They could begin the process of returning to their old, real identities.
I could hear Jack’s wife Zena clattering around in the background. Now she came on the phone, with that familiar irrepressible laugh, that same broad Yorkshire accent. What exactly does this mean, I asked her. ‘No more lying and hiding in corners,’ she told me. ‘We’re taking back our lives.’
Who are these people, you may be wondering. Mass murderers, super-grasses, witnesses to some unspeakable crime? No. Jack and Zena, as I shall still have to call them, did nothing more dreadful that fall in love.
I first met them almost exactly ten years ago, in the private back room of a London club. They were a striking couple: Jack white, wiry, shaven-headed; Zena, a decade-younger Bollywood beauty, with long black hair and a lovely smile. At that point they had been on the run for three years. It showed. Jack’s pale blue eyes had the look of a trapped animal; as she held her teacup Zena’s hand shook visibly.
With them was the hostage John McCarthy. Hiding in a run-down flat in a remote part of Norfolk they had written, in desperation, to four public figures outlining their situation: Peter Lilley, then in charge of Social Security; Tony Blair, the new leader of the Labour Party; Terry Waite; and John McCarthy. The first two hadn’t replied. Waite had written back to them and offered his help; McCarthy had actively taken up their case.
As we sat drinking tea, they told me their shocking story. They had lived in nearby districts in multi-racial, inner-city Leeds (in due course to produce three of the July 7th bombers). In the long hot summer of 1992 they had seen each other around, made friends, then slowly fallen in love. By late autumn Jack was proposing marriage, but Zena knew this was impossible, as she was already promised to a man from Kashmir. Though from the two meetings she’d had with him she knew she didn’t want to spend her life with him: quite apart from being a hill farmer from a foreign country, Bilal spoke little English, and was, in her words, ‘arrogant and old-fashioned’.
So one cold night in January 1993 they eloped together. In a scene worthy of a movie, Zena lowered her cases on torn sheets from her top floor bedroom while her father slept below. As they sped away on the train south, she was aware she had done a wrong thing, but neither she nor Jack were ready for the family’s reaction. When she phoned home to tell her beloved father she was OK, he told her coldly that she was now dead to him. The family, he told her, had hired a private detective and a bounty hunter to track them down. Her brothers warned Jack that if they caught up with them they’d be ‘in bin bags’.
So Jack and Zena began an extraordinary life on the run, pursued by Zena’s family, who stopped at nothing to try and get her back. The brothers managed to get access to secure DSS computers to track them down; they laid a false theft charge against her, which resulted in her being arrested and nearly returned to them; they smashed the windows of Jack’s elderly mother’s flat in an attempt to intimidate her into revealing her son’s whereabouts. Meanwhile Jack and Zena searched in vain for sanctuary. One by one the agencies that could – and should – have helped them let them down. The police, the DSS, Victim Support. The couple ran from Huddersfield to Cleethorpes to Grimsby to Lincoln to the Isle of Wight to Portsmouth and on.
That afternoon I agreed to ghost-write their story. We all hoped that a book could help them. If people read about this, surely they would be up in arms, something would be done: not just for them, but for the many other young Asian women Zena insisted were in similar positions.
Just over a year later, in August 1997, Jack and Zena was ready. All of us were hoping for a splash. Who knows, I thought naively, maybe there’d be a reconciliation - or some other happy ending. But the Fates were against them. The day before publication Princess Diana’s car crashed in a Paris underpass and our UK publicity campaign was history. As one editor told me, ‘There’s only so much compassion to go around.’ Jack and Zena themselves, now settled in a new town with furniture they’d bought with the advance, were typically generous. ‘We’d rather the two boys had their mother,’ they said. As for Zena’s family, when they wrote to her and Jack at the publishers, it was to disown them finally.
Though the book was never a bestseller, the issue had been raised. And people wanted to talk to Jack and Zena, from all walks of life. They received a mass of supportive letters for which they remain deeply grateful. They started to meet sympathetic public figures, including Andy McNab, who told Jack that as far as security was concerned, ‘there’s nothing more I can teach you.’ The book sold around the world, and the pair did promotional tours in Norway and Germany, where it made the top ten. One of the Bertlesmann publishers even offered to sponsor them for asylum in Germany. ‘I thought,’ says Jack, ‘How bizarre is this? Two people born and raised in England, having to seek asylum in Germany. We still had high hopes that things were going to change – that we were going to be able to live freely as a married couple in our own country.’
For the time being they were doing all their interviews in both disguise and silhouette; they were photographed from behind, Zena wearing a tight headscarf, Jack in a wig that they nicknamed ‘the Thing’. ‘It was absolutely terrifying,’ says Jack now, ‘because we were going from living in hiding to maximum public exposure. But we just thought, the more we put out, the more chance we had of a political figure coming forward to help us.’ In February 1998 their predicament was featured on the BBC’s Inside Story. ‘We sat with baited breath, waiting for something to happen. But nothing did.'
By now their advance had run out. They were back on benefit, having to move to a cheaper property in the same city, with the added complication that they had still had false identities, so every change they made had to be referred to Special Branch. Attempts to get work were made near to impossible by their having no CV, references, or, in the lingo of the WRS, legend – a credible work and social history. ‘If we’d been two criminals who’d testified against a gangland boss,’ Jack says, ‘we’d have been given everything.’ But this key element was repeatedly denied these particular fugitives. It put them in a Catch-22 situation. If they didn’t reveal their true story, they had no CV or references. If they did, employers were naturally put off. ‘One boss told me he couldn’t employ me because of the death threat.’
As Jack and Zena continued their penniless, claustrophobic life in hiding, the issue of Forced Marriage was gradually gaining profile. In the summer of 1998, the couple met the MP for Keighley, Ann Cryer, at a TV debate on the subject. They told her their story, and she, shocked, agreed to pass on a copy of the book to the Home Secretary. They never heard from Jack Straw, but in Feb 1999 Cryer instigated a debate in the Commons on Forced Marriages, holding up and quoting from Jack and Zena, an event which the couple watched excitedly in their front room on the Nine O’Clock News.
Shortly after that they were called up to the House of Commons to meet Mike O’Brien, the Home Office minister charged with preparing a report on the Forced Marriages issue, along with the Asian peer Baroness Uddin. Jack had been hoping that their immediate and crippling problem with the WRS legend was finally going to be addressed – and at a high level. But it turned out that the meeting was about ‘the bigger picture’ of what to do about forced marriages. Jack, tenacious as ever, tried to get O’Brien to help them, but failed. The general issue, it seemed, was more important to the politicians than the individual case.
As Jack and Zena continued to move haplessly from flat to flat, at one point ending up back in DSS Bed and Breakfast, their problems increased by the very police officers who could have helped them, the issue of Forced Marriages continued to rise up the political agenda. In 1998, Rukshana Naz, a 19 year old Asian woman from Derby, pregnant by a man not her arranged husband, was held down by her mother while her brother strangled her. After their trial and conviction in May 1999, the publicity this case received showed even the greatest doubters that this was genuinely a life-and-death issue.
Jack, meanwhile, had been admitted to Ticehurst House psychiatric hospital with a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While he was in there a fellow patient came up to him.‘What are you in for?’ she asked. He told her. ‘Am I the only one in here who’s been abducted by aliens?’ she replied. ‘Even though I was shaking like a Kenwood Mixer at the time,’ he says, ‘I thought: you’re hanging on a bush on the precipice, you haven’t hit rock bottom.’
Perhaps it was this shared sense of humour that saved them. I went down to visit them shortly after this and found them in – it seemed to me – a shocking state, living on top of each other 24/7, Jack still fearful if Zena was gone for more than ten minutes, their bags packed, a baseball bat still by the bed. To me, it seemed that they had been picked up and dropped so many times, by so many initially well-meaning agencies and individuals, that they had lost faith. It was a shock, but hardly a surprise, when I heard in 2002 that they were planning to split up. ‘It wasn’t that the love had gone,’ says Zena now, ‘I think our anger against the system just turned inwards.’
Somehow they worked it through. Zena finally managed to get a job, which she clearly loves. Jack saw counsellors and weaned himself off, first the Diazepam tranquillisers he’d been using for five years, then his second demon, alcohol. Then, finally, in 2004, he got a break. With Forced Marriages now a crucial issue for the police, he was asked to give a talk about his experiences to an audience of 300 senior officers at Scotland Yard. Even though he harangued them about the shoddy treatment he and Zena had received from certain police departments, he got a standing ovation. He was asked to join a police team to address a conference in Sweden (after which he had an audience with the Queen). He was a key speaker at the International Police Conference on Honour Based Violence in London in Mar 2005. After addressing another police conference in the West Midlands, he was summoned to the House of Lords to advise the Lib Dem Peer, Lord Russell-Johnston, for the debate on honour killings in December 2005. He smiles proudly as he shows me the framed photos of the Sweden conference, with himself in a line-up with the other officers.
Though the pair are grateful for Special Branch’s optimistic analysis, they are not going to drop their defences entirely. ‘We know the threat is still there, to some degree,’ says Zena. For the time being they’ll continue to be Jack and Zena in public. And they won’t go back to Leeds. ‘I mean Salman Rushdie doesn’t take his summer holidays in Iran, does he?’ laughs Zena.
As we sit eating fish and chips and mushy peas in their front room I ask what this ‘coming out’ means practically. Would they ever consider recontacting Zena’s family?
‘At the end of the day,’ says Jack, ‘my gut feeling is, they still love her. But the pressures they’re coming under from their community are immense. I can say I forgive them, for what they’ve done, but I can never forget. Zena’s spent a third of her life in hiding now. I don’t believe in reconciliation. Not in cases like ours. It’s too risky. People have lost their lives.’
‘No,’ agrees Zena, ‘it can never happen. If they ever got in touch with us we’d want to know why. You don’t just put thirteen years aside. It’s physically and mentally built into you.’
So what about their future? Will they ever, for example, feel safe enough to try for children?
‘I don’t think I could really have children,’ says Zena, ‘because they’d have two legacies – and they’d never know mine, would they? It would be a part that would always be hidden from them. I couldn’t be that selfish, I don’t think.’
Jack nods and meets my eye. ‘Mark, we can’t even have a pet, let alone children.’
‘If we had to get up and leave suddenly, ’ says Zena, laughing now, ‘through that window, who would look after it?’
Despite their best hopes, it seems that their dream of a simple normal life is still some way off.
Jack and Zena – a True Story, published by Orion, is now available in paperback under the title Runaways.
You can contact Jack and Zena at firstname.lastname@example.org