x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Abducted or just missing? The day my sister disappeared

There's no feeling so awful as losing track of a little child who's been left in your charge.

Everything went wrong that day. In the morning, a Soviet-era lift, tiny and rusty, stalled with my cousin and me in it - it took two hours to get out. Later in the day, my parents' car broke down. And, worst of all, my 5-year-old sister went missing.

This happened about 18 years ago, during a summer stay in Poland, while we were visiting relatives in a different town.

As children, we loved the trip. We would hold "secret" club meetings in the forest, for which we knew we would be punished if our parents found out. "It is dangerous, don't go," they told us. The forest was haunted, it was filled with hungry animals, not to mention criminals, like those featured on the "most-wanted" show. Of course, all this made it an adventure and there was nowhere else we would rather play.

That day after lunch, all the adults had left to visit an elderly family member who was ill, leaving the older kids in charge. That meant me and three others, all in our early teens, while my sister was the youngest.

With no adults around, we took our chances and decided to head to the forest. But my sister and one of my older cousins didn't want to join us and stayed in the apartment. My sister went for a nap in a bedroom, and my cousin watched TV in the living room.

We sat in our usual spot in the forest, marked by a circle of rocks. I don't even remember what we did, but it was fun somehow, and we collected berries as well.

As it was getting dark, we decided to head home. And that is when we knew something was wrong. There were people at the bottom of our building, and the angriest of the lot were my parents.

Each of us was scolded, yelled at and even slapped for disappearing for hours - and into the forest, to make it worse. In the middle of this, my mother looked at me and asked: "Where is Lulu?" My sister.

A heavy feeling came over me, a quiet panic building. I said we had left her at home. My cousin had fallen asleep on the sofa, and when the adults came home, there was no sign of Lulu anywhere.

That is when all hell broke loose. My dad headed out with relatives and neighbours into the forest with flashlights, thinking maybe she had awakened and gone looking for us.

My mother and female relatives started going door to door, describing my sister and what she had been wearing. Lulu was in the habit of wearing a flower wreath in her hair, never leaving home without something pretty on her head.

You can't imagine the guilt, the fear and the panic that we felt. Why didn't we lock the door? Why didn't we just stay in? Why had we ever taken her to the forest in the first place? It was endless.

One of our relatives, a police chief in another city, even brought in sniffer dogs. People started talking - an escaped convict, a jailbreak earlier that month, a child killer - and of course my mother went into hysterics.

This all lasted until morning.

I recall collapsing with my cousin on the front lawn of the building. There were many of us just lying there the next morning, when who should come walking along the pavement towards our building but my sister. All smiles, she was holding the hand of a neighbour girl who was about 17 years old.

"Look!" my sister said, pointing to a new wreath in her hair. It was all screaming, yelling and hugging for a little while after that.

It turns out, she had woken up, met our neighbour, and they had gone shopping together. They stayed at a relative's house near the market. Remember, there were no mobile phones then and the neighbour girl didn't bother to use the landline.

We were just lucky to have a happy ending. Even in the UAE, we have stories today of people going missing in an age of communication gadgets of every kind.

Many years later, my brother disappeared for a little while, deliberately hiding to freak us out. I threatened to microchip him like we did our cats. Even that's not foolproof though. As our teenage neighbour found out, after being soundly scolded, there's no substitute for being considerate.

 

rghazal@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @Arabianmau