Cape Town - In the dusty and remote village of Tébessa, Algeria, a three-storey brick building looms over the surrounding sands. It is in this house that Gafsa Jacobs says her husband has kept her children for the past four months.
On Monday, after returning from a futile attempt to bring her two young sons home to Cape Town, the Rondebosch mother pointed to a picture of the building on her cellphone and told the Cape Argus: “My children are in there.”
She also claims that when she flew to Algeria late last month to bring the children home, her husband of 10 years – Imed Tag – an IT specialist, kept her and the children apart.
But Tag has flatly denied this, although he confirmed he no longer wanted to live in Cape Town nor have his children live here.
In an e-mail he sent to her, he said: “You are my wife , and I still want you as a wife and want you to come and live here with the kids in a country that will protect them far from many problems that South Africa has.”
The traumatic saga, which has seen Jacobs desperately fighting to bring her two sons back home, started as a family holiday.
Jacobs, joined by her sons Dhanyal, 6, and Sohail, 9, mother Janap, 83, and Algerian husband Tag, flew to the north African country in December to visit Tag’s family.
But plans for a three-week stay were prematurely cut short after Janap fell ill. Jacobs said life in Tébessa – a nine-hour drive from Algeria’s capital – had taken its toll on her mother.
She decided to take her mother back to Cape Town, leaving the children to enjoy the rest of their holiday with their father and his family.
But on January 8, the night before Tag and the children were set to fly home, Jacobs received an urgent phone call from Tag asking her to change the tickets because both children were sick.
“Every time they were meant to come back he called me, made a new excuse and asked me to change the tickets,” said Jacobs.
She complied with his requests, but she started to worry as their arrival was delayed by days and then weeks, and they were late for the beginning of this year’s first term at school.
Finally, on January 28, she received the e-mail she was dreading.
“He told me my sons weren’t coming back home… I felt cold, I couldn’t even speak.”
She pleaded with her husband, but she said he was unflinching.
“He said there was too much crime down here and he couldn’t live here anymore. He said it was unsafe.”
But last week, Jacobs thought she made a breakthrough – she understood that her husband had promised her she could take her sons back home if she returned to Algeria.
With her sister Aminah, Jacobs flew north and were warmly received at Tag’s family home. But that quickly changed when she announced she intended to leave with the children.
“Me and my sister were kept in a room together… We could never be out at the same time as my sons. If we came out they locked the children in another room.”
Jacobs sent a constant stream of SMSes to her brother Yacoob in Cape Town detailing her experiences:
* We ok. They didn’t give us food tonite. They eating alone now. Can’t believe this is Imed…
* Hulle het ni vi ons kos vanaand gegee nie. Ek wag tot dit safe is om weg to glip. Imed heeldag by hys vandag. (They didn’t give us food tonight. I’m waiting till it’s safe to slip away. Imed was home all day today.)
* Cooby dit is baie moeilik. Hul hou deur gesluit en haal sluitel uit. Ek en Aminah is buite en kids is binne. (Cooby it’s very difficult. They keep the door locked and take the key out. Aminah and I are outside and the kids inside.)
* Hulle wou ni he ek en Amina moet uitgaan ni. Toe laat sister ha kind saamgaan winkel toe.… Ons will ni wee in huis gaan. Kinners is binne huis. (They don’t want Aminah and me to go out… Children are in the house.)
After three days, Jacobs and her sister managed to lose their escorts and leave.
Jacobs said she tried to bring her sons with her, but they were behind a locked door and the room’s window was barred.
Jacobs and her sister caught a bus to Algeria’s capital, Algiers, where they immediately got hold of the South African embassy.
But Jacobs and her family admitted there had been little traction in bringing her children back.
She said her husband kept making and breaking promises, one minute telling her he would send the boys home and the next begging her to join him permanently in Algeria because the children were staying.
Jacob’s cousin, Sedick Crombie, said he was appealing to the national government to support the family and help bring Jacobs’s sons back home.
Speaking from Algeria on Monday, Tag admitted the trip had started off as a family holiday, but he felt he had not done anything wrong. He said he and Jacobs had discussed leaving South Africa on many occasions. He said the environment in Cape Town, populated by Jacobs’s “controlling family”, had been incredibly damaging for his sons.
Leaving the country was the only solution he could think of. He denied many parts of Jacobs’s story, saying he never kept the children away from her. He had even hired a taxi to ferry her in and out of town. He said his children were happy and going to school.
He said he had told his wife that coming back to Cape Town was not an option, but that she could choose anywhere else in the world to call home whether it was the UK, the US or Algeria.