Surrey, B.C.—Is Saren Azer a criminal? Or is he a protective father with a just cause?
And until a judge or jury decide, should we even be telling his story?
In nearly five decades of working as a journalist, this is the most difficult story I’ve ever covered. I can’t answer questions one and two, and question three takes us to the dilemma at the heart of the news profession: Most of the time, on most stories, we are working in a grey zone, where the truth is as elusive as lightning.
Still, I believe it’s a story worth trying to tell.
Saren Azer, a Kurdish Canadian citizen, is an international fugitive. He’s wanted by the RCMP and Interpol for abducting his four children a year ago, and spiriting them to Iran where they now live. His ex-wife Alison Azer, distraught and angry, has criticized Prime Minister Trudeau for not doing enough to get the children back to Canada.
Azer says he took the children away because they were being subjected to the “nightmare” of a rancorous three-year custody fight that was damaging them physically and psychologically.
A year has gone by, and he wants all the attention around the case to stop. In a telephone interview last week from Iran, Azer told me: “I heard from the RCMP that they have 40 more cases of quote unquote kidnapping. How many of those were made a day to day story in the media? How many have made it to Interpol? I am not missing, my children are not missing.”
He said the charges against him are “racially and ethnically motivated.”
“ I think if I was a white North American and I was to take my children to another country, Interpol would not bother to come after me. But being Muslim, Middle Eastern, yes I think that's the way.”
But there are other reasons why the Azer child abduction has become such a headline-grabbing story. First, it touches on Canada’s relations (or non-relations) with Iran. Simply put, Ottawa has no leverage with Tehran since the Harper government broke off diplomatic relations in 2012. Second, a new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was drawn into a highly emotional social media campaign by Alison, who demanded the he “pick up the phone” and talk to Iranian president Rouhani. Trudeau never made the call.
And there’s the larger-than-life personalities of the two parents at the centre in this domestic drama: Alison, a media-savvy Courtenay, BC, woman who’s raised $140,000 and a whirlwind of media support in her campaign to bring the children back; and Saren, a prize-winning medical researcher and humanitarian doctor praised by people like Stephen Harper for his work with refugees in northern Iraq.
Finally, there’s the unanswered question of what accommodations Azer has made with the Iranian authorities in his new home—given that this is the country he had to flee more than two decades ago because of his pro-Kurdish activities. As David Pugliese of the Ottawa Citizen reported, Azer told Canadian authorities in 1994 that he faced execution in Iran, and that was the basis for his refugee application at the time.
According to Pugliese, “Azer told journalists he had a 10-centimetre scar on his stomach from the iron bar beatings he received in prison. He also claimed the Iranians tortured him with electric shocks and high-pressure water because he advocated Kurdish writings and poetry. . . . The next year, he was granted refugee status, based on his torture claims.”
Today, Azer won’t talk about what he calls “politics”. He insists that he and the children are perfectly safe in Iran. We’ve heard nothing from the four children, aged 4 to 12, but we’ve seen videos and photos of them playing happily, and celebrating birthdays in their school in northern Iran. Azer says they are assimilating well, learning to speak Kurdish and Farsi and making new friends. He says they are healthy, don’t miss their mother, and that they are happy to be away from the turmoil of the custody fight. (I’ve not been able to confirm any of these things.)
I became a small part of the story last year, just a few weeks after Azer abducted the children during a court-sanctioned holiday in Europe. I requested an interview with Alison, who was getting all the media attention, and she declined. So I contacted a Calgary woman who was close to Azer and the children—she’d been their unofficial “nanny”-- and I found Azer’s brother Kamal, also in Calgary.
When we met, their version of events leading up to Azer’s abduction of the children was radically different from the story that Alison was telling. They portrayed Saren and the children as victims in the narrative, and they gave me copies of legal, police and medical documents which they feel support their case.
They also gave me Azer’s cel phone number in Iran, and after looking into my professional background, told me I was the only reporter he would agree to talk to.
For a reporter, this kind of exclusive access is a mixed blessing. You have an immediate advantage over other reporters working the story. But you also risk being seen as a gatekeeper, or even an apologist. How can you be sure you’re not being exploited? How can you fairly tell both sides of the story?
I soon discovered how this could become an issue. When I learned about Azer’s precise whereabouts in the Middle East, I again reached out to Alison’s media handler to share this fresh information, and to put some questions to her. In response, she contacted my employer at the time, and criticized my ethics as a journalist. She felt that I was using this information as leverage to secure an interview she didn’t want to do. In her eyes, I was clearly in the enemy camp.
This was not enough to put me off the story. However, I had to be careful. Normally, the identities of children in a domestic dispute are protected, but photos of the Azer children were all over Facebook and Twitter, in the social media blitz organized by Alison. It was a narrative of four kids ruthlessly torn from their mother, and taken to a Middle East war zone by an impetuous and reckless father. Alison spoke darkly about her fears that the kids would be brought back in body bags, or recruited as suicide bombers.
Nonsense, said Azer. He told me the children were never in any danger during their exodus, and that the real “war zone” in their lives was Canada, where they’d been subjected to endless RCMP interviews, and examinations by psychologists and the ministry of family services. In Iran, he said, they were allowed to be children again. “Their world is the world of a child,” is how he puts it.
How true is this? Azer and the children did spend some time in the Qandil Mountains of Northern Iraq, a stronghold of the Kurdish PKK group whose villages were being targeted by Turkish bombers. So they were, in fact, in a real war zone.
And when I said I’d like to talk to the eldest child, 12-year-old Sharvahn, and ask how she felt about being separated from her mother and her life in Canada, Azer refused point-blank. He didn’t want her to be drawn into the social media frenzy at the time, he said. Instead, he invited me to come and visit him and the kids in Iran, to see for myself how they were adapting.
I can understand the instinct of a protective father. But once again, I was unable to satisfy myself on a key question: Can a young child or adolescent really “switch off” on a mother that abruptly? Furthermore, who was I to ask a 12-year-old this loaded question, and evaluate her answer?
Lastly, there’s the matter of those documents I spoke about earlier, the police memos, and the medical findings and family ministry reports—incomplete scraps of confidential material about a broken relationship between a man and a woman, and the health issues of their children. How much of this can ethically be made public? Is this news, or an invasion of privacy?
With their actions and statements, Alison and Saren Azer have propelled this story into the news cycle. They have, for better or worse, made a deeply private crisis a matter for public consumption. And journalists like me are asked, in a sense, to adjudicate—to tell a credible story that respects the limited facts we are given, and that is fair to both sides.
Both parents have their version of the truth, and I, the reporter, have an approximation. But it’s the children, silent now, who alone can tell us the truest story, and what it can teach us. And it will be years before we hear their story.