“Without Honour – the True Story of the Shafia Family and the Kingston Canal Murders”, by Rob Tripp, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., Toronto, 2012, 354 pages
This is not a crime novel. It is, as the title affirms, a true story. On June 30, 2009, three young women – three young women who were sisters, one 19, one 17, and one 13, and their “step-mother” who was 50, that makes four women, or perhaps three women and one child - were found dead in a submerged car in a shallow canal near the city of Kingston in Canada. Today the girls’ biological parents, Mohammad Shafia and Tooba Yahya Shafia, and a brother, Hamed Shafia, who was 18 at the time, are in prison for first degree murder. The older woman in the car was Rona Amir Shafia, the father’s barren wife of 31 years. Tooba, his second wife, is the mother of the three dead girls, Hamed, and three younger children, two girls and a boy, who survive. Survive?
Kingston is half way between Montreal and Toronto. I have been there often. The Shafia family lived in Montreal. I live there too. Familiarity, however, has nothing to do with my profound interest in this story. What draws me in is quite the reverse – it is the unfamiliarity with the human behaviour that manifested itself in the incomprehensible details that floated up from this sunken vehicle with its heart breaking treasure, four lovely human beings, dead.
I followed this story from the moment I heard about it. I pictured the canal, the locks. How did the car get there? What happened? The police and other investigators couldn’t figure it out. An accident? Hardly.
What then? In real life matters like this - no, that is too easy a generalization – there are no other “matters like this”. In real life, mysteries, things that are inexplicable, take a very long time to explain. Information is collected, dribs and drabs that sometimes add to the confusion. Sometimes conclusions are drawn, actions taken, arrests made, and I find myself asking my standard (skeptical) question: how do they KNOW that?
I envisioned getting on the train and travelling to Kingston to attend the trial. (It would not be my first murder trial – my second.) But I did not – I couldn’t explain to myself why I needed to do that.
Rob Tripp, the author of this book, is an award-winning investigative reporter who covered the trial for the Kingston Whig-Standard. He begins the book with a full page “Author’s Note” explaining that the material in it “is derived from author interviews, observations, official records, court proceedings and transcripts.” I read every word he, and anyone else, wrote from there or anywhere else in the world from June 30, 2009 to January 29, 2012 when the jury, after deliberating 15 hours, found each of the three defendants guilty of four counts of first degree murder. Even afterwards when Radio Canada and the CBC both provided excellent documentaries on the Shafia family story, I could not look away.
I thought I didn’t need to read Rob Tripp’s book. I had to anyway, and I am so glad I did. Yes, it certainly does answer my standard question: it very carefully, very thoroughly answers how did they know that. How did they figure out how that car ended up in the water? How did they know it was not an accident? How did they know who managed and carried out the “operation”? And how did they find out all that they needed to know in order to convict three family members who, in total solidarity, consistently denied any responsibility?
There is a Prologue. It is titled “Washerwoman” and we are with Norma Sargi, who has done the ritual washing and wrapping of bodies prior to burial for twenty years. Never before three sisters. Never before has she been called to prepare four bodies.
It is a sad and powerful beginning to a tragic story told with heart and with cold facts. Virtually every person who plays a part is made human, real. We know who they are, how they came to be a policeman, a detective, a civilian employee, an Afghan immigrant with lots of money, a teen age girl interested in clothes and boys and makeup, a boy-almost-a-man dutifully playing the stern father when his father is out of the country on business, two women, both wives of the same man, one humiliated and abused and trapped in the family by intimidation and love for the children she helped raise. The other in prison for the murder of three of her own children and Rona.
The story unfolds. The players come alive on the page. The details confound.
June 30, 2009: Three family members arrive at the Kingston police station at 12:30 in the afternoon to report that four family members and a family car are “missing”. The car has in fact already been found underwater that same morning around 10:15.
“HAMED, SHAFIA AND TOOBA APPROACHED BARBARA WEBB, a short woman with a broad smile who sat inside the fishbowl-like bulletproof glass enclosure in the lobby of the police station. Hamed spoke into the metal grille and told Webb, a civilian employee, that he and his parents who were standing behind him, wanted to file a report because his two sisters and the family’s Nissan Sentra were missing.
“Years of experience on the front desk had taught Webb to ensure that her face did not betray her feelings. She knew that a Nissan Sentra with Quebec plates had been found underwater at Kingston Mills with bodies inside. Her blinking computer screen indicated that half a dozen officers and vehicles, including senior staff, were already at the Mills, with more on their way. Webb asked the Shafias to take a seat for a moment.”
She advises the sergeant in charge that family has arrived and she is told to take their information but to give none. Now Hamed revises his first account.
“‘My three sisters and a woman are missing’”, he told Webb. Shafia began to speak softly to Hamed, so that Webb could not hear the conversation. Hamed turned back to Webb and explained that the woman was his father’s cousin. “She’s about 50 years old.’”
Later Detective Constable Geoff Dempster, an experienced and skilled interviewer, will be the one to give the three the terrible news. Hamed, fluent in English, has to translate for his parents. “Shafia and Tooba began to cry. Hamed appeared choked with emotion. Dempster thought it seemed a cruel double blow to ask an eighteen-year old to serve as translator and communicator of this grim news….” and he resolves to get a translator as quickly as possible.
In a small room with microphones and video cameras turned on, the translator present, he interviews each of them individually, starting, at 3:45 p.m. with Shafia who, a little more than two hours after being informed that “his missing family members were dead inside a submerged car, seemed calm. He was not crying, distracted or struggling to compose himself.” Very early in the course of the interview which Dempster has begun by asking for as much detail as possible as to how this tragedy happened, Shafia says, “‘My main base is in Dubai’..drawing the officer’s attention to his globe-trotting business life. Shafia explained that he was selling off investments and moving assets to Canada. ‘In Laval I have bought a shopping centre, in Laval, for two million dollars. I have paid for it.’”
Sometimes words are more wrenching than tears. This is a tragic story, well-told, well-documented, about real people wounded and wounding. It is a story about a heinous crime, about an investigation, about a trial, and about a just punishment imposed. It is not about “a clash of cultures”. It is not “an honour killing”. It is, as the book’s title declares, WITHOUT HONOUR”, totally.
It is a very good book. When I finished reading it, I was satisfied – my need to know was fulfilled. My need to understand was somewhat assuaged. I know now why I needed to know, why I needed to read this book. I needed to know how others “get” what they know, how others sift the information coming in, challenge it, test it, consider the way it is delivered and notice when and how it is sometimes changed, modified, denied. I do this every day. I cannot not do it. What I don’t know is how to bear it. How does one bear human behaviour so twisted, so sick, so destructive of beauty and love and life itself? Can there actually be survivors?
At the trial the second witness called by the defence is the younger brother who, because of a permanent ban, is given a pseudonym throughout the book. Zafar is almost eighteen years old, “stylish”, well-dressed, smiling, cool! “He smiled and high-fived a cousin as he strode into the courtroom on his first day [of two and a half days] of testimony. He smiled at his parents and brother, staring at him from the prisoner’s dock…”
He testifies that whatever other witnesses have said about troubles in the family, it is not true; whatever his sisters (the three who are dead and one other) told to friends, teachers, social workers, and indeed the police – it was all lies, kid pranks. ‘“It was a story made to tell teachers,” he said. They were lies invented ‘so we could get sympathy’ from teachers and ‘get away with the stuff we used to do.’” Their life at home in Canada, he insists, had been “joyful”. This is the same person who, 90 pages earlier, two and a half years younger, very late in the night after the police have removed him and his two sisters from that joyful home to a foster home for their safety assures his older brother on the phone that “he and the girls would ‘keep saying the truth,’ that their parents and Hamed were innocent. But he didn’t seem to believe that this protestation would be enough to save his family.”
“”What are we going to do till the end?’ Zafar asked, ‘If nothing happens, the best thing is everyone suicide. Or we can fight till the end.’
‘No, we’ll see. man’ Hamed replied blandly, as if he had not heard his little brother suggest that everyone in the family should commit suicide….”
Zafar does not let it go. The more he pursues the issue, the more worried he gets by Hamed’s encouragements to not worry, to take care of his sisters, his father’s business, and everything in the future. He begs Hamed ‘“Don’t do anything stupid, ‘cause, Hamed, you guys think of suicide and all that. Don’t do it! Okay?’”
Hamed’s “Yeah, yeah” does not work for him. They go back and forth – Hamed to Zahar: “No, no. As long as you people don’t do anything stupid too you know?”
Zahar to Hamed: “Yeah, like, but, ah, I’m telling you, as soon as we hear something on you guys, like that’s it for us, you know?”
When I closed the book, more than anything else, I was very sad. I am still. They are still dead. Those four who so wanted to live. They are still dead. That information will not change, will not be modified, nor can it ever be denied.
©Elaine A. Zimbel 2013