Mixed-race couple on the run for 13 years


Last updated at 13:36 26 May 2006

For a couple dubbed a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, Jack and Zena Briggs's wedding day was somewhat short on romance: a £10 charity shop dress, a register office on the Wight with two passers-by for witnesses and then back to their B&B for a round of fish paste sandwiches.

"It wasn't exactly what I had imagined when I was growing up," says Zena. "Every young girl has that dream of having the perfect wedding day with your father giving you away.

"But, then, who could have predicted that I'd fall in love with Jack - and the rest?" Who, indeed? The couple first met in their home city of Leeds in the summer of 1992. At 31, Jack was ten years older than his girlfriend but it wasn't the age gap that was the problem. Zena was the daughter of Pakistani immigrants and her father had decreed that she would marry a cousin when she came of age. But she had other ideas, ran away to be with Jack, a white, non-Muslim, Englishman. And she hasn't stopped running since.

'Walking corpses'

For this is the extraordinary story of the man and woman whose first-hand experiences of marriages, bounty hunters and honour killings opened the authorities' eyes to a shocking and hitherto hidden consequence of multi-cultural life in Britain.

Having eloped, Zena was told by relatives that she and Jack had so besmirched the family name that they were 'walking corpses'. So seriously was the threat taken that in the intervening years they have received protection from Special Branch, two new identities and have moved house no fewer than 30 times.

Incredibly, despite the risk to themselves, they have fought constantly to raise the issue in the public eye - first through a book and then through a series of lectures to police and politicians. Until now, their identities have always remained secret.

Today that all changes as photographs of the couple are published in the Daily Mail for the first time. Informed by police last month that there is no longer any 'credible threat' to their safety - although they were not told exactly how that assessment had been reached - they have decided, as Zena, now 35, puts it, "to reclaim their lives".

"From the very beginning we felt that we had done absolutely nothing wrong," explains Zena in a broad Yorkshire accent. "When we met for the first time 14 years ago, Jack was on the way to see his sister and I was hanging out in the street with some friends.

"I never thought when I woke up that morning that I was going to fall in love and go on the run for all those years. No one chooses who they fall in love with and what happened to us as a result should not have happened.

"We're not ashamed of each other. We've suffered terribly in the intervening years and we're not going to hide any longer." The suffering she refers to includes breakdowns, psychiatric problems and the near-collapse of their marriage. They have few friends and have found it next to impossible to find work or to settle in any one place. Hardly surprising, then, that they greeted news of their 'reprieve' with no big celebration - just a meal of egg and chips for two and considerable caution.

For the next few months they intend to continue using their false identities and still will not divulge where they are living. "There has been no euphoria about this really - just a feeling of 'so that's it, is it?'" explains Jack. "Thirteen years of my life - more than a third of Zena's life - and suddenly it's over.

"We've suffered a lot in that time and things aren't going to change overnight. If someone called me by my real name I wouldn't even recognise it. But this is a start. At least it's a start."

'Move every six months'

Since going on the run, the Briggses have moved house, on average, once every six months. Hardly surprising, then, that they know exactly what they are looking for in a property. "When we look for a place it's not a case of whether the master bedroom is en-suite or not. The first thing I do is look at the window and see if we can escape from it," says Jack.

"I look and see if there is a front and back exit, where the local police station is, whether the taxi drivers are predominantly Asian - all of these things have to come together." Once in situ, they always plan how they would react should the door come crashing in during the night. In their current flat, Jack estimates it would take seven seconds for would-be assailants to reach the bedroom.

In that time, Zena would flee via the window while he would arm himself with the baseball bat and knife he keeps beside the bed. "They're sort of like a security blanket to me," says Jack, who is now 45. Of course, many people will struggle to comprehend how anyone could find themselves living like this in 21st-century Britain. And, to be fair, it is something that even Jack and Zena did not predict when they embarked on their relationship.

The middle of five children, Zena had a blissful childhood in Yorkshire until, at the age of 13, she was taken to her father's birthplace in Pakistan and introduced to a cousin, Bilal, who, she was told, was to be her husband once she turned 21. She, however, had very different ideas about what the future held - a consequence of the cultural tensions that existed in her upbringing. "At home we had to wear the Muslim headscarf and speak Urdu," she says. "But at the same time we had English friends, watched television and read magazines like Vogue.

"I had grown up watching Hollywood blockbusters, and wanted to fall in love and to marry someone, not just have someone picked for me."

So it was that Jack arrived on the scene one summer's day in 1992. "He was visiting his sister and her children who lived nearby and we got chatting. He was dressed in a leather jacket, ripped jeans and had a Harley-Davidson. It was such a refreshing change from the men my family had introduced me to," she recalls.

The two became friends, although Zena was always careful not to let her family see her alone with Jack. "We'd meet in secret, but eventually my sister threatened to tell my father and two brothers. But it was too late. Jack and I had fallen in love. So we decided to run away."

But when Zena crept out of the house one January morning in 1993, she underestimated the strength of her parents' reaction. "Muslim families say every girl carries the honour of her family. If she is 'stained' then so, too, is the honour of the family. I came from a very respectable, wealthy, high-caste family, so you don't bring that black mark against the family.

'I thought my family would come to terms with it'

"What I initially thought was that if I got married, they'd realise it was a genuine relationship and that after a year or two they would come to terms with it. I never foresaw the 13 years that lay ahead."

But the reality of their situation dawned on them when Jack picked up the phone to call Zena's parents on their first night together.

"I was expecting them to be angry but nothing like what it was," he said. "I spoke to a brother who said, very coldly, very calmly, that when they found us we would end up in

several bin liners.

"He said: 'I am selling my cars, my company and I am going to hire a bounty hunter - you are dead, you are walking corpses.'"

One of Zena's sisters then came on the phone and said that her father had suffered a massive heart attack. Immediately suspicious, the couple rang round all the hospitals but found no record of his admission.

A few days later and Jack's mother, fifty-plus and recovering from cancer, was paid a late-night visit by a gang of Asian men. Bricks were hurled through the window and the door was kicked down.

One of her attackers held her against the wall by her throat and, indicating towards one of his accomplices, said: "Look at this man because he is the man who is going to kill your son."

Arrests were made, but no charges brought because Jack's mother was too scared to give evidence. His sister was targeted next. Threatened with a petrol bomb, she and her children were forced to move.

At the same time it was made known in the pubs and clubs that Jack used to frequent that big money would be paid if anyone could locate him.

Then came the closest call of all. Several weeks after leaving Leeds, Jack and Zena were desperately low on money. They registered with the Department of Social Security to claim benefits and, reluctantly, gave their real details.

Days later they received a call at their B&B summoning them back to the social security office. They went but quickly discovered that it had been a bogus call designed to lure them into the open - and that Zena's relatives had managed to access official computer files.

They fled to a nearby police station - only for Zena to be arrested. It emerged that her family had claimed that she had stolen £9,000 worth of jewellery.

This was another ploy designed to force her back home. Fortunately, the couple convinced the police of the real story and so began their life on the run.

They were made "nationally sensitive" by Scotland Yard, meaning that their birth names and all traces of their past were wiped off all official systems.

Initially, they settled on the Isle of Wight and on March 12, 1993, they married. "It was the one thing we wanted to do," says Jack. "Not just because we loved each other, but, if something happened to us, there would be some proof we were really together."


Zena decided to tell her family about the wedding and rang them. It would be the last time they ever spoke. "My dad answered the phone and his voice was totally cold," she says. "He told me that I had died the day I left home and I knew that I would never speak to him again.

"I was his child. He had brought me up for 21 years. How could he erase me from his life? I was heartbroken."

For the Briggses the reality of their plight began to dawn. While Special Branch had given them false identities (names, passports, national insurance numbers and NHS cards), they were not given what, in the witness protection scheme, is known as 'legend'.

By this it is meant that they had no CV nor references that would allow them to create a credible work and social history. It meant

that finding work proved next to impossible and Zena suffered a mini breakdown.

"It hit me how hard our lives were going to be," she says. "I froze. I couldn't get out of bed, I couldn't wash, I left the gas running, I couldn't even open the door.

"Thankfully, Jack saw I'd basically given up and decided he couldn't let this happen. In the end he physically picked me up, made me wash, got me dressed and helped me back on my feet."

Matters improved little over the ensuing few years until, feeling abandoned by the authorities - the police, social security and victim support - they decided to turn their experiences into a book. The idea was that it would help not just them but others in their situation.

Runaways, was published in 1998 and received widespread publicity, coming at a time when the subject of honour killings was finally beginning to be recognised as a serious problem in this country.

That year, Rukshana Naz, 19, from Derby, who was pregnant by a man other than her arranged husband, was held down by her mother while her brother strangled her.

More cases followed and in the following years Jack was invited to talk about his experiences at a series of high-profile meetings: first to 300 senior officers at Scotland Yard and then to a conference in Sweden. But despite growing public awareness of the problem, the pressure did not ease.

Indeed, in the last few years they came close to splitting up and Jack has had to undergo in-patient psychiatric treatment for post traumatic stress disorder. As for the strains on their relationship, Jack puts it down to the fact that they grew so used to continually moving, that staying still now has its own problems.

"In movement we have always found there is safety," he says, "and while Zena has gone into nesting mode, I thought we had been in one place too long.

"Zena is so fed up with moving she can't even go on a coach or bus because the stale smell of those vehicles reminds her of everything, it makes her feel sick."

'Enjoying some stability'

For the first time, the couple are enjoying some stability. Zena has a job she loves in fashion retail and is praying that once her employers' learn of her real history they will let her keep working for them.

She has no intention of trying to contact her family. "One thing we don't believe in is reconciliation," she says. "I would never trust them, so that is a definite no, no."

Jack hopes to continue lecturing about their experiences, raising awareness of an issue that can no longer be ignored.

They have decided not to have children. After so many years of constantly looking over their shoulder, they feel they would never be able to let a child out of their sight.

And despite the assurances from the police, they say that they will reveal their true identities to friends and colleagues only one step at a time.

"It's been one hell of a journey and I'm sure it's not over yet," adds Jack. "We feel as if we have just walked into a different room and we are fumbling around for the light switch and when we switch it on it's either going to be a good, happy surprise or it isn't.

"Whatever happens we will just have to try to deal with it. People have compared us to Romeo and Juliet in the past, but it really is a survival story.

"We basically live by Sir Ernest Shackleton's family motto - By Endurance We Conquer - and while I can see why people see the romantic part of it, in reality it has just been scary. Very, very scary."

Jack and Zena Briggs can be contacted at jackandzena@yahoo.co.uk

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