LONDON—They are murders that families whisper about.
Heshu Yones, a West London teen, fought off her father for a frantic 15 minutes. She ran from room to room in her family home one Saturday afternoon until he cornered her in a dingy bathroom, held her over the tub and slit her throat.
The father, a onetime Kurdish freedom fighter from Iraq, told authorities that his only daughter had to die. The 16-year-old had sullied the family name, he said, by dating without his permission.
Hatun Surucu, mother of a 5-year-old, stood at a bus stop near her home in Berlin after a brother phoned to arrange a meeting one night. The Turkish woman, 23 and divorced, was studying to be an electrician. She had argued with her family over her choices but she recently told friends that she was hopeful for a reconciliation.
Surucu was holding a hot cup of coffee when bullets tore into her. Three of her four brothers, ages 18 to 25, were arrested even as her parents denied family involvement to police. When the murder trial opened in October, the youngest son said he, alone, slaughtered a sister “who lacked morals.”
“It was too much for me,” teenager Ayhan Surucu said in court.
In other worlds, Yones and Surucu might have disappeared in a hush of family honor. Stories would have been concocted, siblings sworn to secrecy, and the loss of these daughters—victims of so-called honor killings that are tolerated in Southeast Asia and some Arab countries—would stay hidden.
In Europe, police now are realizing that major crimes in some immigrant communities, and particularly those against girls and young women, are often family conspiracies that have long gone unpunished.
Violence in the name of honor, covered up as a private matter among unknown numbers of Pakistani, Kurdish and Arab families, has become a troubling reality for law enforcement working the streets in Britain, Germany, Sweden and elsewhere in Europe. Such retribution appears to occur in the most insular of communities, and police have sought help from immigrants in the mainstream—the vast majority of emigre families—to understand the crime.
“Had we known what we know now, we would have done a lot of things differently,” said Brent Hyatt, lead detective on the Yones case. “We just didn’t know what we were looking at in those first days.”
Honor killings claim an estimated 5,000 women worldwide every year in overwhelmingly patriarchal cultures. Family honor is a tangible value in these societies, and women are considered family property. Emigres, even far away, can feel bound by such codes.
Friends told police that the 16-year-old girl was quietly seeing a boy, a friend of her brothers, and that she was scared to tell her family.
Three months before her death, her family arranged for a long vacation in Sulaymaniyah, a city in a Kurdish region of Iraq. The girl told friends that she feared she could be entrapped in a forced marriage. She sent one friend a copy of her passport; she gave out e-mail addresses so friends could find her even in Iraq.
Heshu returned safely to her London school that fall but she told friends that her father put a gun to her head and demanded to know whether she had a boyfriend and then forced her to have a gynecological exam to prove her virginity.
Police later recovered a videotape—filmed by Heshu and found hidden in her bedroom after her death—that shows the girl weeping aloud one day in Iraq. She said she felt trapped and feared she was a disappointment to her family.
Police were told by friends that Heshu had kept a packet of love letters in her room. The letters went missing before the murder, and Heshu told friends she was scared that someone from her family had taken them.
Police pieced together some terrible moments from the last day of Heshu’s life.
For hours on Oct. 12, Heshu threw handwritten notes from her bedroom window, pleading for help. At one point in the morning, she left a message on a friend’s cell phone asking for money so she could run away. In the late afternoon, she phoned a girlfriend, barely said hello and then abruptly ended the call.
Within an hour, Heshu was dead.
“The idea of honor is in our cultural backyard. Ethnically and culturally, we believe it,” said Mohammed Ahmed, a white-haired man who said he was a peshmerga—a fearsome mountain-fighter—with Yones before they immigrated in 1990.
“Even in court, the father insisted that he was right and that he did the right thing—and that he’d do it again.
“I mean, I know it’s a crime. We all know he’s a killer,” Ahmed said. “But he was very proud, and what he did . . . well, how could he accept his daughter’s behavior?”