TORONTO – A Canadian woman and her family are missing after she went to retrieve her two daughters in Lebanon where her husband had taken them.
In a child disappearance case spanning three continents and six months, Melissa Hawach and her father, Jim Engdahl, have not been heard from since Dec. 21, when she grabbed her daughters, Hannah, 5 and Cedar, 3, from a hotel near Beirut.
Lebanese security officials said Sunday that the whereabouts of Melissa Hawach and her two daughters are still unknown. Also, it was not known whether the woman and her daughters had left Lebanon via an illegal land crossing at the border with Syria, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.
Hawach's estranged husband, Joseph Hawach, had taken the girls to Lebanon — from where his family originally hails — without her permission, said Rhonda Morgan, executive director of the Missing Children Society of Canada.
Morgan said Sunday she was waiting to hear from Melissa Hawach adding that she wanted her daughters back in Canada by Christmas. "That was the goal," she said.
Catherine Gagnaire, a spokeswoman for Canada's Foreign Affairs Department in Ottawa, said it had been providing assistance to Melissa Hawach since July but did not know whether they still had contact or whether they were returning to Canada.
Joseph Hawach had secured his estranged wife's approval to take the children to visit his family in Australia in July and was to return the girls to Melissa , who has custody, in August.
Near the end of the vacation, her husband stopped answering her calls. She called her in-laws and was told by them that he had left the country and would not be returning with the girls, Morgan told The Associated Press.
"That started a huge search. At first we didn't know where they were. Then there were rumors that Joe and the girls and his mother had gone to Lebanon at the height of the Lebanon-Israeli war in the summer," Morgan told the AP on Saturday. "We couldn't confirm that, but eventually there was an address location confirmed for Joe and the girls just north of Beirut."
Australian court records show that during a Nov. 29 preliminary hearing in a legal action Melissa Hawach filed against her husband's family in New South Wales state Supreme Court, Joseph Hawach's brother, father and uncle told the court that the children had been taken to Lebanon.
"He's expressed an intention to stay," court records quoted Hawach's brother, Pierre Hawach as saying while recalling a phone conversation he had with his brother. "He said, 'I'm not coming back'."
Hawach's family in Australia could not be reached Sunday for comment.
Melissa Hawach had retained lawyers in Lebanon, Canada and Australia, and had been told that similar cases in the country had favored the wronged spouse, despite the fact that Lebanon was not a party to an international treaty on the return of abducted children. However, she later learned that the process could drag on for as long as two years in Lebanese court, said Morgan.
"Melissa didn't go over there with the intention of the re-abduction of the kids. She went over there to go through the courts," said Morgan. "She did everything in her power to do the right thing and was basically left with no other alternative."
With the hope of speeding along the process, Melissa Hawach, who had traveled to Australia twice since the girls disappeared, left for Lebanon in the middle of December and checked into the same hotel.
She spent several days watching the girls from a distance as they played with other children in the compound and, upon learning that the surveillance team she hired was returning home for the Christmas holiday, decided she could not leave without the girls, according to Morgan.
Morgan added that Melissa Hawach decided she would approach the girls and, if they wanted to come with her, would take them to the Canadian embassy in Lebanon.
"She went to the hotel and, when the girls came down, she called out to them and they apparently ran to her," said Morgan, citing testimony from unidentified witnesses at the hotel. She then took them away in a waiting vehicle, said Morgan.
The officials said the New Zealander and Australian who helped Melissa Hawach recover her daughters are still in Lebanese police custody for their alleged role in the kidnapping of the two children without their father's knowledge and attempting to leave Lebanon after finishing their job.
Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said that a 38-year-old man was detained in Beirut on Dec. 21 and is being provided with consular assistance.