I would like to say [to the people who say I am dead] that this is not true. I live with my parents, sisters and one brother. I quit my studies when I was in Midi and will go back [to school] this year. I would like to be a doctor in future, says Rawan. Image Credit: Saeed Al Batati/Gulf News

Haradh, Yemen: The controversy surrounding the alleged marriage and death of an eight-year-old girl on her wedding night has continued to shake two small Yemeni towns where her family live.

The case came to light last week when local residents told the local media that a young girl named Rawan — who had just turned eight — was married to a man in his 40s. She died shortly after the wedding in Haradh, southern Yemen. While local residents confirm the incident, security officials say that girl is safe and sound.

“Rawan is alive,” Mosleh Al Ghouzi, the director of Haradh Criminal Investigation, told Gulf News as he pointed at a girl playing outside a small house. “Look, that is Rawan! She is playing. She is the girl that people claim to be dead.”

When Gulf News approached the house, her father showed up and agreed to speak about his ordeal. He strongly denied marrying off his daughter.

“My name is Mohammad Abkar Ebrahim Hattan,” said the middle-aged man. “These rumours [about the marriage and death of my daughter] are baseless. Those who fabricated the story intend to disturb the media and officials and to tarnish my image.”

According to Hattan’s neighbours in Midi, a small area near Haradh where he used to live, the man’s family come back to Midi but settled in Haradh when his daughter died.

“Yes, I [used to live] in Midi and travelled to Haradh because my house was ruined,” Hattan explained. “I stayed here with people who help me.”

When asked about his identification papers, he said that he used to have an election card, but he lost it and could not afford to obtain an official ID. But his neighbours confirmed his identity when Gulf News showed them his photo.

“I am a father of three daughters and a son,” he said. “The eldest daughter is married and lives with her husband in Midi. The others live with me here.”

Then the cheerful girl confidently answered Gulf News questions about her identity, her alleged marriage — and death — and her future dreams.

“My name is Rawan Mohammad Abker Ibrahim Hattan,” the eight-year-old said. “I would like to say [to the people who say I am dead] that this is not true. I live with my parents, sisters and one brother. I quit my studies when I was in Midi and will go back [to school] this year. I would like to be a doctor in future.”

Like her father, the girl does not have any identification papers.

The family’s makeshift accommodation is in close proximity to the headquarters of the Criminal Investigation Department in Haradh.

To take photos of the father and his daughter, Gulf News had to obtain permission from the security officer who stayed around waiting for the newspaper to finish its interview and inquiries. Armed security escorts and some local residents surrounded Gulf News, creating a sense of fear in those being questioned — with little room for thorough checking or questioning interview subjects more deeply.

“I brought you here to prove that she is alive,” the security officer said, “The journalists who fabricated the story were aiming at making a media splash,” he said, adding that he vowed he would take them to court.

The security officer only allowed Gulf News to meet Rawan and her father after double-checking credentials.

When Gulf News concluded the interview with Rawan and her father, it showed her photo to Abdu Ahmad Sumea, a neighbour in Midi who said that he knows the family very well.

The man looked twice at the photos.

“This is not Rawan,” Sumea said,

He then asked his son to look at it.

“This is not Rawan,” his son concurred.

All the eyewitnesses who spoke to Gulf News about the alleged death of the girl in Haradh confidently say that the girl married, died and was secretly buried in Haradh. But they all say that they do not have concrete evidence to prove Rawan’s death and they heard the story through the grapevine.

Local residents and the family’s neighbours in Midi say that the girl was married to a Saudi man from the same family, Hattan, and the marriage took place on August 26.

The say that on her wedding night, the girl died, suffering from severe bleeding in her genitals when the man tried to consummate the marriage.

Midi residents say that the rich husband paid thousands of Saudi Rials to the local police and her family to cover up the death. They gave conflicting accounts on the amount of money that was paid. While some people say that he paid SR10,000 (Dh9,790), others claim that he paid up to SR250,000 (Dh244,775) to have the story buried.

Both Rawan’s father and the police denied the allegations.

Abdu Ahmad Sumea told Gulf News that he has known the Hattan family for years.

“Rawan used to come to my house to play with my children and to eat chocolate,” he said. “I know her family inside out. She is seven years old. I was shocked when I learnt that she got married to a Saudi man from her tribe.”

Gulf News has been told by several sources the name of the husband but, pending official confirmation and independent verification, cannot disclose his identity.

Sumea remembers that on Eid At Fitr — August 8 — Rawan was dressed up and was playing with a mobile.

“When my children asked her about the mobile, she answered ‘My fiancé gave it to me’,” he told Gulf News. “Her family disappeared from the Midi in the following days apparently to arrange for Rawan’s wedding.”

According to Sumea, Rawan’s father similarly married off his other 10-year-old daughter to another young man.

“I learnt that he does not sleep with her and will consummate their marriage when she grows up,” he said, adding that he thinks that Rawan’s wealthy husband exploited her father’s poverty in order to marry her.

Sumea’s mother said that after the death of Rawan, her aunt went into mourning for three days.

“I went to the session to offer my condolence to the family and brought some gifts to them,” she said.

Outside Sumea’s house, Gulf News met his daughter Aisha, who said that she missed Rawan.

Mohammad Hassan Al Juaidi, a local resident who disseminated the girl’s wedding death story in the local press, said that he is completely sure that the marriage took place in one of Haradh’s hotels.

“When she died after being physically mistreated by her husband, she was kept in the morgue of the only government-run hospital in Haradh,” he said. “The police arrested the husband but he was released shortly after.”

Al Juaidi admits that the hospital officials keep denying that they saw Rawan’s body. Al Juaidi claimed that the mother fled to Sana’a after the death of her daughter. The claims could not be independently verified as Rawan’s mother was not available to respond.

Local activists and residents in Haradh warned Gulf News about the risks of pursuing the story.

“Be careful when you investigate the death of Rawan,” warned an English teacher who himself was investigating the alleged death. “This area is a bleeding ground for smugglers and criminals.”