The life of schoolgirl Heshu Yones who became the victim of the UK’s first so-called ‘honour killing’ is re-examined in a new podcast series hosted by her former classmate.
Heshu was 16 when she had her throat slit by her strict Kurdish Muslim father, Abdalla Yones, at their family home in Acton, west London, in October 2002.
Yones, a political refugee who had fled the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, believed his daughter had become ‘too westernised’ and was ashamed to learn she had struck up a relationship with an 18-year-old Lebanese Christian boy.
In BBC podcast series Life Chances, journalist and former classmate Athar Ahmad explores how Heshu’s sense of freedom and personal expression was fostered by their school, Acton High, but that this same sense of self eventually led to her murder.
Heshu Yones (left) was 16 when she had her throat slit by her strict Kurdish Muslim father, Abdalla Yones (right), at their family home in Acton, west London, in October 2002
Over the course of five episode he also explores the brutal deaths of two other former classmates: Anton Hyman, who was shot and stabbed at the age of 17, and Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed, a terror suspect who was reportedly killed by al-Shabaab after fleeing the UK for Somalia.
Ahmad, a news reporter and documentary maker, started at Acton High in the late 1990s. Former students recall it had a reputation for being ‘rough’, that fights were a regular occurrence and teachers’ cars were ‘stolen and given to gangs’.
‘You might remember the rose garden in front of the school and there would be people waiting in the rose garden to start a fight, with bottles,’ former headmistress Lesley Hall recalls in the first episode. ‘And that was horrible community faction stuff.’
But Acton High, which became an academy in 2017 after being rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted, was also a melting pot for students from different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds. For some, it was a ‘lifeline’ and a place of escape.
‘For some of my classmates school was the only place where they had to mix with people from different backgrounds, to experience a different way of life from that at home,’ Ahmad explains.
‘I’ve heard it said that one of the contradictions of modern Briton is that it can be a society that claims integration but sometimes ends up fostering separation.
In BBC podcast series Life Chances , journalist and former classmate Athar Ahmad explores how Heshu’s sense of freedom and personal expression was fostered by their school, Acton High, but that this same sense of self eventually led to her murder. Pictured, Heshu
‘Maybe our school, open, welcoming, with kids from around the world mixing, but then going home to a far less connected, more homogeneous life, embodied that.’
One of the students caught in this divide was Heshu, who Ahmad remembered as being ‘really, really popular’.
‘You know in school you have those kids who everyone gravitates towards, everyone really really likes,’ he says. ‘She was always the centre of attention. People were really drawn towards her. Even if Heshu didn’t know you, you knew Heshu.’
When Heshu first arrived at Acton High, she was the ‘model student’ with a neat uniform and quiet nature. But by Year 8 or Year 9 the ‘real Heshu’, lively, vivacious and fun, began to show, her former form tutor recalled.
She was very free-spirited, which is a no-no in the Kurdish community
Ahmad and a former classmate named Sara* recall how Heshu was trendy, loved her makeup and was into R&B music.
Her confident and self-assured nature also led to attention from boys.
But all of this was at odds with what her parents expected of her.
‘She was very free-spirited, which is a no-no in our community,’ explained Sara*, who was also raised in a Kurdish household.
‘There is a certain code of behaviour, it’s a patriarchal society. At home, they would just see her as an object of “the daughter” who doesn’t have a life outside the home.’
Heshu’s former tutor agreed: ‘At home, they wanted her to be a wife and a mother. That was her destiny, not to work outside the home.
‘She would be allowed to go onto six form college but there was never any talk beyond that because the plan would be that there would be an arranged marriage for her.
‘By the time she was 16… She was terrified that she would be taken to Kurdistan and there would be a husband waiting for her.’
When Heshu first arrived at Acton High, she was the ‘model student’ with a neat uniform and quiet nature. But by Year 8 or Year 9 the ‘real Heshu’, lively, vivacious and fun, began to show, her former form tutor recalled. Pictured, Heshu Yones
Ahmad tells how there were two sides of Heshu: the ‘westernised’ teenager she was at school, and the subservient daughter she was expected to be at home.
‘School was her outlet, a place she could be herself,’ he says. But she flourished in a way that was increasingly at odds with her home life.
Shortly before her death she had started a relationship with an 18-year-old Lebanese Christian boy, something, as Sara explained was ‘shameful’ in the eyes of her father.
‘Because she broke a rule, her father killed her,’ she said.
On 12 October 2002 Yones murdered his 16-year-old daughter. He stabbed her 17 times with a kitchen knife. When she escaped and locked herself in the bathroom, he broke down the door and slit her throat.
I think, had she not been so brave, maybe things might have turned out differently
Yones tried to kill himself immediately after the 2002 murder by cutting his own throat and then throwing himself from a third floor balcony at the family home in Acton.
He initially claimed members of al Qaida had broken into his home, killed his daughter and attacked him before throwing him over the balcony.
He became the first person to plead guilty to murder in a so-called honour killing case. He was jailed for life in September 2003.
Ahmad explains that Heshu’s story, and others, make him realise that he didn’t understand his classmates’ lives as well as he thought he did at the time.
‘The thing about Heshu is, she was very comfortable in herself, even at the age of 16, 17. It makes me a bit sad as well because I think, had she not been so brave, maybe things might have turned out differently,’ he says.
He later adds: ‘What I realise now was that we just saw everyone’s lives at a very superficial level but then underneath the surface there was so much going on.’
Life Chances is available on BBC Sounds. *Name changed by producers.