‘The day everything was taken from us’
YVONNE MACHUGH, fiancée of Connel man Billy Irving, jailed in India four years ago, recounts her agony and fight for justice
FOUR years ago I arrived in India and stood in the blistering heat for six hours outside the gates of Puzhal prison waiting for my Billy finally to be free and the injustice to end.
Watching all those men walk free was the most humbling experience of my life. It put everything into perspective and helped me to appreciate the smallest things in my own life so much more.
I spent the next few months in India with Billy. We had lost everything back home, but we had each other again. With not a care in the world, we made sure we made the most of every single second we had together. We assumed that in a few weeks he’d be free and we could return home together and live the life we’d always dreamed of, the life we had before this horrific case took over our lives. We soon realised it wasn’t going to be that easy and our life would never be the same again.
This is our story, a story I only thought belonged in Hollywood movies or fictional books. The past four years have been a living nightmare. What we have endured and faced I never believed possible.
Billy was 33 when I dropped him at the airport to start the first day of his new job with Advanfort. I was just 23. We had only been together for two years and during this time Billy had always worked in maritime security. He would go away for two or three months at a time.
Billy often spoke about the dangers of his job. We spoke about kidnapping, drowning, being shot or killed. I wasn’t exactly happy about it, but I understood that was the danger.
We were young, full of fun and had a carefree attitude to life. But On October 12, 2013, when a call came through from a representative of the company Billy was working for, Advanfort, all that was taken from us.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) warned us from going public about our case, just to keep quiet and let the politicians talk behind closed doors as it could result in a worse outcome and could put our men’s freedom in jeopardy.
It wasn’t long before we realised the situation was worsening. We were promised our men would be home before Christmas. I’ve lost count of how many times our case was up in court, and how many times we were promised that our men would be out within the week.
It was mentally exhausting for the families involved, but for the men in prison without a visit from a lawyer, no information as to what was going on in court or between governments or even so much as a phone call home, it was becoming a desperate situation. They were locked in a cell together in a foreign country millions of miles from home without a clue as to what was happening or why.
With Christmas fast approaching and yet more failed attempts to release our men from prison, we took the plunge and approached the media to tell them of our story. It was one so unbelievable even they wouldn’t print or air it.
It started to feel like everyone was against us and we weren’t just fighting the battle to free our men from prison, but we were also fighting against our own government who were failing to protect their citizens from one of the biggest miscarriages of justice our country has ever seen.
Now we were fighting against the national media who simply didn’t seem interested that 35 innocent men were incarcerated for a crime they didn’t commit. Six British veterans, who risked their lives for their country, didn’t seem to be a ‘sexy’ enough story for tabloid press or glossy morning TV shows. None of it made sense then ... and today four years on it makes even less sense.
It’s not just our lives that have been devastated. On October 12, 2013, 35 innocent men were arrested on board the Seaman Guard Ohio and the lives of 35 men and their families were catastrophically shattered and changed forever. Since that day our men have been subjected to complete and utter mental torture. Their human rights have been violated time and time again, their innocence questioned and their freedom taken from them.
In June 2014, the case was quashed. I returned home from India where I was staying with Billy while he was on bail. I collected the welcome home banners and flags my mother had made in anticipation for his return, and started planning the biggest welcome home party the world had ever seen, leaving Billy to sort paperwork out and get a flight home.
After a few weeks of me being home, we found out we were expecting our first child. It was a massive mix of feelings. Billy still wasn’t home, but he had been proven innocent, and soon he would be. My feelings turned to excitement, love, and I couldn’t wait for the next chapter of our lives, and Billy would be there by my side every step of the way.
But on the 89th day of the 90 days
the police had to appeal the quash decision, an appeal was lodged and our lives once again were torn to shreds. It simply could not be happening all over again.
I was facing Billy returning to prison once again, and facing pregnancy alone. It was, if possible, even more frightening and unbelievable than October 2013. We had beaten a corrupt police force in another country once,
but could we do it again? On February 24, as I was flown by emergency air ambulance to hopefully welcome our first child into the world, Billy sat alone by his phone in dingy hostel room in India waiting for any news as to whether his child or I would make it.
Most men feel helpless at the birth of their children. But Billy was a million miles from home and couldn’t even give me a cuddle and tell me everything was going to be OK. Something had gone wrong, I was losing blood and our baby’s heartbeat had stopped. I was rushed onto an aeroplane alone when the helicopter couldn’t fly due to weather, and I couldn’t even call Billy to hear his voice or let him know what was happening.
Thanks to the incredible hospital staff our beautiful boy was born, healthy and happy, and we named him after his dad. It should have been the happiest day of our lives. Instead it was bittersweet.
There I was holding the most incredible and beautiful baby but his father wasn’t there beside me. Billy couldn’t hold his newborn son or thank the hospital staff. He couldn’t cut the chord or snap a picture on his phone of his family and upload it on social media as most new fathers do.
Furthermore, we had no idea when the day would come that he would finally meet his boy. What Billy went through that day it is hard for anyone to comprehend or understand, but it’s a day he can never get back again. A day my little family can never relive.
At that point Billy had been cleared of all charges, the case was quashed and he was free to go home. He should have been home. He should have been home for our first scan, and for the anti-natal classes. He should have been looking at prams, and building the nursery furniture with me.
He should have been beside me when our son was born. But he wasn’t.
The Indian authorities were holding onto their travel documents refusing to issue them with certificates to fly out the country and the British government did nothing about it. Again our men were failed.
Billy met his son for the first time when he was four months old. He had missed his first cry, his first laugh, he’d missed the sleepless nights and and morning smiles. Billy was still a free man at this point, all charges had been quashed. He had the rights of an innocent man to be home where he belonged, yet still his freedom was being denied.
We had three weeks of forgetting why we were in India and being a family for the first time. At home in Scotland, I would watch as families walked round the supermarket choosing their weekly shop and wished so hard that it was us.
So while in India that’s what we did. It sounds ridiculous but it was one of the best times of my life: we were finally a family and finally together, despite everything that had been thrown at us. We made the most of every second we had together before we had to leave India and return home, still without Billy.
Billy has shown such strength, courage and dignity throughout this whole process. I don’t know how he copes in the archaic conditions of Puzhal Prison but each time I’ve visited he’s painted on a smile, made me laugh when all I want to do is cry and assured me that he is OK and not to worry.
I and William have travelled to India to see Billy three times now but only once has been outwith the prison walls. Despite everything, all the time apart and occasions missed, William and Billy have the most inspirational of bonds. Seeing them together only makes me more determined to ensure we bring Billy and every last man who was arrested on board the Seaman Guard Ohio home.
Four years on, we are no longer fighting for the Chennai Six alone. With more than 400,000 people signing our petition, we realise just how many people care about the men in that prison cell, without beds, adequate food or even so much as a toilet, not knowing what’s ahead of them.
The letters and parcels the men are receiving from friends and strangers are what help them through the dark days. More and more media outlets are printing the men’s story, taking an interest in both the case and our men not only as innocent prisoners, but as fathers, brothers, husbands and sons.
The amount of support for our campaign we get now is humbling and provides the fuel we need to carry on when we are running on empty. But it’s not enough and never will be. Not until the day every last one of those men walks out of prison and into the arms of their loved ones.
I never imagined my life would turn out like this. It’s not exactly the fairytale I dreamed of as a little girl. But it has become my fairy-tale. I found my handsome prince, whom I love unconditionally and will fight to the bitter end until he is free and home.
We have the most devoted and caring parents, family and friends anyone could wish for and we have our loving, clever, funny and crazy little William who came into our lives unexpectedly, but at exactly the time I needed him. He keeps me strong, he keeps me smiling, and he is my little mini Billy looking after me and keeping me safe, just like his daddy did. And one day, hopefully very soon, we will get our happy ever after.