Santa had to call in police back-up to help grant Biatra Muzabazi’s Christmas wish this year.
But with a little help from Toronto police investigators, 22 Division’s Community Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, Interpol, the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, the Zimbabwe Ministry of Justice, and Zimbabwe Republic Police, Muzabazi’s gift came early on Dec. 11, when she was reunited in Zimbabwe with her seven-year-old daughter Rene and four-year-old son Shane.
“I just want to thank everybody who helped us. Without you guys there would be no way I would have been with my children again, but you made it possible for me,” Muzabazi said through tears at a news conference at police headquarters on Monday, giving special thanks to 22 Division’s Det. Const. Shari Nevills for her part in the reunion. “I want to thank (her) for everything and for the calls I was making to her in the middle of the night when I didn’t know what to do. I want to thank you very much for everything. You made it possible for me to be with my children for Christmas.”
Biatra, a divorced single mother, has sole custody of Rene and Shane, who were born in Mississauga. She allowed the children to be taken to Zimbabwe by their paternal family members on a pre-arranged summer vacation in April 2012.
But when the family failed to return the kids to Muzabazi in Toronto as planned in September, she turned to police at south Etobicoke’s 22 Division for help. According to police, the accused family members allegedly refused to return the children to Canada and instead placed them in a Zimbabwean boarding school.
That boarding school also alledgedly participated in hiding the children from the Zimbabwe police.
Nevills, who works in 22 Division’s Family Violence Unit, was assigned the case and began reaching out to other agencies – both Canadian and international – right away.
“I started making phone calls to all of the government agencies to help – Foreign Affairs, the RCMP, National Missing Children, the Central Authority Office,” she said. “All of those people got together and we started working towards getting these children home.”
Over the course of the four-month investigation into bringing Rene and Shane back home to Toronto, Nevills said she experienced a few “hiccups” serious enough that she wasn’t sure if Muzabazi’s children would ever return to Canada.
“I had several moments where I really didn’t think these kids were coming home, because there were quite a few roadblocks along the way,” she explained. “Of course, you’re dealing with foreign countries, so you have to abide by their laws, you have to work within their systems. It was a learning experience.”
Local officials in Zimbabwe eventually tracked down the kids at their boarding school, and Muzabazi flew there – with financial assistance from the 22 Division CPLC – earlier this month to be reunited with her children.
While she waited outside the school to pick Rene and Shane up, however, the kids’ paternal family members – with help from the boarding school – managed to escape with the children once again. Local police in Zimbabwe made several attempts to locate the children, but were unsuccessful.
The kids were ultimately dropped off at the Canadian embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe on Dec. 11, where they were reunited with their mother. All three returned to Toronto on Dec. 13. A criminal investigation into the children’s alleged abductors in Zimbabwe is still ongoing, so Nevills declined to speak specifically about the family members involved, other than to indicate that they belonged to the children’s paternal family.
While a beaming Muzabazi and her children looked on Monday, Toronto police Chief Bill Blair took the opportunity to thank Toronto Police Service’s Canadian and international law-enforcement partners, as well as the local community members who helped in the return of Rene and Shane to their mother.
“We work very much in partnership with our community and much of our work is also connected internationally to police services right around the world,” he said. “This is, I think, a very important story – a good story with a great ending.”