When I first met Richard Ratcliffe, back in 2017, his wife Nazanin had just been told that she could face an additional 16 years in an Iranian prison.
He had, by then, been separated from his three-year-old daughter Gabriella for half her life: she was captured as an 18-month-old baby along with her mother, and would spend the next three years in Iran, living with her grandparents.
Gabriella had forgotten how to speak English, he told me then. “Except how to say ‘I love you’,” he said. “She’ll say ‘I love you’ and she’ll make a little heart with her hands.”
My daughter is almost the same age as Gabriella and I struggled to find the words to ask him how he was coping with the separation from his family. “I really don’t dwell on what I’ve lost,” he said, hinting at the remarkable strength he would show throughout his family’s ordeal. “I find it easier to think about the things we will do, when they’re back. I hold on to that.”
Hearing the news on Wednesday that Nazanin was flying home to Britain, hearing the recording later of her crying out as she held Gabriella again, I thought about what Richard had said in that first interview: “I’m looking forward to the Saturdays when we’d all go off and do something, go to the park, feed the ducks, or take a day trip to the beach. That’s what’s in my head, that’s what’s waiting,” he said – before adding, hesitantly: “Yeah. And I’d probably just hold them.” And his voice cracked.
At the top of Nazanin’s list, he revealed, was coming home, sitting on the sofa and having a cup of tea made for her.
It was clear, during that first meeting, how determined he was – and how much hope he had. He wouldn’t even tolerate the idea that Nazanin might not be home by Christmas 2017. “I won’t accept it. I have faith that in the end, sunlight clears injustice. And I’ll carry on until it does.”
But he admitted that despite his best efforts, being in his flat, “the place where obviously they’re not”, was getting to him – and that when he wanted to feel close to Gabriella, he would visit the slide she used to play on in his local park.
“I’m a middle-aged man, with no reason now to be wandering around a playground, but I’ve been there a few times, just to remember her solemnly going up and down the slide again and again.”
The image of him doing that never left me, and when I had the opportunity to meet him again, for our seventh interview two years later, I had the great privilege of meeting Gabriella too.
She was then five years old and Richard had managed, with great difficulty, to secure her return so she could start school in England. This had been planned for some time but he told me that, less than 24 hours before Gabriella was scheduled to fly home, he was warned she would be prevented from leaving Iran.
The next morning, when he got a message to say she had got through airport security and was finally on the plane, “disbelief” was all he could feel.
“I didn’t cry. I probably didn’t feel the enormity of her coming home until she came back. Until that first night of just watching her sleeping.”
He stayed up late that first night, he said, listening to Gabriella breathe, knowing he could simply reach out and touch her. “Just her being there … she was so peaceful. So calm. So innocent.” He paused, and his voice trembled with emotion. “It’s the innocence you forget.”
In December 2020, Richard and I met again, and this time I brought my own daughter with me. Flora and Gabriella played together in the playground where Richard had told me he used to imagine Gabriella on the slide.
“The strength of her cuddles has improved immeasurably over the past year,” said Richard. “There’s a tightness to her squeeze now.”
But by then, Richard had discovered that Nazanin was being held hostage over the government’s £400m debt to Iran and it was clear both he and Nazanin were feeling desperate. “I use the term mental torture, because that’s what it has been,” he said.
We would not meet again until the final day of his hunger strike outside the Foreign Office, in November last year. Despite knowing it was day 21, I was taken aback by how unwell he looked. He confessed he had spent the night racked with pain and dizzy spells, and his suffering was written on every line of his face.
The reunited family are now staying in a safe house, where they can have privacy. Last Thursday night, Nazanin told her MP, Tulip Siddiq – who has campaigned doggedly for her release – that it all still feels surreal, like a dream.
Gabriella, Siddiq said, is beside herself with excitement at having both parents in the room at the same time – and her daughter is all Nazanin can talk about. “They can’t stop hugging each other and kissing,” Siddiq told the Guardian.
I think back to the first time I met Richard, when he listed all the things he was most looking forward to doing with his family when they were reunited. I hear again that crack in his voice as he confessed: “I’d probably just hold them.”