Sutherlands story is an incredible one in every regard, especially because it is true. The idyllic island, royal life, and Muslim faith that the Suttons Bay resident found herself surrounded by each became a prison of their own, and a major obstacle to attempting to free her two children from her tyrannical husband and the powerful extremists who surrounded him.
Her harrowing journey to reach America safely with her children has been documented in a new book, “Perilous Journey: A Mothers International Quest to Rescue Her Children,“ which was published by New Horizon Press in late November. It traces the years from 1994-98 when Sutherland, armed with little more than an iron will, fought for her rights and her children, constantly under the threat of torture and death from the man she had once loved.
MUSLIM & MARRIED
The tale begins in Asia in 1989, when the 28-year-old Sutherland was backpacking with a friend and came to meet Prince Mahmood, a Malaysian of royal descent. The two fell in love, and in short order, she had moved to his family island of Rawa, and became pregnant, a member of the Muslim faith, and married.
She led the life of the royal rich and privileged, doted on by servants and enjoying fabulous South China Sea weather, as she bore their two children, son Iskander, now, 12, and daughter Mariam, now 10.
But all was not well in the household. Sutherland was becoming increasingly disturbed by her husbands erratic behavior, which included irrational rages and lies, a tendency to wave guns around, heavy drinking, and rampant infidelity, particularly with a second family he kept in Brunei. Fearful of his temper (“Mahmood claims it‘s sometimes necessary to scare and/or beat the s--- out of people to get things done,“ she writes) and his link with a Muslim extremist group with a bitter hatred of Westerners, she contemplated ending the marriage, all the while knowing her life would be in danger for confronting him in any way.
“I was initially thrilled with him, and who wouldnt have been?“ asks Sutherland. “He owned an island, and we had an idyllic life with our two children. But once I had evidence that he had other women and knew I dared not even confront him, I felt I had little choice but to leave. This was a man who spent much of time trying to wrestle control of the island from his family, and he was constantly in a terrible mood. When I realized his real nature was to be unhappy, selfish, controlling, and a spoiled heavy, it was a horrible awakening.“
On a trip with her children back to the United States to visit her family in Glen Arbor in the summer of 1994, Sutherland spoke to her husband on the phone, telling him she wanted out of the relationship. She describes his reaction as “furious,“ and he made threats to kill both her and the children if she left him. Sutherland had no doubts about the vehemence behind his words, which were backed up by his seizing the children‘s passports when the three went into hiding here for about two weeks.
Eventually, they made another contact with Mahmood, who begged forgiveness and promised that he was making changes. It was enough to convince Sutherland and her children to return to him, but her hope was short-lived.
“We flew back, and as soon as I saw his face at the Singapore airport, I saw a mask of fury,“ she recalls. “He was incredibly angry and didnt say a word, and he had one of his goons with him. I knew I was in trouble, but I didnt know how much. He wouldnt see me for two days, then told me he was buying me a one-way ticket out of the country. He admitted he had deceived me in order to get me to come back with the kids, and that he would never be separated from them. I knew that was true, and I just felt sickened that I had believed him.“
The next three years became a nightmarish battle for custody of her children and her freedom, a fight that was often without any end in sight, especially given that as a woman and a Westerner, Sutherland had virtually no rights in her adopted homeland. Mahmood had at his beck and call a number of Muslim extremist religious clerics who controlled the courts, as well. She was constantly urged by him to leave the island, and he also continued his verbal abuse of her, promising torture, death, or driving her to commit suicide as possible fates.
On and on it went, with Sutherland looking for support from international rights and womens groups and traveling back and forth between Malaysia and the U.S. With “frayed emotions“ and “a heart full of despair,“ she began an arduous, organized effort to rescue her children and leave permanently. She sought out Michigander Betty Mahmoody, whose own similar plight had been documented in her book “Not Without My Daughter,“ which was made into a successful movie starring Sally Field. Nothing seemed to make a difference.
“A low point was when my own family started to feel that I should just get myself out, because there was no end in sight,“ said Sutherland. “I was making a life for myself, was connected with womens organization, and the 0place where I lived was stable, so I could have gone on indefinitely.
“But after three failed attempts, I finally was able to get a little tiny bit of justice, and that spurred me on. For a 16-month period, I saw my children for six hours total, but I finally went public in his country, and convinced the court to give me some decent custody. I got some sustainable visitation of four days at a stretch, which made me feel convinced that I could receive more justice if I just kept working.“
Ultimately, it was a twist of fate that changed Sutherlands grim situation, and it came in the form of a wrong phone number.
She had been trying to reach Asia Week magazine to tell her story, and information gave her the number of a Hindu man who told her he was an investigative crime reporter for a different national magazine. She shared the details of her situation, and while he thought he could help impact the court process, he was also willing to introduce her to a border smuggler who could bribe guards on both sides and smuggle she and her children across and into Thailand.
On January 26, 1998, they did just that, accompanied by the smuggler, and his wife and daughter, who put the children on their lap. It only cost Sutherland about $500 U.S. dollars, which was a surprise because she had been quoted other rates as high as a quarter of a million. The children had no idea at the time what their mother was doing, but Sutherland says they “bounced off the walls with happiness“ when they knew they had safely crossed over and were eventually in the care of the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, where they spent a week preparing to head to America.
During this time, Mahmood launched a manhunt in his own country before learning the fate of his children, all of which made Sutherland nervous and anxious, even though she was back in America. She was unable to sleep through the night during her first four months back, and went through the process of “shutting down emotionally“ in response to the traumatic ordeal she had survived. She found solace with her family, children, and the community, who welcomed her back with open arms and encouraged her to one day tell her story.
RANTING & RAVING
“Failure was never an option,“ she stated, “but even after I was back, I had reason to fear my husband and his rage. He held a press conference and said that I had kidnapped the children, but nothing ever really came of all the ranting and raving. He knew I had evidence against him, and that sending someone after me would involve huge expense and hassle. After a time, I began to feel safe here in northern Michigan and finally ready to write everything down.“
In the spring of 2002, Sutherland sent her story out with introductory letters, never anticipating the response she would get. Top publishers and agents called, relishing her saga of a royal family vs. a courageous mother who, against all odds, went through years of trauma. Sutherland says she signed with an agent, but got busy being a mother to her children and settling back into life here, until she got a call early last fall from New Horizons, who wanted to publish her book.
It happened on November 20, and Sutherland, also a devout meditation student, distance runner, and first and foremost - a mother - has now received rave reviews for her tome, and interest from every major TV and radio talk show, news digest, and publication.
“Things are going to start clicking now that the holidays are past, and thanks to the regional signings, theres been a lot of local interest, as well,“ said Sutherland.
“I want people to understand that we are all capable of extraordinary courage and bravery, that you can overcome unbelievable obstacles and suffer beyond your capacity to suffer, and that everyone can come through incredibly strong as a result. I went through great suffering, but Im a peace activist now as a result, and I want to be of service to women and children however I can. I was so blessed with all my strengths going into this, and it was a long, hard, and expensive part of my life, but Im here now, and committed to helping other women be strong and spared.“
A NEW LIFE
As a footnote, Sutherland adds that her number one priority is to raise her children, whom she calls “normal, happy American kids“ who are in regular phone and written contact with their father. They do stand to inherit his island one day when they are grown, so Sutherland has encouraged them to keep close bonds with him, even though they have declined wanting to go back and visit at this time, as he still has guardianship of them in his country until they have reached the age of 21.
Meanwhile, the three are forging ahead with their new life, which involves Sutherland assisting at their Montessori School and their being available to make presentations to school and church groups on their experience and life in Malaysia, in general. Book signings are also keeping Sutherland busy, and locally within the next two weeks, they will happen at Horizon Bookstore in Traverse City (with an accompanying talk) on January 9 and at Borders Bookstore on January 11.