She had fought fair and square. God told her that was the only way to go. So Noelle Hunter figured all she had to do was stay calm and allow the justice system to decide upon custody of her 5-year-old daughter Maayimuna “Muna” N'Diaye.
Would Hunter get full custody of Muna or would Ibrahim N’Diaye, her former husband?
N’Diaye lost. But so did Hunter.
Instead of bringing Muna home on New Year’s Day, 2012, Hunter has found herself in an intercontinental tug-of-war with N’Diaye, a 45-year-old Mali citizen and former instructor at Morehead State University, a man who chose to kidnap Muna, flee to his homeland and disregard U.S. and international laws.
Custody fights are seldom fair, a lesson Hunter has learned over the past 15 months. The ordeal has left her with two emotions: heartbreak and disappointment.
“There have been days -— and there are days — when it really hurts; some days where all I really want to do is just lay in the bed and keep the covers over my head,” said Hunter, fresh from her latest “Bring Muna Home” event in Washington, D.C. “But I can’t do that.”
No, Hunter must take center stage. She must talk to anybody who bothers to listen, knock on all doors that open, join like-minded people anywhere and wave Muna placards everywhere.
Hunter, a devout Christian, finds great hope in her faith. And that hope is what she's been clinging to, despite the indescribable pain she's felt since December 27, 2011, the day N’Diaye whisked her child to Mali.
N’Diaye has been holed up with Muna in Mali ever since, refusing to accept mediation or abide by what a U.S. court has ordered. He now faces felony charges for “custodial interference.”
But what do federal charges in a U.S. court mean to N’Diaye, whose family’s prominence and influence in Mali shield him from extradition?
N'Diaye had met Hunter at West Virginia University in Kentucky in 2004 while he was on a student visa and she was studying for her doctorate. They moved to Morehead in 2005.
He'd been fond of saying he was “born into gold,” and his tales of Mali, a West African country with a French influence, wooed Hunter. Such stories, which Hunter had no reason to doubt, appealed to her fascination with Africa. She made three trips to Mali with N’Diaye, and the couple married there in 2005.
When he snuck out of America with Muna and a woman named Anna Schein – facts the FBI shared with Hunter — Hunter came to realize how little she knew or understood of N’Diaye, of Malian society and of its patriarchal rules. She was unprepared for what came next: a fight for her daughter.
Between 2010 and 2011, more than 1,000 children with documented U.S. citizenship have been kidnapped by one of their parents, according to U.S. State Department statistics. Those “left-behind parents” share Hunter’s heartbreak. Not all, however, share her determination.
“Until she’s home, I won’t sit down,” Hunter said. “I won’t shut up. I won’t be quiet.”
How could she? Mother and daughter were close, sharing laughter and moments of make-believe: Muna the ballerina; “mommy” her audience. Hunter can’t forget those moments.
“When I'd lay down with her for a nap, she'd turn facing me and I could feel her warm little girl breath on my face,” Hunter said. “She'd put her little hand on my cheek and say, 'I love you mommy.’ ”
Hunter waits to hear those words again. Meanwhile, she blogs about her case; she writes letters to lawmakers; she speaks to bureaucrats and agencies like the National Crime Information Center, an information clearinghouse; she sits with other left-behind-parents for an audience with powerful people like former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In late February, Hunter ratcheted up her campaign. She petitioned President Obama for help through the White House website, “We the People.” Her petition read:
"Maayimuna ‘Muna’ N’Diaye was abducted on Dec. 27, 2011, by her father, Ibrahim N’Diaye. She was taken to impoverished and war-torn Bamako, Mali, West Africa. Muna is a U.S. citizen. Father and daughter are listed in INTERPOL and a Class D felony arrest warrant exists for N’Diaye. Muna's mother, Dr. Noelle Hunter, has an active case with the U.S. Department of State, Office of Children’s Issues.
We call upon President Obama to:
Direct U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to employ diplomatic means to secure Muna’s return.
Direct U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to initiate criminal charges against Ibrahim N’Diaye under the International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act.
Make the Administration’s FY13 foreign aid to Mali conditional on that country’s cooperation in Muna’s return."
Hunter has been waiting too long for help. She has prayed to God. Somewhere out there is help; somewhere out there is a senator, a Cabinet member, a Consul official in Mali, a president, a former president, a cleric or a soldier of fortune who can see the injustice of N’Diaye’s actions and ensure the man answers for it.
A global power can’t let a significant affront to its legal system go unpunished simply because the criminal landed outside its jurisdiction.
If Noelle Hunter can’t win, who will be the next American whose life is turned topsy-turvy because the United States didn’t have the political will and moral courage to fight like her for one of its own?
Justice B. Hill, a former journalism professor at Ohio University, is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland. Justice has written for a variety of newspapers and websites, and he used to be a senior writer with MLB.com.