EXCLUSIVE: The Michael and Mija Kliment story – What really happened in Slovakia?
How far would you go to keep those you love close… Port Elizabeth father Michael Kliment in July this year made international headlines after love and desperation drove him to fly to Slovakia, where he apparently kidnapped his daughter, Mija (8), outside her school, and made a mad dash for the border – igniting an intense legal battle over his actions. For that, Michael even made it onto the Interpol’s notorious red list.
The whole operation was planned with military precision that in the end it was almost like an epic Hollywood movie as RNEWS found out from Michael recently.
What happened prior to the ‘kidnapping’
Michael was forced to kidnap Mija from a school in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia, after years of attempts to get her back to South Africa through the courts failed.
Mija’s Slovakian mother had taken her to Slovakia in November 2012 following their divorce – despite Michael winning sole custody. When she passed on, a custody battle still ensued with his former in-laws.
Michael eventually won and while he was expecting his daughter to be returned to South Africa, the same Slovakian court that issued the order for Mija’s return to South Africa in September 2015, gave temporary custody to Mija’s grandmother.
For Michael, there was no other option but to go get her himself.
“A week before we left, our attorneys phoned us and they said that they had found something like a loophole on the return order that I could actually use to take the child from the street,” Michael told RNEWS.
After confirming everything with his legal team, he contacted a few friends of his that were bodyguards in the 1990’s, who happened to own security services in Slovakia. He had asked them to keep a close watch on Mija and to follow her routines.
Following a week of surveillance, Michael contacted his attorneys and told them he was headed to Slovakia.
He flew to Vienna, Austria, with his eldest daughter from a previous marriage, Michaela, and then drove a rental car into Slovakia where they checked into a hotel.
The whole process was done with such extreme secrecy that Michael had not even informed his parents about what he was doing. He did, however, inform the family advocate and the Chief Justice in South Africa about his intentions, and that they were not taking Mija against her will.
He had apparently been informed that he was well within his legal rights to do so, and was told of the documents he would need for the South African embassy in Prague, Vienna, to issue travel documents for Mija.
Arrival in Slovakia --- first attempt fails!
Once they had settled in their hotel, Michael had a meeting with all the people involved; lawyers, the people watching Mija and her grandmother’s house and discussed her routines and when the best time would be to grab her.
Their first attempt had to be cancelled because Mija and her grandmother left the house later than usual.
“While Michaela and I were driving in the car to our meeting point on the Monday morning, we got a phone call to cancel because there was a big difference in the time, they only left the house maybe 15 or 20 minutes later than normal,” he said.
Once they made sure that everything would be fine for the next attempt, they again went to their established rendezvous point the next day and waited - all the while keeping in contact with the men watching the house via walkie talkie. They had refused to use cell phones and always kept them off for fear of discovery.
Once Mija was dropped off in front of the stairs leading to her school, and they made sure that the grandmother had already left before making their move.
“As soon as she was at the top of the stairs, I sent Michaela out and two of the bodyguards went out with her.
“Michaela got to the front of the door and yelled out for Mija and grabbed her. Mija got a bit of a fright and there was a bit of a fight, because Mija was taught by her grandmother that whenever we came by that she should fight,” Michael described.
“So, then I got out the car, and when she saw me everything was alright, she grabbed me, we got into the car and we drove away!”
Mad dash for the border
From that point on, it was a mad dash for the border. They had a convoy of two vans escorting them towards the Hungary border. They had to hurry because apparently once a child has been reported missing they close the border within 45 minutes of the report.
The dash to the Hungary border was actually a diversion as the normal way of entering and leaving Slovakia was to take the Austria border. Part of the plan was also that after an hour Michael’s attorneys would inform Mija’s Principal that she was in safe hands and with her biological father, that procedures had been followed and that he was legally allowed to take her.
Once they had reached the Hungary border, one of the vans escorting them turned back while the other one would stay with them until they reached Vienna, in Austria. No GPS was used for fear that they were being traced.
Hopes dashed – life as a fugitive
However, their hopes to receive an emergency passport for Mija so that she could return with them to South Africa were soon dashed.
“They asked me if I had any documentation, I showed them all that I have a return order, I have a custody order, and the death certificate from the mother’s passing. I also showed them the South African sole custody in the divorce,” described Michael.
“Then they told me that in their records there is a temporary custody order for the grandmother, and I was shocked! It was the first time I had heard about it. I called the advocates and they said that they had just received the documentation.”
His attorneys had only been given the notification that temporary custody had been awarded to the grandparents at noon – and he had snatched Mija at 7:30 in the morning and had only arrived in Vienna at 14:00; which was the only time it would have been safe to turn their phones back on and contact them.
They checked into a hotel for the night. A local man, who assists fathers, who have gone through a similar custody battles contacted Michael in order to help and told him what he would need to do from then on.
He said that they needed to keep moving into different hotels and not use any cards or show his passport to anyone!
So they stayed in Vienna for three nights before deciding to go to the Czech Republic, where he had friends with high connections that could help.
“During that time, I had seen on TV, the notification that Mija had been missing and that they were looking for her, and looking for me.
“While traveling to the Czech Republic, I got a phone call confirming this - after the phone call you always have to switch off your phone because I was now on Interpol’s list. It was such a shock, the whole European Union was looking for me,” he said.
Once they reached the Czech Republic, he met up with a man, who Michael said would like to remain anonymous, and stayed at his family’s home for three nights. This man knew of hotels and Bed and Breakfasts that would be willing to take them in without asking questions.
For four weeks, they had to keep moving around the Czech Republic and some places in Austria, as well as the border of Belgium and Switzerland.
“Now, when I say move around, I mean hiding your head and going into a van, ducking under chairs, Mija thought it was all a game, she loved it.
“I was the one that was nervous with all this. There was one time where we heard sirens coming towards us and a police car stopped about 200 meters from us and I thought ‘this is it, this is the end, I’m going to jail’, and it turned out there was actually a domestic violence situation a few houses away,” he described.
Michael still contacted the Prague embassy during the four weeks of moving around and asked them for assistance but they refused. Their reasons being that the temporary custody of the grandparents was still in effect, and that Mija’s passport was still valid even though she did not have it on her person, and they could not issue a new one.
A breakthrough, at last…
“Then suddenly on the 27th of July, out of the blue, I got a message that said we should get ready as I had won the case.
“I was confused, and asked which case had I won. They told me that the temporary custody case has been withdrawn and that Interpol was not looking for me anymore, or Mija, and I can go to the embassy,” he said.
Michael refused to believe anything unless he was shown proof. With the many iPads and phones he was borrowing - making sure to use a different sim cards every day, they managed to send him a picture of the documents that said that the court had overturned the temporary custody of the grandparents and abided by the first court ruling in which he had won sole custody against Janka (Mija’s biological mother).
So on the 27th the Magistrate was informed by the Slovakian Constitutional Court that the first custody ruling should be adhered to and that they need to obey South African law and the ruling that said Michael has sole custody of Mija.
Once Michael had gotten the documents he needed for Mija’s passport, they left for Interpol to clear the arrest warrant against him and the order for Mija’s search.
“Interpol asked her four questions; do you love your father? Did he take you without your permission? Has he hurt you, and are you happy? She answered them and I signed everything else, they entered it on the computer. Within an hour everything was sorted,” he said.
Michael was then faced with a slight huddle. When he reached the South African embassy, they did not believe he was a South African citizen and had to do a fingerprint check on him.
After they had finally been issued Mija’s passport, they flew from Prague to Cape Town and then into Port Elizabeth.
“I would like to thank my father who stood behind me all the time, he did make a couple of mistakes, but he stood behind me,” he said.
When mentioning lawyers, flights and hotel stays RNEWS wanted to know how much he had spent financially trying to get his daughter back.
“Before this, it cost me R900 000 in court cases.
“A flight to Slovakia and back Michaela was about R50 000. The flight for me and Mija to Slovakia and back was about R70 000. Staying in the hotels cost about R40-50 000. The people, who helped me with grabbing Mija and my Slovak attorneys cost 42 000 Euros, which is about R650 000. I would say this whole exercise from the first court case until now cost about R2 million,” he said.
Book and film about his epic journey already signed
Michael told RNEWS, that while he does not regret spending that money to get his daughter back, he will be getting some of it back in the form of a book and a movie deal that he signed recently.
Carla van de Spuy will be writing the book, which should be out in five or six months. Carla has written six books and has three best sellers to her name.
“I recently signed with Collaborative DreamWorks, who are going to be doing a movie on my story. They are a London-based company; production will take two to three years,” he said.
All is well that ends well
With regards to Mija and her education, Michael is hoping to have her enrolled in Grade 4 in Summerwood next year, but is taking measures to make sure that her English reading and writing is acceptable by enrolling her in the Bay Language Institute.
“She is enjoying it and doing very well so far, just recently she sent me a SMS in English of about six lines, and it was pretty good. The Institute tells me that she catches on fast and they are even doing extra maths with her and they say that she’s a wiz,” he said.
Mija still stays in contact with her mother’s family in Slovakia, but Michael is making sure that she only stays in contact on her terms. He does not want her to feel pressured into speaking with anyone if she doesn’t want to, and always makes sure that her needs are the primary focus of his life.
“In the first two weeks, we have been back she didn’t want to have any contact with anyone from Slovakia. And I abided by that, I am taking her to a psychologist once a week for the sake of her trying to get over the death of her mother, which is hard, and also with what happened.
“She was eight years old then, so it’s a big thing. The psychologist also told me that it’s not about what I want, or what the grandparents want, it’s about what Mija wants, so I abided by that,” he said.
Michael expressed his joy at finally having Mija by his side, and that she now takes up the majority of his time.
“I have missed her for three and a half years; I had only seen her when I was going on holiday, which is not the same.
“That’s what parenthood is about; you don’t make a child and then leave her alone,” he said.
Mija recently celebrated her 9th birthday and is adjusting very well to life in South Africa again. She has been enrolled in Hip Hop classes and is taking ballet as well as her home schooling to pass the time.
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