Murdered women: Sabina Nessa, ‘a kind and generous soul’

Family and colleagues of the 28-year-old primary school teacher remember someone dedicated to her family and pupils.

An illustration of Sabina Nessa with lavender plants in the background.
[Richard Smith/ Al Jazeera]

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On the evening of September 17, 2021, Sabina Nessa left her flat to walk to The Depot bar right by the Kidbrooke commuter rail station. It was a dry, cloudy day with plenty of sunny spells, and the parks and streets were busy.

The area where the 28-year-old primary school teacher had chosen to settle was an affordable southeast London neighbourhood that attracted young families and professionals. The gastro pub with exposed brick walls was the main watering hole in this largely residential area, on the site of an old wartime balloon depot.

For Sabina, life was good. Just a year after getting her teaching degree she had landed her dream job – teaching five and six-year-olds in a local primary school.

Sabina’s flat, which she shared with a flatmate, was her pride and joy, and she would often fill it with fresh flowers.

One thing Sabina loved about the neighbourhood was the sprawling Cator Park, a five-minute walk from her apartment building. She would often walk through the green space, admiring the floral displays and the Palladium mansion at the top of the hill.

But, despite its reputation for being safe, Sabina generally did not walk through the park after sundown. She felt uneasy as it got dark and the park emptied. That Friday evening, however, Sabina was running late to meet a friend so she took a shortcut through the park. When she did not arrive, her friend assumed she had changed her mind about the meeting.

They would later find out that she had been murdered as she walked the short distance from her home to the bar.

No one saw the attack even though it happened in an area popular with dog walkers and runners. It was not a particularly isolated spot, and there were still people out at that time of night. Her body lay on the ground, close to a community centre, for hours. She was discovered by a dog walker the following evening.

Koci Selamaj, a 36-year-old former delivery driver for Domino’s Pizza, was captured on security cameras behind Nessa near the area where she was killed. He was arrested nine days later and charged with her murder. The post-mortem examination into the cause of her death found that she had been struck across the back of the head 34 times with a two-foot-long weapon. He hit her with such force that the metal traffic triangle he used broke. He then carried Sabina, who was unconscious, to another spot in the park where he ripped off her tights and strangled her. He partially covered her half-naked body with leaves before leaving her to die, according to police reports.

Prosecutors said the attack was “predatory and premeditated” and carried out with “extreme violence”. They believed it might have been sexually motivated.

A person holds a placard during a vigil for Sabina Nessa
A person holds a placard in memory of Sabina Nessa, a teacher who was murdered London in September 2021 [File:Peter Nicholls/Reuters]

Selamaj had moved to Eastbourne, a seaside resort on England’s southern coast, five years earlier from a small town outside the Albanian capital of Tirana. He did odd jobs including working at a garage and lived with his Romanian partner until they split up in about August 2021 after reports by the woman of domestic abuse. On the day of the attack, Selamaj sought to reconcile with her to have sex and grew furious when she refused. He then drove the 112km (70 miles) to Sabina’s neighbourhood.

Selamaj pleaded guilty in February 2022 and was sentenced to a minimum of 36 years in prison. But that does not erase the grief felt by Sabina’s loved ones.

‘The best auntie’

She was the second of four sisters, with only 11 months between her and Jebina Yasmin Islam, the eldest. The two women were close – the strong bond they enjoyed as children continuing into adulthood.

“Sabina was the best auntie to my two little girls,” Jebina explains as she sits in a busy north London café serving Greek mezze and Halal food not far from where she works teaching preschool children.

“Her nieces adored her and loved it when she took them shopping,” Jebina says. “Sabina took them out as toddlers, and she loved showing them the clothes and makeup she loved.” Sabina particularly liked buying handbags and shoes.

Jebina pauses and struggles to compose herself. When she gathers her emotions, she continues, occasionally breaking into a warm smile as she recalls their upbringing in a close-knit family whose Muslim faith is important to them.

Sabina would raise money to give to impoverished people in Bangladesh, where her parents are from, and the family would often visit relatives there.

It was a long way from the countryside of Bedfordshire, in eastern England, where they grew up in a pretty, rural area. Despite being the only Asian family in their village, they felt accepted in the friendly community. “There’s a lot of respect between everyone because it’s such a small town, we all knew each other. Because we lived there all our life, we were used to it,” says Jebina.

The sisters shared a bedroom when they were at primary school and would often play-act as teachers. Jebina seems proud of how their games morphed into careers.

Jebina Nessa, sister of Sabina Nessa
Jebina Nessa paid tribute to her sister Sabina during a vigil in London on September 24, 2021 [File:Peter Nicholls/Reuters]

“Sabina always wanted to be a teacher, from a very young age,” she explains. The girls would take turns playing the teacher and pupil, and Sabina would always take her roleplay seriously.

The sisters also liked to ride their bicycles in the park. “We had lots of free space to play outside. Sabina was never happier than when she was outdoors,” Jebina recalls.

She also adored animals. “First of all, we had budgies, and then we got three cats … and we loved them so much,” says Jebina, describing her sister’s “caring, loving nature”.

She liked to read the news on her phone, she adds, and “would always have a book … on the go”.

When Jebina married and moved to London, Sabina soon followed, enrolling at Greenwich University in southeast London. After graduating in 2014, she went on to do her teaching degree at the University of Bedfordshire.

Despite being so close and in regular contact, Jebina did not know that her sister was missing until her body had been found. When her phone rang on Sunday morning, she thought it would be Sabina. Instead, it was another sister calling to tell Jebina that Sabina was dead. At that stage, the cause and circumstances of her death were unknown. “My sister spoke to my husband, as I was busy with the children,” Jebina remembers. “My world fell apart when I heard.”

“I couldn’t possibly have imagined the horror of that call,” she says, visibly shaken.

‘The longest hour of their lives’

Along with her husband, Jebina immediately set off for her parental home in Bedfordshire. All she knew at that point was that Sabina had been found dead. On the way, desperate for information, she did a Google search and learned that the body of a young woman had been found near Nessa’s home.

“I made my husband pull the car over and I was just shouting, could this be Sabina? The journey was horrendous. I was searching for more detail, but I could not find anything more as to what had happened,” she recalls.

After Jebina arrived at her parents’ house, the family waited for more than an hour for the police to deliver the awful news that Sabina had not just died, but that she had been murdered.

“It felt like the longest hour of their lives,” she says. “My parents were absolutely devastated, and beside themselves with grief.”

Jebina says her sister’s murder has affected her in ways big and small. She now worries about leaving the house, about whether it’s light enough to go out, in case she, too, is attacked. She feels unsafe taking shortcuts through parks. She gets unnerved when men walk behind her. She even worries about dropping her five-year-old daughter off at the breakfast club, where children go before school when their parents start work early.

“Since what happened, I now think twice about going out. It’s changed my perspective on everything,” she explains.

People attend a vigil for Sabina Nessa
People attended a vigil for Sabina Nessa, who was killed in London in 2021 [File:Peter Nicholls/Reuters]

It is not just the family who have been affected by the tragedy. Sabina was a well-respected and much-loved teacher at Rushey Green Primary School, in Catford, about 5km (3 miles) from her home. Her colleagues and students have been grieving.

Sabina had been teaching at the large inner-city primary school since September 2019.

Speaking over WhatsApp one weekend, Lisa Williams, the school’s head teacher, explains that the way in which Sabina died was particularly difficult to cope with, for her students and her colleagues. After all, she was just going to meet a friend, doing the kind of normal thing that people do in their daily routines. The children also found it disturbing to hear that she had been murdered in a park, a place they associated with fun.

“Parks are supposed to be safe places for children to play and have fun and just be free. That innocence was taken away from them in that moment of hearing about Sabina,” she points out.

A kind and generous soul

According to her family, friends and colleagues, Sabina was acutely aware of the discrimination and challenges many children faced because she made it her business to learn about suffering and oppression in the world.

This was one of the main reasons why she chose to start her teaching career in a relatively low-income area of London. She was passionate about helping children break through the barriers of disadvantage, to learn, be ambitious, and succeed in life.

“She would often buy flowers on her way to school, and then display them [in her classroom] so everyone could enjoy them,” Lisa says. “She was an early person, and would arrive at the school before anyone else, often with the caretaker. Sabina treated the classroom as her home.”

However, as passionate as Sabina was about teaching other people’s children, Jebina says her sister always put family first. She once discreetly paid for her young nephew to have lunch at school, when his parents struggled to afford it, so he could eat with the other children from his class.

A portrait of Sabina Nessa
A portrait of Sabina Nessa [File:Peter Nicholls/Reuters]

‘It gets no easier’

Jebina says she finds the pain of Sabina’s death unbearable.

“People say, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’, and that ‘time is a healer’, but it’s not. It’s a load of rubbish. It gets no easier. I want her to walk in the door, but it’s never going to happen again,” she explains.

“She would come into the house where my parents live, ladened down with loads of shopping bags, often things she had bought, such as flowers and clothes, maybe presents for other people, and always with a smile on her face, and often talking about the latest thing the children at school had said, or a picture one of them had painted for her,” recounts Jebina.

Something else haunts her. The disparity in media coverage between her sister’s murder, and that of Sarah Everard. Although the Muslim community expressed outrage over Sabina’s murder, holding vigils at a mosque, and a candle was lit outside the prime minister’s residence on Downing Street, her death did not attract the same media attention as Sarah’s.

Sarah was a 33-year-old white marketing director who was murdered in March 2021 by a policeman, Wayne Couzens. The off-duty officer had falsely arrested her for breaching COVID-19 regulations. He then drove her to Dover, 129km (80 miles) away, where he raped and strangled her to death. He later burned her body and disposed of her remains in a nearby pond in Ashford, Kent.

A casual search in the database Lexis Nexus revealed 1,346 British news reports on Sarah in the three days following her death. That compares with just 104 for Sabina, despite a number of similarities between their murders.

Both women were conventionally beautiful, young, and had careers. They were from loving families and had a wide circle of friends. Both were walking close to their homes when they were attacked. But while Sarah’s murder was, and still is, to a degree a much discussed and written about case, not just in Britain but worldwide, Sabina’s family feels hers has been much less so.

“All we’ve had from the government since Sabina was killed is a condolence letter, but nothing else,” says Jebina, when asked if the family feels that the government has paid enough attention to Sabina’s death.

“A lot of people have highlighted the disproportionate coverage between Sarah Everard’s case and my sister’s,” she adds. “You can clearly see in the [news]papers. I’ve noticed she’ll have a little picture at the front and then she’ll make page nine or page seven. This has to be because my sister was not white.”

People light candles during a vigil for Sabina Nessa
People lit candles during a vigil in memory of Sabina Nessa [File:Peter Nicholls/Reuters]

Research into media coverage of murders of women by men has shown that the cases which get the most attention include those where the perpetrator is still at large, where a woman has been killed by a stranger, where there is something unusual about the killing and if the victim is white, she will usually get more media attention than a woman of colour.

“A perfect victim is usually young, white, middle-class and conventionally attractive,” explains Karen Ingala-Smith, founder of the feminist campaign, Counting Dead Women.

“It’s not a coincidence, I think, that this demographic happens to be how one might describe those with careers in the media, someone that they can relate to and empathise with,” she adds. “Middle-aged women, working class, those killed by a partner, those without a beautiful face to smile from the page and those with a name which suggests a minority ethnic origin are those who are most likely to be overlooked.”

Soon after Sabina’s death, a number of women of colour questioned, in the media and at public meetings, why her death was not met with the same level of media outrage as cases involving white women. They wondered if it was due to her ethnicity and skin colour, her being a Muslim woman of Bangladeshi origin.

A total of 139 women were killed by men in Britain in 2021, according to data gathered by Counting Dead Women. Neither police nor any other criminal justice agency publishes data on the race or ethnicity of the victims.

Sabina’s legacy

To honour Sabina, plans are afoot to design a garden in her name where the children from her school can remember the teacher they were so fond of. Sabina brought her love of green spaces into her teaching, encouraging the children to be outside. She often took them to the school’s “edible garden” where fruit and vegetables grow. To acknowledge Sabina’s love for the outdoors, the head teacher wants the children to have positive associations with such spaces, instead of associating parks with their teacher’s death.

“I know very much she would have wanted her children not to be tainted by this,” Williams says. “She was young, she was beautiful, and she was an optimist. She would have wanted her children to be full of life and ambition and to support them to get through it.”

The school is focused on helping them through this turmoil, she says.

“We have to talk to them about safety, about how to spot danger, and all the other things that will hopefully protect them from harm. And that is my biggest bugbear, having to do this to children when they are so young. They should be free to play outdoors with their friends and not even think about danger. But that, unfortunately, is not the world we occupy.”

Sabina’s loved ones say the sentencing of Koci Selamaj, who pleaded guilty to her murder at the Old Bailey court on April 8, did not bring closure. Jebina hopes for a cultural shift that challenges the conditions in which boys and men are taught that girls and women are inferior and undeserving of respect and protection.

“If I can do something from what we’ve experienced as a family to bring some sort of change, then I will. It will be Sabina’s legacy,” Jebina says softly, her face contorting in pain. “I want women to be able to walk the streets alone any time of day.”

This story is part of the series “Murdered Women” where we are telling the stories of women who were killed by men in 2021.

Source: Al Jazeera