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12 / 08 / 2008 - `I was raped and left pregnant at 16... but I still love my baby`
Like so many teenage mums, Elizabeth Cameron doesn't like to talk much about the father of her toddler daughter.
She shrugs when asked about him, and admits that when questioned about his whereabouts - as people inevitably do - she likes to keep things vague.
'When new people ask, I say I have nothing to do with him - which is true,' she says quietly. 'But I'm not sure yet what I will tell Phoebe herself when she is old enough to ask.
'Hopefully, one day, I will get married, and then Phoebe will have a father and it won't be such an issue.'
If only things were that easy. The truth is that little Phoebe will never want to know the truth about the man who gave her life.
She was conceived on a cold December evening when Elizabeth - then a 16-year-old virgin - was dragged into the back of the van and raped.
All that Elizabeth will be able to tell Phoebe one day is that her father was a stranger in a hooded top who forced himself upon her.
She has no idea of the man's age, ethnic background, even height, such was the confusion of that evening. Indeed, he could be one of three possible individuals.
One of the few things that Elizabeth is sure of is that she was raped three times that night, by three different men.
That Phoebe exists at all almost defies belief. Practically everyone who knew exactly how Elizabeth had fallen pregnant - doctors, siblings, even her own father - urged her to have an abortion as soon as possible.
The only person who pleaded with her to at least consider having the child was her mother, Sarah.
Today, Elizabeth and Sarah are together to tell their remarkable story to the Mail. Sitting in their lavish eight-bedroom, £1.5 million home in a picturesque village on the South Coast, at first they seem like any doting mother and grandmother, falling over themselves to share stories of the little girl of whom they are so proud.
'Even at 22 months, she can wrap me round her little finger,' admits Sarah, 53, who owns a property leasing business. 'Having her in my life is such a joy. From the first time I held her in my arms, I have had this fierce bond with her, a connection which started even before she was born.
'She looks like me when I was her age, and I feel strongly that she was meant to be a part of our family.'
Elizabeth, still only 19 and about to start university to train to be a primary school teacher, is less vocal than her mother, but no less besotted.
'Everyone, save for mum, thought I should have an abortion,' she says. 'My dad even made an appointment at the clinic, and they showed me the little blob on the scan, I presume, to convince me that it was just a mass of cells and the whole thing would be over quickly.
'But I couldn't go through with it. 'At school, my friends - most of whom didn't even know about the rape - couldn't understand why anyone my age would want to have a baby rather than an abortion.
'And the few I did tell about what had happened were even more horrified that I would want to go through with the birth.
'But I did. And I don't regret it for a moment.
Every time I look at Phoebe, I know I made the right decision. I never wanted to end my baby's life just because of how she came to be.'
To most women, the thought of carrying their rapist's baby would be unthinkable. Elizabeth says that she, too, would once have shared that view.
To her amazement, though, the first sight of that 'mass of cells' on the screen triggered waves of tenderness rather than revulsion.
'It was surprisingly easy to love her as she grew inside me, but I have to admit I was scared my feelings would change when I saw her.
'During the pregnancy, I had nightmares about the attack and I worried myself sick that seeing my baby would immediately bring on flashbacks of that night.
'But from the moment mum put her on my breast, there was no question we belonged together.
'She did not remind me of that night, and I knew then that having her was more important than what had happened.'
Very few people know the truth of how Phoebe came to exist. Unfortunately, in their community, it is assumed that she is just another youngster who got pregnant through carelessness, foolishness or deliberate willfulness.
'At college, one of my tutors even asked if I'd got pregnant deliberately so I could get a council flat.'
Her mother shakes her head. 'Most people don't know the gory facts. To them, she is just a silly girl who got herself pregnant.
'We had always been regular churchgoers in our community before this. But we faced so many barbed comments from people at church that we stopped going there and went somewhere else. Sometimes, it has felt like me and Elizabeth against the rest of the world.'
Elizabeth's astonishing story began in December 2005, when an ordinary day at college took a dreadfully violent turn.
'Everyone, except Mum, said I should have an abortion'
A shy, studious girl, known to prefer studying to going to clubs or discos, she had spent the day with friends but was under instruction to be home for the family meal.
Her mother Sarah, who was, as she puts it, 'doing my usual hectic Mum's taxi routine', arranged to pick her up in a supermarket car park after collecting Elizabeth's sister from a Christmas panto.
Unfortunately, Sarah was delayed by an hour, and her frantic phone calls to Elizabeth's mobile went unanswered.
When she arrived at the car park, there was no sign of Elizabeth, so, thinking that she must have caught the bus home, Sarah drove to the family home.
There, to her astonishment, she found Elizabeth in her bedroom, in floods of tears on the floor.
'She was dishevelled and crying her eyes out,' Sarah remembers. 'I panicked, asked her what was wrong but she couldn't tell me.
When I tried to put my arms around her, she pushed me away. She just kept on crying, making me feel completely helpless.
'At first, I wondered if she'd had a falling out with friends, maybe over a boy we knew nothing about.'
Sarah was unable to coax any information out of her daughter and the next day she found her similarly tearful and withdrawn.
Elizabeth says now that she was simply in shock about what she had been through. 'I just couldn't bear to speak about it, not even to mum,' she says.
'I didn't tell anyone because I thought they would think it was my fault, that I was somehow asking for it. I was so ashamed and embarrassed by what had happened, I couldn't even say the word "rape".'
It was, in fact, several days before Elizabeth cracked and blurted out what had happened.
'She was sobbing. She told me these three men in a van had approached her and threatened her. Then they forced her into the van. I was devastated as she said it. Even now, it is hard to talk about.
'As a parent, you try to protect your child, and the thought of my quiet and studious young daughter being violated is so painful. Especially because it was my fault: I should have been there on time.'
That night, Elizabeth was adamant that she did not want her father James, 57, an advertising executive, to know what had happened, but her mother simply could not condone any such cover-up.
'I told her the men who did this were dangerous - that we had to go to the police. I was just horrified that she could even think of not reporting it.'
Together, they told James - who reacted as any father would.
'He exploded with anger - both at what had happened, and at the fact that Elizabeth had not told us sooner. He called the police straight away. Elizabeth was distraught.'
'I was scared, I thought they were going to kill me'
Elizabeth herself takes up the story. 'I had to go over it all and it was awful. I told the police that I'd been so terrified. I thought they were going to kill me.
'After I got into the van, they drove away. I was sure I was being kidnapped. They could have taken me anywhere - abroad even - and I was so scared I was never going to see my family again.
'I was crying with fear, but I didn't scream in case they became more violent.
'In the back of that van, I was raped by all three of them as they drove around, stopping occasionally. I closed my eyes. I couldn't bring myself to look at them. I thought they were in their 20s, but I cannot be certain.'
The lack of a clear picture of her attackers appears to have made the investigation problematic for the female police officer who was dispatched that night.
'I expected there to be immediate action - a medical examination for starters,' says Sarah. 'Elizabeth had bruises on her arms where they held her down. Then I expected maybe counselling, more interviews. But as the days passed we heard nothing.
'When we followed it up, they said the supermarket car park had no CCTV trained on the part where Elizabeth was taken. She couldn't give any real description of the men because their hoods were over their faces.
'There wasn't a lot to go on, I suppose, and because Sarah couldn't bring herself to report it until a few days after the attack, there was no real forensic evidence either.'
Elizabeth cried at the apparent lack of progress from the police, and as the weeks passed, began to resign herself to the prospect that her attackers would never be caught.
Her way of coping was to continue at college, where she was studying for a BTEC in childcare. A month later, however, her period was late.
She confided in her mother, who bought the pregnancy test. 'When it was positive, I was the one who cried the most,' admits Sarah. 'I told her I would be there for her, whatever. Her father immediately said she should have an abortion.'
It was at this point that the story took the most astonishing turn. Elizabeth says she had always held very strong views on abortion - believing it wrong, whatever the circumstances. And she couldn't shake off that feeling, not even while lying on the examining couch in the abortion clinic.
Although an appointment had already been made for later in the week to have the actual procedure, Elizabeth asked her mother to cancel it.
'I spent the few days before the appointment in tears, arguing with my father. He couldn't believe that I would even contemplate continuing with the pregnancy. My sister hated the idea.
'I can't explain why I felt so strongly - but I did. I also couldn't even consider adoption. My mum had been abandoned at a London railway station as a baby and adopted, and it had affected her deeply.
'I'd grown up thinking: "How could anyone abandon an innocent baby?" - and I found myself thinking that about my child.
'I think mum understood. When I finally said: "No, I want to have it", she stood by me.
News of the impending addition to the family caused a deep rift. The other Cameron children - Julian, 32, Nicholas, 29, and Alice, 13 - were horrified.
One day, Sarah found a note Alice had typed on her computer. It read: 'Dear God, please help me to love this new baby, because at the moment, I hate it.'
As Elizabeth's bump grew, though, people outside the home had to be told - and the inevitable tuts ensued.
'People have been horrible,' admits Sarah. 'But that just made us more determined to fight for this innocent little child. She had not asked to be conceived, had she?'
On September 15, 2006, little Phoebe arrived weighing a healthy 8lb 4oz. Sarah stayed by Elizabeth's side during the long labour and was the first to hold the little girl.
Both new mum and grandmother admit they were relieved that their only feeling on setting eyes on her was one of adoration.
As Sarah puts it: 'She was so pretty, with thick dark hair and beautiful blue eyes. People may wonder how it is possible to love a child conceived in this way, but believe me, I love her even more because of it.
'Because of the way she was conceived, I love her even more'
'All the hatred I felt towards those men disappeared when I saw the baby. I put Phoebe on Elizabeth's breast and that was the most moving sight.
'In that moment, it wasn't about her being attacked in some car park, it was simply about the precious moment a new mum holds her baby.'
Elizabeth concurs. 'I have never, ever blamed Phoebe for what happened.
'While it was terrifying, knowing that I was going to be a mum made me look forward and focus on something else. I suppose I have tried to look beyond what happened, to the life that was created.'
She is the first to admit that it has not been easy. Phoebe is almost two, and it took a long time for Elizabeth to make peace with her father. 'I didn't want him near her at first. I remember shouting at him: "You wanted me to kill her!"
'But, in time, I saw that he wanted to make amends, too, and he adores her now. That's important. I know that she does need that male figure in her life.'
Which brings us back to the inescapable fact that Phoebe will one day start asking questions about where her 'Daddy' is.
Elizabeth's attackers have never been caught, and she isn't entirely sure that she would want them to be now.
'While I would like to see them punished, I would not ever want them to find out about Phoebe,' she says, forcefully.
'They didn't treat me as a person - just a piece of meat. I would not want the man who made me pregnant ever to have a claim on her.'
And Phoebe? What will Elizabeth tell the child when that difficult subject has to be broached.
'If I have to, I will say that she was the good that came out of something bad. And I will tell her that, however she came to be, I have never ever regretted having her, and I would not be without her for the world.'
• The family's names have been changed for legal reasons.
Source : Angela Carless - DAILY MAIL