It was Friday, June 23, 2017 when I lost my big brother. I know this is and will be the most difficult piece I write in my career. However, I want to share my story in the hopes it makes someone think twice about carrying a knife.
James was stabbed in a motiveless and unprovoked knife attack as he walked home from seeing his friends at our local pub. He was on the phone to his girlfriend and couldn’t possibly have foreseen what was about to happen.
His senseless death and its catastrophic impact on my family has been covered by the media. However, siblings of knife crime victims are not often written about. We hear about the impact on parents, but brothers and sisters tend to fade into the background. Our grief is not always acknowledged, and while our parents are consumed by their own loss, we can often feel abandoned.
It felt it was important to tell my story, and those of others who have lost siblings to knife crime, in the hopes it will begin to make a difference – and broaden people’s perspective of bereavement.
I remember my phone ringing at 11.45pm and the blood-curdling sound of my brother’s girlfriend screaming down the line at me: “James has been stabbed.” I cannot begin to express what I felt in that moment. The world I knew had shifted catastrophically.
James had been stabbed in front of the parish church in our hometown in the West Midlands, managing to get himself onto Aldridge village high street before collapsing.
I frantically rushed into my parents’ room and yelled what had happened, before racing into the village. I saw a sea of blue lights as I turned the bend from our road, and a crowd of people being pushed back by police. Abandoning my car, I sprinted towards the scene, screaming out James’ name. A police officer grabbed me and asked: “Who are you?” I answered: “I’m his sister.”
Forced to stand behind police tape, I watched from afar as paramedics worked on my brother. By this point, my parents had arrived and stood beside me. Our previously indestructible family was breaking up before my eyes. We waited and waited – completely powerless.
Eventually the doctor and paramedics began walking over to us and I heard one say: “Are you going to tell them, or shall I?” Those words will echo forever through my head.
James had been stabbed once through the heart, and wasn’t going to survive. We had our chance to go over to him to say our final goodbyes. He had open heart surgery at the scene, so little was left to the imagination. They couldn’t get him to a hospital in time, and he died right there, in the middle of the high street.
He was just 26.
My head was spinning. I could barely walk, my body was so numb. I couldn’t cry, couldn’t scream. I couldn’t even sit by him to say goodbye. Traumatised, I sat slumped in a heap on the floor, listening to my parents cry.
A young policewoman was trying her best to comfort me and stayed with us as long as she could. It must have been traumatic for her as well. I never got to thank those who tried to save James’ life, but to that policewoman who looked after me, if she ever reads this, I want to say: thank you.
Nearly three weeks later, two brothers were arrested and charged with murder, and the following January the case went to trial. The younger brother, Ammar Kahrod, who was 17 at the time of the attack, was found guilty of murder. The older brother, Aaron Kahrod, 21 at the time, who was present at the attack but not found guilty of murder or manslaughter, was acquitted.
I do not know how I managed to complete my degree with my brother’s murder sucking me into a black hole.
At the time of the trial, I was studying for my finals. I don’t know how I managed to complete my degree with my brother’s murder sucking me into a black hole.
James had so much to live for. A kind, ambitious young man, and wiser than his years, he was a couple of weeks away from opening his first business, a health food shop designed for people in weight training and amateur gym-goers. He loved the gym, and loved helping people get better at what they loved, too.
The business – “one of many”, I remember him once saying – was going to be called Zest. James certainly had a zest for life, but it was snatched away from him in a matter of seconds – for what gain? The person who needlessly murdered James was given a jail sentence of 17 years.
It’s been more than three years since I lost my big brother and it hasn’t got any easier. I think I’m still processing what happened and will be for the rest of my life. I struggle to find the words. What I can tell you is that I miss the person I was before this happened.
We still haven’t had answers, and probably won’t ever know why James was killed. How can you possibly begin to heal, knowing there was absolutely no reason for your only brother’s murder?
A chance encounter that led to tragedy has caused immense upheaval to our family, our friends and the community we live in. My relationship with my parents has changed dramatically – I can’t always be around them anymore. That quiet village where we live is forever tainted.
To outsiders I seem like I am coping, but I still feel disconnected from the world, like I’ve been put inside a bubble all on my own and I’m screaming to get out – but can’t. I battle daily with a sense of guilt that I couldn’t protect James.
His death has meant I’m now an only child. He will never be able to share in my life, and I won’t ever be able to share in his.
My story is echoed by others I have spoken to who also lost their brothers to the senseless violence of knife attacks.
Elysia Asbury’s brother Reagan was stabbed in the neck outside a boxing match at Walsall Town Hall in October 2017.
Elysia, 26, was not at the match that night, but says spectators attempted to stem the flow of her brother’s blood with table cloths before the paramedics arrived. Reagan had been starved of oxygen for 20 minutes.
She received news of the horrific attack by telephone. “We had a call from my aunt and uncle screaming that Reagan had been stabbed,” she says. “I had to stay with my sister, but I couldn’t stop pacing. I was thinking he was a strong lad; he will pull through. I didn’t realise at the time the extent of the wound.”
After multiple blood transfusions at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, Reagan’s organs began shutting down and he died there, less than nine hours after the attack. He was 19.
It was incomprehensible. “I didn’t want to admit that he was dying, but even if he did survive, he would have been brain damaged,” says Elysia. “I know it sounds awful, but I didn’t want him to survive it because it wouldn’t have been Reagan anymore.”
This is exactly how I felt about James, when told that, had he lived, he would have been severely brain damaged. As his sister, I knew he wouldn’t have wanted that – it wouldn’t have been him.
A death in the family initially brings you closer together, but the dynamics in the household often change dramatically. There can be immense strain on existing relationships, because each person grieves their loss in very different ways.
Elysia has found her relationship with her mum the most altered. “I can’t talk to my mum about how I feel anymore because I don’t want to put that on her and I don’t think she has the head space to take my feelings on,” she says.
It’s so difficult seeing your parents melt away from the people they once were.
“It’s so difficult seeing your parents melt away from the people they once were,” says Elysia. “My parents are completely different and dealing with their grief in different ways, and that actually causes a lot of conflict and tension… the house feels like there is a massive black cloud over it.”
Each special occasion, every birthday and Christmas, becomes more difficult. A gaping hole has been left – there is nothing more noticeable than their absence – and it’s not uncommon to dread these days and want them to pass you by.
“I would love nothing more than for my brother to be sharing in those moments,” says Elysia. “We will never get to see him live the life we thought he would have.”
She also finds it hard to relate to friends. “You have a few hours out of the house and then you come back into that environment, you see your family, and you crash,” she says.
“It’s a lifelong battle, you will never get over it, but it’s something you learn to cope with,” says Elysia. “I will never get my head around it, I still don’t understand what happened, and I still can’t make sense of why it happened.”
Cleared of murder, Reagan’s killer was sentenced to 14 years for manslaughter.
Siblings bereaved by knife crime can feel the need to take responsibility for their remaining family. This might mean striving for normality by doing household chores, which give you a sense of focus and purpose. Ultimately, though, it’s a protective instinct – because the thought of losing anybody else is beyond terrifying.
Jade Akoum, 30, lost her brother Yousef Makki to knife crime in March 2019. Although we first spoke just a few months later, she bravely described the events that led to his killing and the impact on her family.
Yousef had been off school one Friday, going to a friends’ house in Hale Barns, Greater Manchester, and staying over when it got late. But he never came home, after being fatally stabbed through the heart by his school friend.
“I always wanted a baby brother,” Jade says. “When Yousef was born we were over the moon. I fed him, changed his nappies and did everything for him. Not being able to have been there to protect Yousef, and the fact he died alone with none of us there hurts beyond words.”
Yousef, who was 17 when he was killed, was a gifted young man, with his whole life ahead of him. He went to Manchester Grammar School on a scholarship and wanted to study medicine.
Like James, Reagan and many more young people lost to knife crime, he would have given so much. “He was never happy with just straight As, he wanted A*s across the board,” says Jade. “He had so many dreams and aspirations. He will never now be able to fulfil them.”
As a mother herself, Jade says it’s difficult when her son mentions his uncle. “My two-year-old still asks where Yousef is, but I can’t explain to him where he’s gone,” she says. “My youngest son doesn’t know who Yousef is at all. That’s what’s so hard. He will grow up not knowing who his uncle was.”
The pain of losing a sibling to knife crime isn’t just coping with the initial loss, but dealing with the destruction one selfish act leaves behind. Bereavement can be a source of immense strain among relatives, including Jade’s, with some members of her family experiencing suicidal thoughts.
“We are still close as a family, but they have different personalities, I don’t really recognise them anymore,” she says.
After Yousef’s death, Jade’s mother Debbie moved out of the family home. Jade now lives there with her own family but it’s a constant reminder of her brother, she says. “My children sleep in Yousef’s bedroom. It’s so painful to think about the loss of Yousef, but equally painful knowing what we will now miss out on.”
Joshua Molnar, now 18, who was charged with stabbing Yousef, was found not guilty of either murder or manslaughter after a jury accepted he knifed him in self-defence. Molnar admitted to perverting the course of justice and possession of a flick knife, and was given 16 months in custody.
A second boy, Adam Chowdhary, 18, was acquitted of perverting the course of justice, but given a four-month detention for admitting possession of a flick knife.
Since we spoke, Jade has tragically lost her mum, who died of what her daughter describes as “a broken heart” – 15 months after Yousef’s death.
“Mum tirelessly fought for justice for her son, and in the end her health deteriorated so much so she could no longer fight,” Jade says.
“One of the last conversations we ever had was to continue the fight for justice for Yousef so the world finds out the truth… It’s not just for Yousef now, but for both of them.”
Elysia, Jade and I are just three voices out of a mass of bereaved siblings throughout the UK. We have all lost brothers or sisters to an epidemic that desperately needs to be curbed. The situation simply cannot continue.
Losing a loved one to knife crime isn’t a one-off experience. Adjusting to our ‘new normal’ is almost impossible. The attacks on our brothers were unprovoked and motiveless. The sentences given feel disproportionate to the devastating harm that’s been done.
Yet who are the ones left serving the life sentences? It’s us.