The last journey Saad al-Hilli and his family made together was along a beautiful, tranquil mountain track through the Alps. Yet for all its beauty, it is a road which leaves people uneasy these days because it is impossible not to think about the dreadful attack that took place by the side of the river, beneath vivid green canopy of the trees.
It is disconcerting to stand in the pull-in by the side of the road and know this is where four people’s lives ended and where two children found themselves caught in an attack of quite incredible savagery.
There’s no longer any trace of what went on and ten months after the attack, no apparent trace of the killer. It was a mild September afternoon when Saad Al-Hilli set off from the campsite where his family were staying just outside the French resort of Anncey, driving out through the village of Chevaline and into the forest. His seven-year-old daughter Zainab was in the front next to him. In the back - his wife, mother-in-law and four-year-old daughter Zeena.
What happened then is unclear but ten minutes out of the village there was an attack. Twenty-one bullets fired to snuff out four lives. Saad al-Hilli shot through the head in the driver’s seat, the women suffering the same fate in the back.
For some reason Zainab was out of the car. She was shot in the shoulder and beaten so badly the man who found her thought she was dead and possibly the victim of a road accident.
A French cyclist, Sylvain Mollier was also killed, a collateral victim. The father-of-three saw more than the killer thought he should, so he too had to die.
When British cyclist Brett Martin reached the top of the hill and found the carnage he couldn’t initially work out what had happened but his RAF training meant he was able to help the dying Zainab.
Thanks to him the seven-year-old survived – also surviving - her four year old sister Zeena, found by police hours later unharmed in the car, hiding beneath her dead mother’s clothing. In the next few days those girls will give a final, formal statement to the French investigation. Then they will most likely to released from social services care back to family members. Eric Maillaud is the French prosecutor leading the inquiry.
Low key, restrained but open, Eric Maillaud knows this is likely to be the most complex and high-profile case of his career. I met him in the days after the attack when he was besieged by the media. Then, as now, his plan remains the same – work through the evidence without being rushed so that one day he can give the girls answers.
He said: “The role of the investigators in the absence of witnesses to the facts is to close the doors on the theories one after the other. Today almost 10 months after the incident almost everything we could possibly do is done to establish the target was not the French cyclist. He is a victim and without any doubt a collateral victim.
“The British cyclist saved the life of one of the two girls who otherwise without his help probably would have died. We have closed the door on that.“There is no evidence at all of a lone mad man in the area so we can close that door too. “
There is the hypothesis, involving the family, around the father’s inheritance. He didn’t have a very big fortune but he had an important fortune in property and we know that both Saad and his brother wanted to recoup it at any price, which created tensions in the family. “
That fortune includes around £750,000 in cash in a Swiss bank account, a flat in Spain and the Green Zone in Baghdad. There are no suspects in the case at the moment but work continues with appeals for help to the Iraqi authorities.
Documents found in Saad Al-Hilli’s Surrey home now suggest the attack may have been timed to stop him returning to Iraq to lay claim to the estate. He was planning to go at the end of 2012 and despite being warned off by family there, he was determined.
Eric Maillaud added: “Based on letters we found and conversations he’d had, he feared for his life. In these letters he expressed his worry for his life due to his desire to recover his father’s fortune and the conflict it caused with his family. That fear was there.”
One of the big challenges for the investigation is wading through the volume of documents taken from the home. Saad al-Hilli was meticulous in keeping all correspondence both in paper for and scanned in to his computer. The information contained within the personal files mean the inquiry now spans 15 countries.
The team of 40 British and 40 French officers may need another year to sift through it all. It is slow work but there remains a belief the killer will be found. “It’s too early to be pessimistic – that is a certainty. The volume of documents around this family dispute is so colossal,” says Mr Maillaud.
“We have had to look in different countries and work in different languages, English, Arab, Spanish sometimes in Swedish, which involves a very important translating process. I believe we need two years to finish that job, which will be September 2014 but maybe we can get some luck and the investigation will accelerate thanks to precise witness reports but if we don’t have the advantage of good witness statements then we have to go through all the obtained material before we can be optimistic or pessimistic. “
There is one thing driving his work though and it will never leave him, the girls who are now orphans. He said: “We want to know why and how they have lost their parents so that we don’t have to tell them in 10 years time there’s nothing more we can do. Hearing from them is essential to help answer questions.”