Tunisian families battle to repatriate children from Syria

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Over WhatsApp from Tunisia, Taheyya has watched her grandchildren grow up in Syria, where her son joined an extremist group.

She hopes one day to be able to hold the three surviving siblings in her arms, but for now they are stuck in a displacement camp in the war-torn country.

"These are our grandchildren. All we are asking is to be able to take care of them, for them to live somewhere other than in war, poverty and ignorance," Taheyya said.

Like others AFP spoke to, she preferred not to provide her surname for fear of reprisals against the children.

For three years, Taheyya has done the rounds of ministries and NGOs to try to repatriate her three-year-old granddaughter and two grandsons, aged five and six.

Their father left for Syria in 2012, where he joined the Islamic State group and was killed.

She said the eldest grandchild needed treatment for a head injury, and two other siblings have already died because of a lack of medical care.

In a folder, Taheyya carefully keeps a bundle of documents that sums up their torturous lives: pixelated photos and identity papers issued by the so-called ISIS caliphate.

The children now live in a camp on the Turkish-Syrian border with their mother, a young Syrian who was married when she was not yet 14.

A general view taken on March 31, 2016 shows a photographer holding his picture of the Arc du Triomphe (Triumph's Arch) taken on March 14, 2014 in front of the remains of the historic monument after it was destroyed by Islamic State (IS) group jihadists in October 2015 in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. AFP

Iraqi men look at a crater left by a massive suicide car bomb attack carried out the previous day by the Islamic State group in the predominantly Shiite town of Khan Bani Saad, 20 km north of Baghdad, on July 18, 2015. AFP

A Syrian man walks past a minaret destroyed following an alleged air strikes by Syrian government forces in the Islamic State (IS) group controlled Syrian city of Raqa, on November 25, 2014. AFP

Men, suspected of being affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) group, gather in a prison cell in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakeh on October 26, 2019. AFP

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands guard in a prison where men suspected to be afiliated with the Islamic State (IS) group are jailed in northeast Syria in the city of Hasakeh on October 26, 2019. AFP

A woman stands in front of a bullet riddled facade in the northern Syrian city of Raqa, the former Syrian capital of the Islamic State (IS) group, on August 21, 2019. AFP

A fighter with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) monitors on Surveillance screens, prisoners who are accused of being affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) group, at a prison in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakeh on October 26, 2019. AFP

A general view shows blankets hanging across the road for protection from sniper fire in the Hamidiyeh neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo as local popular committee fighters, who support the Syrian government forces, try to defend the traditionally Christian district on the third day of intense battles with Islamic State group jihadists on April 9, 2015. AFP

An undated image, which appears to be a screenshot from a video and which was published by the Islamic State group in the Homs province (Welayat Homs) on August 25, 2015, allegedly shows smoke billowing from the Baal Shamin temple in Syria's ancient city of Palmyra. AFP

The house of local farmer Hamad al-Ibrahim is seen destroyed in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz on March 13, 2020, a year after the fall of the Islamic State's (IS) caliphate. AFP

A picture taken on January 13, 2020 during a press tour organised by the US-led coalition fighting the remnants of the Islamic State group, shows a view of the damage at Ain al-Asad military airbase housing US and other foreign troops in the western Iraqi province of Anbar. AFP

A general view shows a bridge that was destroyed by the Islamic State (IS) group after they took control of the river crossing and rebuilt the bridge as US-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters advance into the Islamic State (IS) jihadist's group bastion of Manbij, in northern Syria, on June 23, 2016. AFP

Iraqis look at the damage at aftermath scene of a mortar and bombing attack on the Sayyid Mohammed shrine in the Balad area, located 70 kilometres (around 45 miles) north of Baghdad, on July 8, 2016. AFP

A general view taken on March 27, 2016 shows part of the remains of Arch of Triumph, also called the Monumental Arch of Palmyra, that was destroyed by Islamic State (IS) group jihadists in October 2015 in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, after government troops recaptured the UNESCO world heritage site from the Islamic State (IS) group. AFP

Iraqi Kurdish and Turkmen Shiite forces sit in the northern Iraqi town of Bashir after they recaptured the town from the Islamic State (IS) group on May 1, 2016. AFP

Tunisians have constituted one of the largest groups of foreign militants in Syria, Iraq and Libya since 2011, with almost 3,000 departures, according to the Tunisian authorities.

Like Taheyya, dozens of other families are trying to repatriate at least 140 Tunisian children stuck in conflict zones, where their parents are suspected of joining extremist groups.

The Observatory of Rights and Freedoms of Tunis, which is in contact with the families, counts 104 children in Syria, almost all of them in camps. Three quarters were born there and are under the age of six.

Another 36 are in Libya, either detained by militias or being looked after by the Red Crescent.

While public opinion at home is hostile towards the return of the militants, President Kais Saied raised families' hopes in January by bringing back six orphans from Libya and promising to "speed up the repatriation" of the others.

But since then, there have been no further returns.

From a middle-class family in central Kairouan, Taheyya's son was one of the first in his neighbourhood to leave for Syria.

A cook in the merchant navy, he survived a hostage-taking by Somali pirates and later joined groups fighting the regime in Syria.

He opened a restaurant in the city of Raqqa, once the de facto capital of ISIS in Syria, and was killed in late 2018 while trying to flee, according to his family.

"He had asked me to take care of his children," his younger brother said, adding that he himself had travelled to Turkey twice but had failed to obtain their return.

"We talk to them every two or three days, when the network allows, but we have gone for several months without news," Taheyya said.

"I have never been able to hug them."

Officials at the Tunisian foreign ministry said that "the will exists" for repatriations, pointing the finger at foreign authorities and the novel coronavirus pandemic that has slowed down discussions.

The foreign affairs bureau of the Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria denied the Tunisian government had contacted them about repatriations.

AFP correspondents in Syria said they saw many Tunisians leaving the former ISIS bastion of Baghouz during the final battle of 2019.

People there were taken to the Kurdish-run Al Hol camp, now home to thousands of ISIS wives and their children.

No specific figures were available for the number of Tunisians currently at Al Hol.

Like Taheyya, Fethia is also looking for her grandchildren.

Her daughter was taken to Syria in 2013 by her husband, who had joined groups fighting against the regime.

She was killed in bombing in 2019, leaving two children, aged four and seven, in a displacement camp.

"They don't go to school and struggle to eat. It is making me ill," said Fethia.

She said she had not received any photos of the children for two years.

"How can you sleep?" she asked.

Mohammed, meanwhile, is worried about his sister and nephew.

According to the last information he had, they were held by a militia in western Libya.

He wants her to be repatriated to Tunisia, even if it means being tried for belonging to an extremist group.

Mohammed said she had been a nurse in a Libyan hospital and had tried in vain to flee the country in 2016 after she saw her husband become radicalised.

He said he hadn't had any contact with her since January last year.

"She couldn't complain, but she let us understand things," he said.

He said she would keep olive pits to stave off hunger and had even been driven to exchanging sexual favours for food.

"These women and their children are suffering," he said.

"They are victims, but our elected officials are cowards."

Updated: July 12, 2020 10:04 AM

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