What happened to Yusuf – and all the children left behind after the IS siege? | Islamic State

“They want us to surrender,” the boy’s voice says. He speaks urgently, the noise of a prison behind him. “It’s probably the last time I’m going to call you.”

And so it turned out. That voice note, sent on the afternoon of January 26, was the last his family ever heard from Yusuf Zahab, an Australian teenager who was caught in January during a deadly Islamic State attack on the prison where he was being held with 750 other boys. held. , no one has ever been charged with a crime.

Bleeding from his wounds, Yusuf, then 17, survived for six days as a human shield between IS gunmen and Kurdish and US troops in a battle in Kurdish-controlled Syria that killed an estimated 500 people. He believed there was a window to eventually escape. Then he disappeared.

What Yusuf was doing in a western-funded prison, and the mystery surrounding his fate, raise uneasy questions about a group of children that governments in the UK and Australia would most like to leave: the boys left behind after the defeat of the caliphate of the Islamic State.

In Sydney, Yusuf’s family assumes he’s dead, and spend days and nights on the phone with Syrian fixers and the Australian government, looking for answers to a simple question: what happened to Yusuf?

‘Honestly, it was just disbelief’

He came from the outskirts of Sydney, a world away from the Syrian battlefields that would swallow him before he reached adulthood.

“Yusuf had the most infectious smile, he was the most beautiful boy,” said Hala Zahab, Yusuf’s cousin. Because of their age difference, she felt like a different mother to him. “He was like my own child,” she says.

An ordinary Australian upbringing – of camping, trampolines and gaming – was cut short in 2015, when Yusuf was taken abroad by his parents, ostensibly to visit their grandmother in Lebanon. “It wasn’t something we were worried about, to be honest,” Hala says.

But the months went by and the family was abroad and in November of that year Hala was visited by the Australian security services. Yusuf, then 11 years old, had been submerged in IS territory with his parents, two older brothers and sister, the agents told her.

“Honestly, it was just disbelief,” Hala says. “Because my aunt and uncle… had a future here. They had a beautiful life.”

Yusuf’s family has shared conflicting stories about why they joined IS, more than a year after the group advertised its atrocities in slick propaganda videos. Muhammad, the eldest son, had crossed over years before and grew to be one of the oldest Australian members of the group. Hichem, Yusuf’s father, says he reluctantly took the family to Syria to persuade his “brainwashed” son to leave. Others have alleged that the family was tricked into going to the border and forced at gunpoint.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Hala says, what blame can be given to Yusuf? “He was a young boy,” she says. “He couldn’t make decisions alone.” And yet he would pay the price.

In 2019, the Zahabs were among a wave of thousands of IS members fleeing the group’s last entrenchment in Baghouz, in northeastern Syria. The surviving members of the family – Yusuf, his sister and their parents – surrendered at a checkpoint manned by Western allies, the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). His mother and sister were placed in one line, his father another. Yusuf, then 14, was pulled away into another group.

“He was too old to go to the camps with his mother,” Hala says. “So he got divorced then. And we heard nothing… nothing for two years.”

That silence finally broke in November last year, when Hala was doing laundry at her Sydney home, and her phone buzzed with a message from an unknown number. It was a short, scattered voice message, recorded in haste.

Salam alaikum“How are you, it’s Yusuf,” said the voice, familiar but hoarse and crackling. “I’m fine, I love you, I’m sorry I don’t have time – I just wanted to message you to tell you I’m fine, hamdulillahhow are you, are you okay?”

Hala shook as she listened. “I was just so excited,” she says. “I remember trying – oh my god – texting back, trying to get my phone to work…so I could respond to him on time, because I was aware of the fact that there was no time used to be.”

The fleeting contact confirmed her second worst fear. Yusuf was alive, but had spent two years in the juvenile ward of Gweiran Prison in Kurdish-controlled Syria, an infamous facility that houses about 3,000 of some of IS’s toughest fighters. The teen was in a dingy, overcrowded cell, where he had contracted tuberculosis.

“He told me he gets aches and pains in his body, joint pain,” she says. “He said it was so hard… [Asking] when can i come home? And I told him, we’re working on it. We’re pushing… We’re trying to get you home.”

Rescuers told her that Yusuf, now 17, struggled with nightmares and other dreams that weren’t frightening but still tormented him, in which he could see his mother and touch her and hug them.

“I lost a lot of blood. Please, what should I do?”

For more than three years now, governments have grappled with the dilemma of the children taken by their parents to join IS, or those born of fighters, their wives and the women they enslaved.

Over time, a consensus has developed — including among many Western security officials — that the threat of allowing young British, Australians, Canadians and others to grow up in violent prisons and camps outweighs the threat. challenges to integrate them back into their homes.

Nevertheless, Australia and the UK are hesitant to repatriate eight and nine children respectively, a fraction of those returned from Russia (228), Germany (69) and France (70).

Hala, who networked with others in Australia whose former IS relatives were detained in Syria, says her efforts to persuade the Australian government to help Yusuf have been met with disinterest. “You wouldn’t get anything. Either an automated response, or I’m sorry, we don’t have consular assistance in the area.”

In January of this year, she started seeing news reports of an IS attack in the prison where Yusuf was being held. “I was terrified,” she says. “I was like, please, we just got to him. Please don’t let anything happen to him.

“And then… I got a voice clip from him telling me, ‘I’m hurt. There’s a helicopter shooting at the prison’… He said, ‘I’m bleeding, I’ve lost a lot of blood. Please, what should I do?’”

The IS attack sparked days of bloody fighting in and around the prison, with bodies, including those of children, scattered in the surrounding streets.

Desperate for help, and in consultation with Human Rights Watch, Hala and the family have authorized the public release of two of Yusuf’s voice notes from the siege, the first time a boy trapped in the facilities has ever been heard. .

“I just got shot by an Apache, my head is bleeding,” Yusuf says in the recording, which is being broadcast around the world. “I injured my head and my hand, there are no doctors here to help me. I need help, please.”

In his last message, in which he said he was about to surrender, he made two requests to his family: for help wherever he ended up, and for them to say hi to his mother. They were separated for almost three years.

‘Infinitely to do’

As the smoke cleared from the prison massacre, Hala braced herself for news about her cousin. “Months go by and you don’t hear anything,” Hala says. “Nothing, no news. And your heart begins to sink.”

In July, Yusuf’s mother, who was being held in a guarded camp for women and young children, received an ominous message from Kurdish authorities: Yusuf was no longer in their custody. They couldn’t explain when or where he would have died or slipped from their grasp.

Three weeks later, the Australian newspaper quoted unnamed sources to say that the government thought Yusuf may now be dead. The combination of the two updates convinced the family to give up hope that Yusuf was still alive. “We were shattered, absolutely shattered,” says Hala.

The funeral took place in a Sydney mosque in July, but closure is elusive. They just have no idea what happened to Yusuf. Did he die trying to surrender? Or from his wounds, or illness, in a prison hospital?

Most haunting is the possibility, in the absence of a body, that he somehow survived, lost in a system that has become a black hole for hundreds of children.

The Guardian understands that the Australian government has determined that Yusuf was able to surrender and at least survived into the weeks following the siege. But it has not been able to definitively tell the family what has happened since and is asking the SDF for clarification.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade says it is “seeking more information on” [Yusuf’s] welfare”.

According to research by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, a UN special rapporteur who has investigated Kurdish prisons, Yusuf is one of at least 100 other children whose whereabouts are still unknown after the siege by IS.

His withdrawal from Syria sometime in the past three years would be “infinitely doable,” says Ní Aoláin. “I work every day with governments who have brought back their subjects. The government of Australia simply refused to bring this child back.”

It is this belief that sets Hala on fire in Sydney. That it was so unnecessary. A matter of calculation. “They had ample opportunity to [Yusuf] out,” she says. “And unfortunately the only conclusion we could draw is: it was not a popular target. Politically, it was not popular.”

Leave a Comment