Tunisian families battle to repatriate children of militants

Taheyya, a grandmother from the Tunisian city of Kairouan, about 160 kilometres south of the capital Tunis, is pictured with her grandchildren whose uncle was killed in Syria, at her home on March 9, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 13 July 2020

Tunisian families battle to repatriate children of militants

  • 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

KAIROUAN, TUNISIA: Over WhatsApp from Tunisia, Taheyya has watched her grandchildren grow up in Syria, where her son joined a militant 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 Daesh 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, identity papers issued by the fleeting IS 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.
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 jihadist groups.

FASTFACT

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.

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 toward the return of 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 Daesh 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 Daesh 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 Daesh wives and their children.
No specific figures were available for the number of Tunisians currently at Al-Hol.


Aid group warns that 700,000 children in Syria risk hunger

Updated 29 September 2020

Aid group warns that 700,000 children in Syria risk hunger

  • Save the Children said the new figures mean that in the last six months
  • After nearly a 10-year conflict that killed some 400,000 and displaced half the country’s population
BEIRUT: An additional 700,000 children in Syria face hunger because of the country’s badly damaged economy and the impact of coronavirus restrictions, an international aid group warned Tuesday.
Save the Children said the new figures mean that in the last six months, the total number of food-insecure children across the country has risen to more than 4.6 million.
After nearly a 10-year conflict that killed some 400,000 and displaced half the country’s population, Syria’s economy has been badly harmed by the war as well as by widespread corruption, Western sanctions and a severe economic and financial crisis in neighboring Lebanon.
The local currency crashed in recent months making it more difficult for many Syrians to buy food. The spread of coronavirus in the war-torn country has worsened the situation.
Save the Children said an unprecedented number of children in Syria are now battling soaring malnutrition rates.
A recent survey conducted by Save the Children found that 65% of children “have not had an apple, an orange, or a banana for at least three months.” In northeast Syria, an area controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, almost a quarter of children said they had not eaten those fruit in at least nine months, according to Save the Children.
Save the Children said parents have little choice but to cut out fresh food such as meat, fruit, and vegetables, relying instead on rice or grains for weeks.
The aid group said one mother said she saved up for three weeks to buy a single apple, which she split five ways between her and her family. It said at least one in eight children in Syria currently suffer lifelong risks for children, including stunting or chronic malnutrition.
“A whole generation of children are facing the risk of malnutrition because their families simply can no longer afford to put a meal on the table,” said Save the Children’s Syria Response Director, Sonia Khush.
The Syrian government has registered more than 4,100 cases of coronavirus in areas under its control while there are scores of cases in the last rebel stronghold in the country’s northwest and eastern Syria that is controlled by US-backed Kurdish-led fighters.
The numbers of cases are believed to be much higher as many Syrians in rural areas don’t know that they are carrying the virus.
Coronavirus tests at private clinics cost around $60, far too expensive for most Syrians, whose average salary is less than $100 a month. The government conducts about 300 free tests each day for people showing symptoms.
Save the Children will be distributing food parcels with fresh fruit and vegetables in northern Syria, targeting pregnant women and new mothers, to combat hidden hunger in children and mothers. The international humanitarian organization also supports young children across Syria, providing dietary advice, and screening for malnutrition.
In July, Russia forced the UN Security Council to limit humanitarian aid deliveries to the country’s mainly rebel-held northwest to just one crossing point from Turkey. Western nations at the time said the move will cut a lifeline for 1.3 million people.
Save the Children also called for unrestricted humanitarian access and the reauthorization of border crossings.