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.


Iran again breaks its single-day record for coronavirus deaths

Updated 19 October 2020

Iran again breaks its single-day record for coronavirus deaths

  • Fatalities have soared in recent weeks, as authorities struggle to contain the virus’s spread months into the pandemic
  • Current spike comes just weeks after schools nationwide welcomed back its 15 million students for in-person instruction

TEHRAN: Iran recorded its worst day of new deaths since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, with 337 confirmed dead on Monday.
The grim milestone represents a significant spike from the previous single-day death toll record of 279. The Health Ministry also announced 4,251 new infections, pushing the total count to 534,630.
Fatalities have soared in recent weeks, as authorities struggle to contain the virus’s spread months into the pandemic. Health officials say the capital, Tehran, has run out of intensive care beds.
The Islamic Republic emerged early in the pandemic as a global epicenter of the virus and has since seen the worst outbreak in the Middle East, with a death toll that topped 30,000 this week. The government has resisted a total lockdown to salvage its devastated economy, already weakened by unprecedented US sanctions.
As the death toll skyrockets, eclipsing the previous highs recorded in the spring amid the worst of its outbreak, authorities have started to tighten restrictions. The government ordered shut recently reopened schools and universities, as well as museums, libraries, beauty salons and other public places in Tehran earlier this month, and imposed a mask mandate outdoors.
Underscoring authorities’ contradictory response, the current spike comes just weeks after schools nationwide welcomed back its 15 million students for in-person instruction.
The virus has also sickened senior Iranian officials, including an adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and most recently the country’s atomic energy agency and its vice president in charge of budget and planning.
The timing of the pandemic has proved particularly difficult for Iran’s economy. The Trump administration re-imposed economic sanctions on Iran after its unilateral withdrawal in 2018 from Tehran’s nuclear accord with world powers. The nation’s currency plunged to its lowest-ever level last week following the US administration’s decision last week to blacklist Iranian banks that had so far escaped the bulk of re-imposed American sanctions.