LONDON: An Australian teenager who was taken to Syria as a child by his Daesh-supporting relatives is feared dead after being stuck in a prison for the past three years, the BBC reported on Monday.
Yusuf Zahab, 17, was taken to Syria in 2015 when he was 11 years old by family members who had been radicalized in Australia and wanted to join the terror group. He was sentenced to imprisonment without charge in 2019.
The Australian government has stood firm in limiting repatriating its citizens from Syria, even children who were taken to the war-torn country, saying it is too dangerous to do more.
Reacting to the news of his death, Zahab’s family in Sydney said they were “heartbroken and angry” because he had begged Australian authorities for years to recover him.
Circumstances around Zahab’s possible death remain unclear. It is likely that he was injured in January after Daesh fighters launched an attack on his prison, administered by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast of the country.
The Daesh fighters were hoping to free some of their comrades from the prison but were held back by the SDF, with US military support, after a bloody week-long battle that left 180 people dead.
Zahab sent his Australian family voice recordings that he was scared he “might die at any time” as the fighting between Daesh and the SDF continued.
He is thought to have been injured in the battle. “I lost a lot of blood ... There’s no doctors here, there’s no one who can help me,” he said at the time.
The UN Children’s Fund said Zahab was among some 850 children who have been detained at the prison in northeast Syria after Daesh lost its final territories in 2019.
In a statement, his family members said: “Even in the final messages we received from Yusuf, he asked us to tell his mum that he loved and missed her. Yusuf didn’t need to die.”
They said Australia’s previous administration “knew about Yusuf’s predicament for more than three years” before elections ousted the government in May, adding: “We are unaware of any efforts to support, care or inquire about him.”
Charities operating in the region say the Australian government evacuated eight orphans in 2019, during the chaos following the downfall of Daesh, but some 63 Australians — including former fighters — remain stuck in Syria.
Of the remaining 63, up to 40 are children, some of whom were born to Australian citizens in the region.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it is investigating the reports about Zahab’s death and it is supporting his family.
In a statement, it said the Australian government remains “deeply concerned” about its citizens in northeast Syria, but added that its ability to operate in the region is “extremely limited” due to security crises.