At 5 a.m. on a September morning in 2014, 14-year-old Soraya picked up a large suitcase and left her family home in the suburbs of Lyon, France. The sound of her closing the door as she left woke her older sister who promptly ran to warn her mother, Nadia. Nadia flung open the window and yelled at Soraya to come back. The girl paused for a few seconds, looked up and then walked on, past the parking lot and out of sight.
Nadia called the police to tell them her daughter had run away. A few hours later, while speaking to one of Soraya’s friends, she heard the real reason for her daughter’s sudden departure: Soraya had gone to Syria to join ISIS.
Nadia still struggles with the idea that her daughter was radicalized online at home. It’s believed that Soraya was helped across several international borders by ISIS before slipping into Syria.
Nadia and Soraya’s names have been changed in this story for their protection.
France’s quandary of returning jihadis
As the fight against ISIS in Syria draws to a close, much of Europe is dealing with the same problem: what to do with its citizens stuck in the shrinking caliphate. And each country grapples with it differently.
France has been scarred more than any other European country on its own soil by ISIS-orchestrated or ISIS-inspired terrorism. Since 2013, nearly 250 people have been killed in France in the name of the group’s murderous ideology. The question of what to do with French citizens who joined ISIS was never going to be an easy one for authorities to resolve.
President Emmanuel Macron has said they should be tried in Syria or Iraq, where they could face the death penalty, which is outlawed in France.
However, the French President will ask for the death penalty to be waived in those countries.
“For the French adults who are detained or who would be transferred, they come first to the authorities of this country and it is up to them to decide in a sovereign capacity whether they will be the subject of legal proceedings on the spot,” said Macron.
“These people have the right to benefit from consular protection. And in this case, our diplomatic network will be mobilized,” he said.
Trials in Iraq are planned for 13 French citizens who fought for ISIS.
The French had rejected US President Donald Trump’s call to repatriate all ISIS fighters to have them face charges in their home countries. The US wanted them effectively removed from the battlefield to prevent them from regrouping – as the US prepares to withdraw troops from Syria.
But a poll done by Odoxa for Le Figaro, a French daily, found that 82% believe France should let Iraq handle the French jihadists, and 89% say they are “very worried” about French jihadists returning.
French terror victims, however, have put their own pressure on Macron. They want French jihadis tried for the murders of their loved ones on French soil, and the authorities can perhaps learn how those attacks were planned.
Now, French officials are working on bringing about 130 French jihadi fighters of French origin back to France. France’s Interior Minister says they will all be tried in France, including Adrien Guihal, a French citizen captured by Kurdish Forces last year. French authorities believe he played a role in the terror attack that killed more than 80 people in Nice, in 2016.
The fate of the children – both those taken to ISIS territory and those born there – is even more complicated.
Paris is already planning to repatriate minors on a case-by-case basis. France estimates that 550 of its children have lived in ISIS territory since 2014. Of those, some have died, 84 have already been brought back to France and around 90 are waiting to be returned in the next couple of weeks.
Many of them are orphans. And for their families in France, getting these children back is not only a matter of duty but a glint of hope on the horizon.
For Nadia, the return of these children is particularly urgent, as the story of her daughter reveals. For a while after her daughter’s flight to Syria, Nadia occasionally received Skype calls from Soraya. During one of these calls Soraya told her that she and her young husband, also a French citizen, had had a baby son. She sent photos of the boy, Ismael (not his real name), to Nadia. And then the calls stopped.
Nadia believes that Soraya and her husband were killed during the fall of Raqqa in 2017. However, she knows through the Red Cross, who sent her a photograph of him, that Ismael, who is nearly three, is now in one of the Kurdish camps in Syria and among those that France is preparing to bring home.
Nadia says that she has received very little information or help from French authorities. For her, the wait to see the grandchild she’s never met has been unbearable.
Describing her plight and that of others in a similar situation, Nadia says, “We live, day and night, the death of our children … It’s not even every day, it’s every second. I feel like I am twice a victim. And nobody cares. I feel alone, I am suffering. I can’t sleep, sometimes I wake up and I ask why. I would prefer never to wake up.”
Nadia has already started furnishing the room that will be her grandson’s – it is filled with clothes, toys and books. She says this process has helped her through. “I won’t give up, for the child,” says Nadia. “I call on everyone to just be human. He’s a small child. He shouldn’t be over there. And he is all I have left of my daughter.”
‘Lost time’ over lost children
Samia Maktouf is a lawyer who represents the families of victims of the November 2015 terror attack on the Bataclan theater. She also represents families hoping to retrieve their lost children from ISIS territory, and says that France has acted too slowly.
“They are children,” Maktouf says. “They are innocent, for what would you want us to prosecute them? The only thing they deserve is our protection. They have the right to ask the French government to have rights and legal protection.” She says a failure of leadership has slowed their return.
There are more than 2,500 children from over 30 countries belonging to families with perceived or actual associations with ISIS living in camps in northeastern Syria, according to Save the Children. The NGO says these minors are separated from the rest of the camps for displaced people and that this segregation affects their ability to obtain access to aid and services. Some of the infants in the three camps are weeks and months old.
“Like millions of Syrian children, they have lived through conflict, bombardment and acute deprivation. They need specialized help to recover from their experiences and return to normality, together with their families,” reads a statement from Save the Children.
“This is impossible in overwhelmed displacement camps in a volatile warzone. The international community must act now before it is too late.”
The children also face a long process before their extended families can retrieve them, with some likely to enter foster care while their cases are reviewed. In view of this, Maktouf believes it’s inhuman of the French authorities not to have acted sooner.
“We have already wasted one year. And already since last year we know what camp they are in, we know they are French, we know they have families in France and we haven’t yet done (anything),” she says.
Nadine Ribet-Reinhart, who lost her son in the Bataclan attack, agrees that a distinction needs to be more clearly made between those who chose ISIS and those who did not, and that the children need to brought home urgently.
“It is not because we are the parents of deceased and wounded … that we lost our humanity on November 13,” he says. “So of course, we wish that those children are repatriated, that they find a foster family, grandparents, but their parents must be judged.”
‘Kidnapped’ from France
But beyond the 90 children that France is currently preparing to bring back, there are others. Jana is a seven-year-old orphan who was taken to Syria by her father. He kidnapped her from her mother in 2014 when she was three, her family says.
Jana’s uncle, Mustapha, says that after her father’s death she was placed in the hands of a Libyan family in Syria who initially communicated with him, but who now don’t want to return her and have cut contact with him.
Mustapha thinks that French nationals like Jana are the forgotten ones. “Not much thought is given really to the children. They haven’t asked for anything. They never asked to go there. We need to ask questions, the authorities must ask about these children, who are not responsible at all.”
He worries that Jana might no longer speak any French or even remember her real name. She is a child, lost in Syria, who doesn’t even know she is lost.
Mustapha says that too little is being done by those who owe Jana protection on two counts: because she is French and because she is a child.
Edith Bouvier and Celine Martelet contributed to this report.