Tunisian families battle to repatriate children from Syria
At least 140 Tunisian children are stuck in conflict zones after their parents left to join militant groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya
Taheyya watched her grandchildren grow up in Syria, where her son joined an extremist group, from Tunisia on WhatsApp.
She hoped one day to be able to hold the three surviving siblings in her arms but for now they are stuck in a displacement camp.
"These are our grandchildren," Taheyya said. "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."
For three years, she made the rounds of ministries and charities to try to repatriate her granddaughter, 3, and grandsons aged 5 and 6.
Their father left for Syria in 2012, where he joined ISIS and was killed.
Taheyya said the eldest grandchild needed treatment for a head injury, and two other siblings died because of a lack of medical care.
In a folder, she carefully keeps a bundle of documents that sum up their torturous lives: pixelated photos and identity papers issued by the so-called ISIS caliphate.
The children now live in a camp on the Turkish-Syrian border with their mother, a Syrian who was married at the age of 13.
Tunisians were among the largest groups of foreign militants in Syria, Iraq and Libya since 2011, with almost 3,000 leaving, Tunisian authorities say.
Like Taheyya, dozens of other families were trying to repatriate at least 140 Tunisian children stuck in conflict zones, where their parents were suspected of joining extremist groups.
The Observatory of Rights and Freedoms of Tunis, which is in contact with the families, counted 104 children in Syria, almost all of them in camps.
Three quarters were born there and were under the age of 6.
Another 36 were in Libya, detained by militias or being looked after by the Red Crescent.
While public opinion at home was hostile towards the return of the 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 there have been no more returns since.
Taheyya's son, from a middle-class family in central Kairouan, was one of the first in his neighbourhood to leave for Syria.
A cook in the merchant navy, he survived being taken hostage by Somali pirates and later joined groups fighting the government in Syria.
He opened a restaurant in the city of Raqqa, once the capital of ISIS in Syria, and was killed in 2018 while trying to flee, his family said.
"He had asked me to take care of his children," his younger brother said.
He said he had travelled to Turkey twice but had failed to secure 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, blaming foreign authorities and the coronavirus pandemic for slowing down discussions.
The foreign affairs bureau of the Kurdish administration in north-eastern Syria denied the Tunisian government had contacted it about repatriations.
Many Tunisians were seen leaving the former ISIS bastion of Baghouz during the final battle of 2019.
They were taken to the Kurdish-run Al Hol camp, now home to thousands of ISIS wives and their children.
No specific figures were available for the number of Tunisians at Al Hol.
Fethia is also looking for her grandchildren.
Her daughter was taken to Syria in 2013 by her husband, who joined groups fighting against the government.
She was killed in a bombing in 2019, leaving two children, aged 4 and 7, in a displacement camp.
"They don't go to school and struggle to eat. It is making me ill," Fethia said.
She said she had not received any photos of the children for two years.
"How can you sleep?" Fethia asked.
Mohammed, meanwhile, is worried about his sister and nephew.
The last information he had was that they were being held by a militia in western Libya.
Mohammed wants them to be repatriated to Tunisia, even if it means she is tried for belonging to an extremist group.
He said she had been a nurse in a Libyan hospital and had tried in vain to flee the country in 2016 after her husband become radicalised.
Mohammed said he had not had contact with her since January last year.
"She couldn't complain but she let us understand things," he said.
Mohammed said she would keep olive pits to stave off hunger and had even been driven to exchange sexual favours for food.
"These women and their children are suffering," he said. "They are victims but our elected officials are cowards."
Updated: July 13, 2020 01:31 AM