Dominique Bons had her son and step-son killed in Syria, part of a large number of European Muslims who have gone to fight against the regime of Bashar Al Assad.
The French mother who lost her sons to the war in Syria
LONDON // For the rest of her life, Dominique Bons will look back on 2013 as a wretched year.
The conflict in Syria, and its lure to some young westerners born Muslims or converted to Islam, inflicted a loss any mother would struggle to endure.
At the end of December, her son, Nicolas, 30, was killed in a suicide bombing near Homs. She learned of his death in a text message from Syria.
Only four months earlier, Nicolas had been the bearer of bad news from the civil war. His half-brother, Jean-Daniel, 22, had been killed “in combat” close to Aleppo.
The son of her former husband, Gerard, Jean-Daniel grew up in French Guiana, but lived for three years with his paternal grandmother in Toulouse, the home town of Mrs Bons in south-western France.
“I will never forget the grief that year, 2013, brought me,” said Mrs Bons, 60, a Parisian who served for 24 years in the French army. She loved Jean-Daniel, a “polite, courteous, sporty” young man she regarded almost as a second son.
Some good may yet come out of her loss. She is now setting up a charity, Syrien ne bouge… Agissons – a play on words literally translating as “Nothing’s moving in Syria, let’s act” with the first word, phonetically, becoming “si rien”, changing the meaning to “if nothing moves, let’s act”.
The relatives of other young French men, and a few women, have also gone to Syria, in many cases to join militant groups hostile to the West.
“These are not bad young people,” says Mrs Bons. “There had been comparison with the Spanish Civil War and it is a good one, but it goes much further. They have been manipulated. What they’re doing is not Islam, whatever the indoctrination leads them to believe.”
She cites the example of her own son and his half-brother. Nicolas had a troubled youth involving drugs, petty crime and academic failure. He was, as his mother freely admits, disappointed by and at odds with western society. In 2009, brought up in a non-practising Catholic family, he converted to Islam and quickly became radicalised, his mother says, under the influence of some of those attending his mosque in Toulouse.
Mrs Bons was concerned by the change, even by his refusal to go to nightspots or drink alcohol. She pleaded with him to consider his future.
However, she takes care to add that while his motives in going to Syria put him outside French law, he represented no danger to his country of origin. He assured his mother he utterly opposed the murderous actions of Mohamed Merah, the Toulouse-born misfit who shot dead three French soldiers, three Jewish children and a Jewish teacher – father of two of the children – in a series of attacks in 2012.
“But he also said he would never be able to return to France,” she adds. “It would be dangerous for him and he wanted, in any case, to remain in a Muslim country.”
Jean-Daniel followed his older half-brother into conversion to Islam while living in Toulouse.
Had Nicolas and Jean-Daniel lived, Mrs Bons would have gone to whatever lengths were required to visit them in Syria or perhaps neighbouring Turkey. “A mother is ready to do anything,” she insists.
Her association is in its infancy. It represents in part Mrs Bon’s desire to pay homage to her son and his half-brother, in part to turn her own tragedy to some useful purpose, building solidarity and collective comfort for those in similar circumstances. She is already in touch with a family in Belgium and says she will meet anyone, including the French president, Francois Hollande, if it aids her cause of helping the relatives and persuading the authorities to do more stop other young people following a path that can lead to early deaths for them, heartbreak for their parents and siblings.