“They want us to surrender,” said the childish voice. He speaks urgently, the din of a prison behind him. “That’s probably the last time I’m going to call you.”
And it turned out. The voice note, sent on the afternoon of January 26, was the last his family had ever heard from Yusuf Zahab, an Australian teenager caught in the middle of a deadly January Islamic State attack on the prison where he was held with 750 other boys. , none have ever been charged with a crime.
Bleeding from his wounds, Yusuf, then 17, had survived six days as a human shield between IS gunmen and Kurdish and American troops in a battle in Kurdish-controlled Syria that killed around 500 people. He believed there was a window to finally escape. Then he disappeared.
What Yusuf was doing in a Western-funded prison and the mystery surrounding his fate raise uncomfortable questions about a group of children the UK and Australian governments would rather see gone: the boys left behind after the defeat of the Islamic State Caliphate.
In Sydney, Yusuf’s family presumes he is dead and now spends days and nights on the phone with Syrian repairmen and the Australian government, seeking answers to a simple question: what happened to Yusuf?
“Honestly, it was just disbelief”
He came from the suburbs of Sydney, a world away from the Syrian battlefields that would swallow him up before he reached adulthood.
“Yusuf had the most contagious smile, he was the most beautiful boy,” said Hala Zahab, Yusuf’s cousin. Because of their age difference, she felt like another mom to him. “He was like my own child,” she says.
A regular Australian upbringing – of camping, trampolines and games – was cut short in 2015, when Yusuf was taken overseas by his parents, apparently to visit their grandmother in Lebanon. “It wasn’t something we were concerned about, to be honest,” Hala says.
But months passed and the family remained overseas and in November that year Hala was visited by Australian security services. Yusuf, then 11, had been dumped in IS-held territory with his parents, two older brothers and sister, officers told him.
“Honestly, it was just disbelief,” Hala says. “Because my aunt and uncle…had a future here. They had a good life.
Yusuf’s family told contrasting stories of why they joined ISIS, more than a year after the group began publicizing its atrocities in shrewd propaganda videos. Muhammad, the eldest son, had already crossed over years earlier, becoming one of the oldest Australian members of the group. Hichem, Yusuf’s father, says he took the family to Syria reluctantly, to persuade his “brainwashed” son to leave. Others have claimed the family was deceived to go to the border and were forced there at gunpoint.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Hala said, what blame could be attributed to Yusuf? “He was a young boy,” she said. “He couldn’t make decisions on his own.” And yet he would pay the price.
In 2019, the Zahabs were among a stream of thousands of IS members fleeing the group’s last redoubt in Baghouz, northeast Syria. The surviving family members – Yusuf, his sister and their parents – surrendered to a checkpoint manned by Western allies, the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). His mother and sister were placed in one line, his father in another. Yusuf, then 14, was dragged into another group.
“He was too old to go with his mother to the camps,” Hala said. “So he was separated. And we haven’t heard anything… two years of nothing.
That silence finally broke in November last year, when Hala was doing laundry at her home in Sydney, and her phone rang with a message from an unknown number. It was a short scattered voice note, hastily recorded.
“Salamalaikum, how are you, it’s me Yusuf, said the voice, familiar but more hoarse and crisp. “I’m fine, I love you, I’m sorry, I don’t have time – I just wanted to message you to let you know I’m fine, hamdulillahhow are you, are you okay?
Hala was shaking as she listened. “I was so excited,” she says. “I remember trying – oh my god – to text back, trying to get my phone to work… so I could get back to him in time, because I was aware that there was no had no time.”
The fleeting contact confirmed his worst fear. Yusuf was alive, but he had spent two years held in the youth wing of Gweiran prison in Kurdish-controlled Syria, a notorious facility housing around 3,000 of IS’s most hardened fighters. The teenager was in a shabby and overcrowded cell, where he had contracted tuberculosis.
“He was telling me he had body aches, joint pain,” she said. “He said it was so hard… [Asking] when can i go home? And I told him, we’re working on it. We’re pushing… We’re trying to get you home.
Aid workers told him that Yusuf, now 17, was struggling with nightmares and other dreams that weren’t scary but still tormented him, where he could see his mother and touch her and they could kiss.
“I lost a lot of blood. Please what should I do?”
Governments have grappled for more than three years with the dilemma of children who were taken by their parents to join ISIS, or those born to fighters, their wives and the women they enslaved.
Over time, a consensus has formed – including among many Western security officials – that the threat of allowing young Britons, Australians, Canadians and others to grow up in violent prisons and camps wins out. on the challenges of their reintegration back home.
Nevertheless, Australia and the United Kingdom hesitated, repatriating eight and nine children respectively, a fraction of those returned by Russia (228), Germany (69) and France (70).
Hala, who formed a network with others in Australia whose former IS family members were detained in Syria, says her efforts to persuade the Australian government to help Yusuf have been met with disinterest. “You won’t get anything. Either an automated response or I’m sorry, we don’t have consular assistance in the area.
In January this year, she started seeing reports of an IS attack on the prison where Yusuf was being held. “I was terrified,” she says. “I was like, please, we just got him. Please don’t let anything happen to him.
“And then…I got a voice clip of him saying, ‘I’m hurt. There’s a helicopter shooting at the prison’… He said, ‘I’m bleeding, I’ve lost a lot of blood. Please what should I do? ‘”
The IS assault resulted in days of bloody fighting in and around the prison, leaving bodies, including those of children, strewn in the surrounding streets.
Desperate for help, and in coordination with Human Rights Watch, Hala and the family allowed the public release of two of Yusuf’s voice notes from inside the headquarters, the first time a boy imprisoned in the facilities has never been heard.
“I just got shot by an Apache, my head is bleeding,” Yusuf recounts in the recording, which was released around the world. “I injured my head and my hand, there are no doctors here who can help me. I need help please.”
In his last message, saying he was about to turn himself in, he made two requests to his family: for help wherever he is next, and for them to say hello from him to his mother. They had been separated for almost three years.
As the smoke cleared from the prison carnage, Hala prepared to hear from her cousin. “Months go by and you hear nothing,” Hala says. “Nothing, no news. And your heart starts to sink.
In July, Yusuf’s mother, detained in a guarded camp for women and young children, received a disturbing message from Kurdish authorities – Yusuf was no longer in their custody. They couldn’t explain when or where he might have died or escaped them.
Three weeks later, the Australian newspaper quoted unnamed sources to report that the government believed Yusuf might now be dead. The combination of the two updates convinced the family to give up hope that Yusuf was still alive. “We were shattered, absolutely shattered,” Hala says.
The funeral was held at a Sydney mosque in July, but closure is elusive. They just have no idea what happened to Yusuf. Did he die trying to surrender? Or his wounds, or his illness, in a prison hospital?
Most haunting is the possibility, in the absence of a body, that he somehow survived, lost in a system that has become a black hole for hundreds of children.
The Guardian understands that the Australian government has established that Yusuf was able to surrender and survived at least in the weeks following the siege. But he has been unable to definitively provide the family with an account of what has happened since and is seeking clarification from the SDF.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was “seeking further information on [Yusuf’s] welfare”.
Yusuf is among at least 100 other children whose whereabouts remain unknown after the IS siege, according to research by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, a UN special rapporteur who has reviewed Kurdish prisons.
Its extraction from Syria over the past three years would have been “infinitely feasible”, says Ní Aoláin. “I work on a daily basis with governments, which have brought back their nationals. The Australian government simply refused to bring this child back.
It is this belief that burns Hala in Sydney. It was so unnecessary. A matter of calculation. “They had ample opportunity to get [Yusuf] out,” she said. “And unfortunately, the only conclusion we could come to is that it wasn’t a popular cause. Politically, it wasn’t popular.