Don't miss

Replay


LATEST SHOWS

BUSINESS DAILY

Managing expectations: China cuts growth targets as slowdown continues

Read more

THE INTERVIEW

Liberia's president slams Boko Haram's use of female bombers

Read more

MIDDLE EAST MATTERS

Iraq: Islamic State group's child soldiers

Read more

WEB NEWS

Story of handicapped motorcycle rider inspires web users

Read more

ENCORE!

How French women wash

Read more

DEBATE

Soft on smacking? France slammed for not banning corporal punishment (part 1)

Read more

DEBATE

Soft on smacking? France slammed for not banning corporal punishment (part 2)

Read more

MEDIAWATCH

To smack or not to smack?

Read more

IN THE PAPERS

'What black man holds job four years'

Read more

Our Focus programme brings you exclusive reports from around the world. From Monday to Friday at 7.45 am Paris time.

FOCUS

FOCUS

Latest update : 2014-01-31

‘These are children, not terrorists,' say Belgian parents of Syria jihadists

This week, two French teenagers were arrested trying to reach Syria to join fighting against President Bashar al-Assad. Three men from Paris went on trial on Thursday on similar charges. Now Belgian parents tell France 24 about losing their children to jihad.

It is a situation not unique to France. Young people from all across Europe have travelled to Syria to join the ‘Holy War’ against Assad, often leaving without warning, their parents unaware to their sons’ and daughters’ plans to become soldiers in a foreign land.

In Belgium, an estimated 300 citizens have left their country for the Syrian battlegrounds. Many parents believe their children, young and impressionable, have been manipulated into taking up the jihadist cause.

Gathered in front of the European Parliament in Brussels, a group of mothers with children in Syria have staged a protest to press the authorities into tackling the problem.

They are making a stand against what they claim is a lack of action by the authorities.

“We’re the parents of jihad fighters, of terrorists. People are afraid of them, of us. But we’re not the ones who’ve sent our children over there,” says Veronique, one of several protesters wearing masks they say symbolise “misunderstanding”.

“Our children were tricked into this,” says another. “They didn’t go to Syria of their own free will. I mean: it’s not normal, that a kid who had no problems finds himself over there, that’s not normal. These are children, Belgian children… They’re not terrorists!”

‘Our children have been manipulated’

Veronique has set up a group called the Concerned Parents’ Collective, where parents whose children have taken up arms in Syria meet regularly to provide mutual support to one another.

Samira, one of the group’s members, says her 19-year-old daughter Nora left Belgium eight months ago to join her husband in Syria.

“We woke up one morning and her bed was empty,” Samira tells FRANCE 24. “It was on a Sunday. She’d often say: ‘I’m of no use here, I want to help! I want to help!’”

Samira describes her daughter as hard-working, cheerful and a devout Muslim. She believes Nora travelled to Syria mainly out of love for her husband. He was killed just 15 days after she arrived.

Samira recently received a letter from Nora, via the Belgian police.

“Even if I’m going to a country at war, I will be a good person, Mum,” the letter reads. “You wanted me to be happy and I’ve found happiness. And even if I’m no longer around I hope you’ll say that you’re proud of your little daughter. I love you Mum, but I love Allah above anything else.”

Another woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, shares Samira’s anguish. Her 23-year-old son has been fighting in Syria since May 2013.

“He had just finished recording a music album. We didn’t think he was about to leave us. He’s not the kind of boy who’d say his prayers on a regular basis,” she says.

“Our children have been manipulated from the outside. Groups would show them all sorts of pictures. My son would go with friends to play video games – that’s where they recruited him.”

‘The community let them slip’


Last year, Belgian authorities dismantled several jihadist recruitment cells. They would approach youth via Internet forums but also in mosques.

Mimoun Aquichouh, president of the local mosque in Vilvorde, north of Brussels, says his place of worship has nothing to do with the enrolment of jihad fighters, but believes that everyone must take their share of responsibility for the recruitment of young Belgians by radical groups.

“I recognise the fact these young people were left behind, that the community let them slip,” says Mimoun.

“Whether here at the mosque, whether in the youth clubs, the city, the national authorities - we failed to supervise them. We should all do our part and start finding solutions for the youth.”

Some parents have gone to extraordinary lengths to bring their children back home safely.

Dimitri Bontik, a former soldier, travelled to Syria three times to find his 18-year-old son Yayoun. He spent 36 days in Aleppo interviewing fighters from different rebel groups. One thought he was a spy working for Assad.

“They hit me and they pressed the [barrel] of an AK-47 to my head. I thought I was going to die and I told them, 'I’m just a father looking for his son. I’m not a spy, just a father looking for his son.'”

‘What’s the point of returning home?’

Yayoun returned home after eight months in Syria with the help of a French NGO and after he had found out about his father’s efforts to track him down.

He spent 37 days in jail upon his return. He now lives with his family as he awaits trial, accused of taking part in the activities of a terrorist group. He is banned from going outside after 7pm, cannot attend a mosque or speak to the media.

Dimitri believes such treatment by authorities is discouraging more young people from returning from Syria.

“This is why young Belgians in Syria start thinking: ‘Well, if that’s the way it is, let’s just stay in Syria and never come back. We can stay living in big houses with swimming pools as free men. What’s the point of returning home, being arrested, going to prison, being accused of this and that?’”

Alexis Deswaef, a lawyer representing the Concerned Parents’ Collective, agrees. The group is filing civil cases against the jihad recruitment cells. They also want to make it easier on a legal level for their children to return home.

“Rather than jail time it would be better to have a strict framework, a very tough supervision to make sure they engage into a de-radicalisation process,” says Deswaef.

“There should be a follow-up for these youths so that they don’t end up bringing back home the type of activities they engaged into when they were in Syria. That’s where the effort should be."

By FRANCE 24

COMMENT(S)

Archives

2015-03-04 France

French Muslims refuse to be scapegoats for extremists

Since three French Islamists killed 17 people in Paris in January, there's been a sharp spike in Islamophobic incidents across the country. In the southern French city of Toulon,...

Read more

2015-03-03 Denmark

Denmark: How to stop the radicalisation of young people?

Just two years ago, it was ranked as the happiest country in the world by the United Nations. But since the Copenhagen shootings two weeks ago, Denmark has lost some of its...

Read more

2015-03-02 China

China: New reform set to benefit migrants

A massive reform in China is designed to help thousands of people who until now have been stuck in a logistical nightmare. At the moment, people are issued with a "Hukou", a...

Read more

2015-02-27 Qatar

Qatar's unofficial motto: To attract at all costs

Qatar is one of the smallest countries in the world and its citizens are among the richest on the planet. Qataris often make it into the headlines for buying up football clubs...

Read more

2015-02-26 poverty

India: Anti-corruption party vows to end Delhi's 'VIP culture'

India's Common Man's Party, or AAP, has won a stunning victory in the latest Delhi state elections. The movement was only created a year and a half ago, and its aims are simple: ...

Read more