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27 February 2019

Anthony Loyd: Two weeks in Syria on the trail of Shamima Begum

Searching the war-ravaged country for Western hostages, Isis prisoners and jihadi brides. 

By Anthony Loyd

2 February: Qamishli

I arrive in Syria looking for people: for missing hostages, an Islamic State propagandist, jihadi brides. The battle for the last sliver of the Caliphate is ongoing near the small town of Baghouz in eastern Syria, and final battles often reveal the outstanding mysteries of war. So my first destination after crossing in over the river from Iraq is a non-descript dusty town on the plains in the north, where I meet a Kurdish intelligence official. His office is long and rectangular. Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned head of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK), presides at one end, his portrait staring down the length of the room. Two goldfish eye me from a tank at the other end.

I ask the official for access to a Canadian prisoner with two names who is being held in a jail elsewhere, and for permission to visit al-Hawl camp, where 39,000 civilians – the majority from Isis families – have been gathered as they flee the fighting in the east.

There are three people that I am specifically interested in finding who – if they are still alive – may have ended up in that camp. I leave their names on the official’s desk. One of those names is Shamima Begum.

In Qamishli later that afternoon I drop by the home of a friend. In the yard outside his apartment block a drill and generator hum away beneath a tent. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia are digging tunnels throughout the city, as well as in every other urban area they hold, in anticipation of fighting a new phase of war with either the Turks or the Syrian regime after the US withdraws its troops.

Many of the locals are irritated by the sound of constant drilling and digging beneath their homes. “If a new war begins then the first place that will get hit by a Turkish air strike will be this yard,” says my friend, a father of two young children. In the nearby town of Amuda a family is angry for other reasons: their kitchen fell through the top of another ill-planned tunnel.

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Moreover, locals tell me that the top engineer responsible for the tunnel operation – a PKK member – has defected to Turkey, taking all the plans with him, so that now the diggers have to select new zig-zagging routes. “The whole tunnel operation is a fucking mess,” my friend tells me as the ground reverberates beneath out feet.

5 February: Baghouz

The sun is lowering over Baghouz when Ben Wallace’s remarks on the British hostage John Cantlie reach me. In a briefing with journalists at the Home Office earlier that day the security minister said that it was the government’s belief that Cantlie, a journalist abducted in Syria in 2012, was still alive. It is the second such remark by an official in the past fortnight concerning Cantlie. I am in the middle of a conversation with a senior YPG commander near the front when a friend leans over and tells me what Wallace has just said. “There are ongoing discussions between British special forces and our senior commanders over John Cantlie, and possibly with Isis too,” the officer confirms.

Two days earlier, another senior YPG officer told me that Islamic State are using the names of three prominent missing Western hostages – Cantlie, an ICRC nurse, and the Italian priest Father Paolo Dall’Oglio – in their negotiations to secure safe passage out of the siege at Baghouz. It is unclear whether the hostages really are still alive, and if so where they are – yet it seems that the debriefing of captured Isis fighters has offered corroborating evidence suggesting at least two may survive.

There is a ceasefire of sorts in central Baghouz as these negotiations progress. Air strikes have been halted over the town for at least 12 days, and as I move up to the front line through dusty lanes and ruined farms with a section of YPG fighters and two French journalist colleagues the area is quiet. We scurry up to a rooftop and look out across no man’s land through the gun ports knocked into the walls. Five hundred metres away we see Isis fighters moving around on motorbikes. We watch as two people and a motorbike enter a yard on the other side of the line. There is a sudden zip-swish sound from the sky – likely a Hellfire missile from a drone – and the yard disappears in a cloud of brown dust. So much for the ceasefire.

It’s a common belief that death seems remote and impersonal when seen from the screens of faraway drone operators. Sometimes it is remote and impersonal when witnessed first-hand too.

7 February: Arima

In the town of Arima I meet a cool fat guy who tells me a story I won’t forget. Jamal Abu Juma is a former fabric merchant; 32 years old, he has gentle eyes, a soft face and a hefty build, and in different circumstances would never have been a soldier. But war found that beneath this unlikely exterior lurked a natural leader and commander. Abandoning fabrics for an assault rifle in 2012, Abu Juma has fought the Syrian regime, Isis, Islamist rebel groups and Turkish-backed militias. He is now a commander with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), allied to the US-led coalition.

We meet in Arima, where the next phase of war may ignite. Just south-west of Manbij, this small rural town has become a focus of geopolitical jostling. The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and Russian troops have established a shared headquarters there. Turkish units are just 5 kilometres away; US forces are 10 kilometres to the east. Isis is resurgent in the area too. Abu Juma sits there with his men not knowing who are his friends or enemies.

We discuss all this at length. After an hour or so I ask him how many times he has been wounded. Three, he says. There are the scars left by shrapnel from a hand grenade. Then he has two deep stab wounds, from hand to hand combat.

It happened in Aleppo. Abu Juma and two comrades had become embroiled in a desperate close-quarter gun battle with two Isis fighters. Abu Juma ran out of ammunition. The Isis fighters charged him with daggers, cutting the throat of one of Abu Juma’s friends. The man bled to death. Abu Juma drew his own knife and wrestled frantically with one assailant, taking two deep stab wounds during the melee. Finally, he used his weight and strength to throw the Isis fighter off a balcony. Then he turned to help his surviving friend hurl the remaining Islamic State member off the balcony too. They were three floors up. The lesson being, of course, that if you ever meet a fat guy with gentle eyes and a wide smile in a haberdashery, don’t mess with him.

9 February: Hasakah

There is a beautiful, wild-looking young woman in a hospital bed in the city of Hasakah in the north-east of Syria. She has taken some shrapnel in her back and arms. Other patients in this hospital, 285 kilometres north of the front, are happy to speak with me. I have moved here to debrief wounded escapees from Baghouz in a quiet secluded area, away from other journalists, so I can build a clearer picture of what is happening in the remnants of Islamic State’s stronghold, and perhaps learn of those I seek. But this young woman is telling me nothing. She stares at me with the cold fury of a hawk.

“What’s her story?” I ask a doctor as we move to another ward.

“Oh, her husband was part of an Islamic State sleeper cell,” he tells me, “left behind undercover in a newly liberated area. He was building a bomb in the kitchen. It went off and killed him and wounded her. Now she lies here saying nothing, and her family refuse to come to collect her.”

Bailing out: civilians leaving the tent city in Baghouz, by the Euphrates river in eastern Syria – the last piece of IS-held territory

10 February: Hasakah

I interview the Canadian Isis prisoner. He goes by several names but is best known as Mohammed Khalifa. Captured on the battlefield west of Baghouz in January, he was one of the principal figures working for al-Hayat – the Isis production company that made many of the terror group’s videos, including the “Lend Me Your Ears” series in which John Cantlie played the role both of narrator and prisoner – and I am almost certain he knows the British hostage’s fate. But if he does, he is saying nothing. We meet at a security installation. It is an uneasy, faltering interview, made worse by my desire to rush back near the front before nightfall closes the road.

As soon as the interview is over I get back in the car and head south for the Euphrates valley. My interpreter and driver, Syrian Kurds, are old friends with whom I have often worked before. Half my age, they could be my sons. I guess they feel the same way, as they call me “the old man”. It is true, I reflect. I have grown old in wars. I came to conflict in Bosnia aged 25. More than a quarter of a century has passed and my beard is grey and my face lined.

11 February: al-Omar oilfield

Journalists trying to reach the front at Baghouz are based in a war-damaged office building in the al-Omar oilfield, in Deir Ezzor governorate. It is a typically inglorious location. If the generator works there is electricity: mostly it does not. About 40 of us sleep there on the floors, four or five to a room. The smell of shit from the overflowing loos wafts down the corridors. Morning and evening the comrades, as we call the YPG running the oilfield, bark us orders to eat. Usually meals comprise of thin soup, rice or vegetables.

Thankfully there is only one other British reporter there. Most are French – driven, brave, insolent, amusing. It seems the perfect moment to cease to be a non-smoker, so the evenings pass on the floor in the dust and darkness in a cloud of Gauloises, with laughter, war stories and Irish whiskey. All seems well with my world. But I will not find what I seek here. The access provided by the YPG is not good enough. Besides, there is one piece of journalistic advice over and above any other that holds true to success: “Leave the pack.”

13 February: al-Hawl camp

I will never know for certain whether the confluence of a hunch – together with my application for permissions and names – all coincide in one moment of focus, or whether what happens is simply the result of pure coincidence. I suspect the former, although the day does not have an auspicious start.

I arrive in al-Hawl camp tired and out of focus having driven hundreds of miles over the previous ten days. My interpreter is sick, and I have given him too much paracodine, reducing him to a state of near somnambulance. In the camp administration office we are told that there are no British citizens among the recent arrivals from Baghouz – and certainly no one among the 39,000 people there with the names I have requested to see. I am there that day on pure speculation, not certain of the location of anyone I look for, nor even if they are alive. But I push back anyway and state with confidence that I know there are British Isis wives in the camp.

Time drags in a succession of cups of coffee, then tea and cigarettes. In the moments that my interpreter wakes up he tells me to remain calm. But I feel antsy and impatient for success. It is my last day on assignment in Syria. I have already extended the trip. I have no more money, and only five cigarettes left.

Eventually one of the camp administration staff, utterly bored by the three hours I have sat in his office, walks out grumbling. He returns 20 minutes later, wordless, with two veiled women, mujahireen – Islamic State foreigners.

They sit down and we begin to speak. Then I hear those words:

“I’m a sister from London. I’m a Bethnal Green girl.” 

Anthony Loyd is a reporter for the Times

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