LONDON – An Australian adolescent who was transferred to Syria as a toddler by his Daesh-supporting relatives is thought dead after being imprisoned for three years, according to the BBC.
Yusuf Zahab, 17, was transferred to Syria by family members who had been radicalized in Australia and aspired to join the terror organisation when he was 11 years old in 2015. In 2019, he was sentenced to prison without charge.
The Australian government has refused to repatriate its people from Syria, including children who were transferred to the war-torn country, citing safety concerns.
Zahab’s relatives in Sydney expressed “heartbreak and anger” at the news of his death, saying he had implored Australian officials for years to return him.
The circumstances behind Zahab’s likely death are unknown. He was most likely injured in January when Daesh forces attacked his jail, which is run by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the country’s northeast.
The Daesh soldiers hoped to release some of their compatriots from the prison, but the SDF, with US military assistance, kept them back after a horrific week-long struggle that killed 180 people.
As the combat between Daesh and the SDF continued, Zahab sent audio recordings to his Australian family, saying he was afraid he “could die at any time.”
He is believed to have been injured during the battle. “I had a lot of blood loss… “There are no physicians here, no one who can help me,” he explained at the time.
According to the UN Children’s Fund, Zahab was one of 850 children incarcerated at the prison in northeast Syria after Daesh lost its final territory in 2019.
“Even in the final messages we received from Yusuf, he requested us to inform his mum that he loved and missed her,” his family members stated in a statement. Yusuf did not have to die.”
They claimed that Australia’s previous administration “knew about Yusuf’s position for more than three years” before elections in May, adding, “We are unaware of any steps to help, care for, or ask about him.”
According to charities working in the region, the Australian government evacuated eight orphans in 2019, during the chaos that followed Daesh’s defeat, but 63 Australians, including former militants, remain trapped in Syria.
Up to 40 of the remaining 63 are children, some of whom were born in the region to Australian citizens.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade stated that it is looking into the reports of Zahab’s death and is assisting his family.
The Australian government said in a statement that it is “very worried” about its people in northeast Syria, but that its capacity to act in the region is “extremely constrained” due to security issues.