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Wary Hope for French Families Awaiting Returns from Syria

Wary Hope for French Families Awaiting Returns from Syria

Sunday, 10 February, 2019 - 06:00
Jacques Le Brun holding a magazine picture of his son Quentin, who left to join ISIS in Syria in 2014, at the family home in Labastide-Rouairoux, southern France. (AFP)
Asharq Al-Awsat
After years of waiting for his son to come home from Syria, Jacques Le Brun is cautiously hoping that day may be nearing -- along with the chance to meet three grandchildren who have never seen France.

"He'll certainly go to prison, and he knows that. He probably even deserves it a little," Le Brun says at the family home in Labastide-Rouairoux, a village tucked in a forested valley of southern France.

The important thing, he says, is that Quentin makes it home alive after taking his wife and infant daughter in 2014 to join the ISIS terrorist group in Syria -- where he later appeared in a chilling ISIS propaganda video burning his passport.

About six weeks ago Le Brun learned that his son, now 30, was stranded near the Euphrates river in the last pocket of ISIS-held territory, besieged by Kurdish forces and targeted by coalition airstrikes, said an AFP report on Sunday.

Then last month reporters from the magazine Paris Match found Quentin and his family as they were surrendering, raising the possibility they could be among the roughly 130 French nationals who may soon be repatriated to France from Kurd-controlled prison camps in northern Syria.

The government is weighing the move after President Donald Trump announced in December that he would withdraw US troops from the war-torn country.

That prompted fears of a security vacuum in the north of Syria, in particular if Kurdish forces abandoned their surveillance of the captured fighters to defend against a potential assault by Turkey, which considers the Kurds a terrorist threat.

For Quentin's family, along with dozens of others across France, it's a chance to be reunited after years of anxiety over his fate.

"Our life has changed," said his sister, asking not to be identified by name. "Before we woke up each morning wondering if they were alive. It was hell."

’Glimmer in the night'

French government sources say 70 to 80 children are among the citizens being held by Kurdish forces, and around 15 women -- half of whom are considered "dangerous", according to AFP.

An additional 250 men, as well as accompanying wives and children, are thought to be elsewhere in Syria. An estimated 300 French fighters are thought to have been killed during the years-long coalition fight to eradicate ISIS's self-proclaimed caliphate.

France had long insisted that captured French fighters must be tried locally, either in Syria or Iraq, a hard-line stance which nodded to fears that returned fighters could stage attacks on French soil upon their release from prison.

"We, their families, just want them to be able to return to France and be judged fairly, sentenced only for what each of them has done -- and not have to pay for all the ISIS crimes," said the mother of a 30-year-old woman now in Syria with her four children, aged 10 months to nine years old.

While calling their potential return "a glimmer in the night," she worries they could be killed before any decision is made to bring them back, reported AFP.

"We've heard of at least four French women killed in the past few months, along with their husbands and 18 children in total" during the coalition bombings, the woman said.

Like several family members who spoke with AFP, she asked that her name be withheld, fearing harassment or ostracization in a country deeply scarred by the wave of deadly extremist attacks since the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan massacres of 2015.

'Get them away from all that'

Despite reports that repatriations could begin in the coming days, Jacques Le Brun says he has had "no information, no official contact" from French authorities.

The 58-year-old retired truck driver says he is still trying to understand how his son, who later took the name Abou Osama Al-Faransi, became caught up in extremist ideology.

Quentin began attending a local mosque before falling in with the "Artigat" network, named for a village near the southwestern city of Toulouse.

The village was the home Olivier Corel, a Syrian-born Salafist imam suspected of mentoring several extremists including Mohamed Merah, who was shot dead by police after he murdered seven people, among them a rabbi and three Jewish children, in Toulouse in a 2012 killing spree.

Albert Chennouf-Meyer, father of one of Merah's seven victims, has called on President Emmanuel Macron to keep the extremists out.

"Mr. President, you will in the coming weeks (...) bring back 130 French extremists, some of whom have the blood of our children on their hands," he said in an open letter seen by AFP on Saturday.

"I intend to use all my strength against this criminal decision," he added.

Le Brun wants to believe his son wasn't involved in any violence or killings, but the release of the ISIS propaganda video has been a heavy burden on his family.

Quentin's mother finds it hard to hold down a job, and his youngest brother has been hounded by high school classmates.

Many in the village make no secret of their hostility to Quentin's return.

"It's not necessarily a good idea to bring back these extremists, they might start again," said Laurent Montagon, a 53-year-old pizzeria owner in Labastide-Rouairoux.

"They'll scare people if they come back here."

Jacques Le Brun knows the suspicions will be hard to bear, but he is determined to recover his grandchildren and "get them away from all that".

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