Thousands of children were taken from comfortable homes to live in the first modern-day caliphate. But after the fall of Isil, many now languish in detention camps and rehabilitation centres. Josie Ensor reports from Syria. Pictures by Sam Tarling
This article has an estimated read time of 11 minutes
Hi Sarah, it’s me ... your brother,” says 16-year-old Sulay Su, leaving a message for his older sister back home in Trinidad and Tobago. A typical teenage boy, he’s awkward on the phone.
“I’m OK, and I have news on mommy. She’s OK too,” he adds, before a long pause. “I miss you. I’m not sure what else to say.”
It has been six months since he last spoke to Sarah-Lee, 23, and more than five years since he saw her in the flesh. He doesn’t know what to tell her, or where to even start.
To paraphrase Sulay, who has a glib teenage habit of understating things, a lot has “gone down” in the past half-decade.
A quiet young man with a gentle manner, Sulay is a favourite of his teachers at the Houri juvenile deradicalisation centre in Tal Maarouf, northeastern Syria. Smart, inquisitive and hungry for an education, he’s unlike most of the other boys here. If these were normal circumstances, he’d probably be out already on good behaviour.
But nothing about Sulay’s story is normal.
At 11 years old he was taken by his mother Gailon’s Muslim convert husband, Anthony Hamlet, to Syria to live under the Islamic State. He was due to start secondary school in Trinidad the week they left that hot September of 2014, but Hamlet, a violent gunrunner-turned-radical Islamist, had other plans.
I decided to travel to Syria in search of Sulay after receiving a pleading message from Sarah-Lee on Twitter in May. She was desperately worried for her brother, who had not made contact since his final call from Isil territory in December. The air strikes were getting closer, he had told her with a panic in his voice, and neither he nor their mother had managed to find food in what felt like weeks.
Some 6,000 miles away, she felt utterly helpless.
At the centre, which has armed guards patrolling on its roof, Sulay makes the most of the rare visit from outsiders - and the access to a phone. “We’ve been learning how to sew hearts, make bracelets, that sort of stuff,” he says nonchalantly, clearly trying hard to reassure Sarah-Lee that - despite everything - he is OK. “There was a football we used to play with, but it got bust,” he adds, making it sound as if he’s away at summer camp.
Sulay is one of thousands of children who were taken from their comfortable lives in the West to live in the first modern-day caliphate. Their parents had imagined a utopia, an Islamic society unburdened by democracy and the Western excesses they had come to resent. But the dream soon turned into a nightmare, which for some there was no coming back from.
The lucky ones managed to make it out, the unlucky ones died or were killed: by starvation, bombs or in battle.
And there are those, like Sulay, whose countries don’t want them back and are now left in limbo in detention camps and rehabilitation centres across northern Syria, quite literally paying for the sins of their (step) fathers.
For years Isil brainwashed the children living under its rule, in a radicalisation process so wide-reaching it is without parallel in contemporary history. Few who came out the other side have had the opportunity to tell their story, in their own words. Even fewer have articulated it in English.
Sulay, who hid his Christian faith while inside the caliphate, lived through so many unspeakable things during those five years - imprisonment, public beheadings, torture and worse - it’s no wonder he struggles for words in the message to his sister.
But he is different from all the others I have interviewed over the years. I get the sense Isil didn’t succeed in getting inside his head like they did the rest.
“He was a bright kid with a bright future,” says Sarah-Lee as we talk over a patchy line from Syria to Trinidad. “He was into football, he used to run. Gymnastics, everything.”
His biggest misfortune, she says, was his mother’s choice of husband.
Gailon, 45, had dated a number of men since her split from her Chinese husband - Sulay and Sarah-Lee’s father - more than a decade ago. But none as seriously as Hamlet, whom she met through friends who attended a mosque in Chaguanas, a gritty city which has earned the title of murder capital of Trinidad.
Hamlet had for years been involved with gangs operating in its underbelly, though Gailon says she was unaware of his past. By all accounts, he had a certain magnetism that drew people - particularly women - in.
He had come under pressure from influential figures at the mosque who preached an extreme interpretation of Islam and did so with “very little interference” from the government, according to Simon Cottee, a leading expert on Isil’s recruitment in Trinidad and Tobago.
Followers were told that it was their duty to “help their brothers” and go to fight jihad in Syria, and as many as 240 are estimated to have heeded the call. With a population of 1.3 million (just five per cent of them Muslim), the tiny Caribbean island has the dubious honour of having one of the highest per capita rates of recruitment to Isil in the world.
Among the hardcore who left, most knew each other and can be traced back to mosques in either Chaguanas or Rio Claro in the south. “It was an incestuous network,” Mr Cottee says.
Gailon’s conversion was quick. In early 2014 she took part in a local government beauty pageant and came in first place. Pictures from the event show her in a crown and sash, smiling broadly in a skimpy halter-neck top. A few months later she was engaged to Hamlet and wearing a hijab. So quick was it that Sarah-Lee, who was 17 and living out of home, had not even met Hamlet before he took the family to Syria.
The visit to Turkey that September had started out like the other religious trips Hamlet had taken them on that summer. What was unusual was the minivan that picked them up from their hotel in the southern city of Gaziantep in the dead of the night.
“A car came, my step-dad told us we were going to another hotel,” Sulay tells me. “We were going going going until we got to a checkpoint with men with masks and guns. It was then I started to feel scared.”
He didn’t know all that much about Syria, a country thousands of miles from the idyllic tropics he had grown up in, but knew enough to know an ugly and bloody war had been raging there.
Once over the border, Hamlet, who had also brought along his first wife and their five children, destroyed the families’ passports. “You’re going to stay here and die,” he told them.
“I did not know we were going to Syria,” Gailon claims, speaking from a detention camp for the wives and young children of foreign Isil fighters. “We got married on the Thursday and left the following Tuesday. I guess he had his plans, but he didn’t tell me. This was not fair to me, or to my son.”
Gailon says Hamlet started to become violent soon after they arrived. He had an expectation that, as a dutiful wife, she should follow him without question. If she objected to their new life then she would just have to be put in her place.
“It was very abusive, he used to beat me up and stuff a lot,” she says from Roj camp, where she has abandoned the Muslim religion she once embraced and become one of only a small handful of women who now go without the abaya.
A particularly traumatic episode in the spring of 2015 would prove a turning point in their young marriage. Hamlet had left the house one morning, leaving a loaded handgun in the living room. His six-year-old son from his other wife picked it up and pointed it at his head, mimicking the Isil propaganda videos he had been made to watch.
“He shot himself in the face, killed himself right in front of us,” says Sulay. Both Sulay and Gailon bring up this incident and talk about it with a deep regret. Sulay remembers Hamlet being less affected, however, simply saying it had been “Allah’s will.”
Gailon gathered the courage to file for divorce through Isil’s sharia courts not long after. Hamlet, who had met another woman, was happy to oblige.
Gailon called Sarah-Lee often during this period, begging for help. She wanted the Trinidadian government to understand their situation and needed money to pay smugglers to escape. A teenage Sarah-Lee, with no close family left in the Caribbean, took on the enormous challenge alone.
“I wrote to the ministry of foreign affairs, I went to the police, the security general. No one responded,” she says. "No one wanted to know."
They spared Sarah-Lee the more disturbing details of their new life; the heads of “infidels” they saw hanging on spikes in the public square, the slave auctions of petrified Yazidi women, the floggings by the feared morality police.
When Sulay turned 13, he was called up to fight. “You’re a man now,” Isil commanders told him. “I really didn’t want to go, I’d seen the videos of the battles,” he says. “I begged my mum to help me get out of it.” Gailon moved them from house to house in Raqqa, the capital of the self-declared caliphate, in a ploy to keep her son from being conscripted.
“Every day she would apologise to me, saying she was sorry for ruining my life,” Sulay says.
They spent the next few years “bouncing around”, surviving off a small monthly stipend Isil distributed to foreign widows and divorcees.
Sulay tried hard to lead as normal a life as possible in the most abnormal of circumstances. He tried to make up for missed schooling by following online tutorials, he downloaded Hollywood shows to remind him of home. His favourite was Game of Thrones.
But with the internet strictly prohibited in the caliphate, he would be punished whenever he was caught.
As the jihadists became ever-more brutal and the US-led coalition turned up the heat on its bombing campaign to defeat them, the pair’s attempts to escape became more focused. But each time they were caught and brought back.
The first time Sulay was arrested he spent a few days in prison, but the longest of the eight stints was two months. “They interrogated me, beat me, told me I was a spy for America and called me a disbeliever for wanting to leave,” he says. He was denied food and put in Guantanamo Bay-style stress positions. He remembers one British fighter, who went by the nom-de-guerre Abu Adam al-Britani, for his particularly creative torture techniques. Sulay says he saw Abu Adam the other day on TV, swearing to the interviewer he wasn’t a threat to the UK and should be allowed back home.
By the end, Sulay had completely shut himself off. The few friends he did have had all been killed. Each day had become a matter of survival.
Gailon and Sulay were eventually caught by the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as they closed in on the town of al-Shafaa in January.
Gailon had dressed Sulay up in a niqab in the hope SDF fighters would mistake him for a woman, but he was discovered when the headscarf slipped. As they were being pulled apart she grabbed her son and kissed him on the head. “I love you,” she said. “Just remember I love you.” She knew she could not protect him for whatever was coming next.
They were bundled into trucks which sped off in different directions - the last time they saw one another.
When Sarah-Lee saw the mugshot of her brother posted on the SDF's social media, it was hard for her to reconcile the smiley, mischievous boy she had remembered with this young man with wild, unkempt hair and vacant eyes.
After all those years trying to help them escape - efforts so all-consuming she was forced to drop out of medical school and take up a job at an insurance company - there would be no instant relief for Sarah-Lee when they did.
“Let him rot in jail,” one Twitter user commented under Sulay’s photo. “I hope he burns in hell,” read another.
It’s hard not to feel protective of Sulay, a slight 5’4 boy who during my visit gifts me one of the red and white woollen hearts he had sewn in knitting class. I feel an instinctual sisterly urge to shield him from the baying mob.
Most of the 80-odd boys at the Houri centre are Syrians who are serving a sentence passed down by a local court. But because the Kurds do not try foreigners, Sulay’s detention has no end date.
“The guards get angry when I say I’m not Isis,” he tells me, picking at a loose thread on his t-shirt. “They say I’m a liar, they ask how could I have been in the Islamic State but not with Isis. They don’t believe me.”
In some ways Sulay is fortunate. Had he been a year older he would likely be in one of the SDF’s prisons. Any younger, he could have been sent to the overcrowded and lawless camps, the worst of which has been nicknamed “Mini Bucca” after the notorious US-run detention centre in Iraq which spawned Isil leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his cohort.
The fate of the foreigners is still uncertain. The US has been pushing allied countries, including Trinidad, to repatriate their nationals. The Kurds are holding more than 15,000 of them in total - a burden they say that cannot bear forever.
Terrorism experts say the longer the children remain in Syria, with no schooling or rehabilitation to speak of, they are at greater risk of radicalising.
But most countries are resistant, not only because the issue is so politically toxic but because some, including the UK, fear their legal systems are just not robust enough to deliver justice.
Trinidad has so far ignored pleas from families like the Sus. With elections coming up next year, no one wants to touch them.
Mr Cottee believes the Trinidadian government’s inaction is making the children victims twice over: “Sulay was just 11 when he travelled to Syria with his family, he didn’t have any say in the matter,” he says. “At the moment he left, he stopped being a kid. That is to say, his childhood was over. That was stolen from him.”
Their situation has allowed each of the family members time for reflection.
Gailon has been unable to contact her son, apart from a brief telegram she managed to send through the International Red Cross in February which only reached him the day before our visit in mid-June.
“Everyone wants to be blaming me, saying I did bad things to my children,” she says. “I just married a man.”
She says she holds Hamlet, who went on to fight and die in the final battle for Isil’s last territory in the Syrian village of Baghouz, responsible for "everything”: “He should have told me, let me decide. He didn’t. I’m angry at him for this,” she says.
But she also holds an enormous amount of guilt, as a mother, for the way things turned out.
“I promised I’d get my son out of there, I tried my best but I failed,” she says. “All I want is to save my son, it doesn’t matter if I go to prison, but he is innocent in all this.”
Sarah-Lee, who manages to speak with her mother every few weeks on a monitored phoneline, wants for Gailon to be able to forgive herself.
Most of all, I want to know what Sulay feels about his step-father. “He’s a real jerk,” he says, in an answer that so perfectly sums up Sulay we both laugh.
He’s not sure if he wants to return to Trinidad if he does get out of here. “Everyone knows me there now,” he says. “I’ll always be the Isis kid if I go home.
“Maybe I will go somewhere else and start afresh. Which countries have never heard of Isis?” he asks.
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