Durban - A Cape Town grandmother is among 22 South Africans, some of whom are Islamic State (IS) sympathisers, trying to return home but are unable to do so.
The 50-year-old woman, who travelled to Syria four years ago, hoped to bring back her brother and his family, from the self-proclaimed caliphate, but was taken hostage.
Her daughter, who asked not to be named, said they were concerned about her mother’s well being and wanted to get her back home.
The woman is living in the al-Hol camp in Baghouz, in Syria’s northern Hassakeh province.
“She desperately wants to be home with family.”
The daughter said her mother entered Syria to search for her younger brother, his wife and three children.
“My mother learnt that her brother and his daughter were killed in a bombing incident and the rest of his family was displaced. She paid a guide to get her to the caliphate, but when she tried to leave she was not allowed to do so.
“She said about 50000 people lived at the al-Hol camp and that the conditions were challenging. There are no proper ablution or medical facilities and airborne diseases are rife.
“My mother said she escaped IS only to end up in this camp where women and children lose their minds and die.”
The daughter said they hoped the Department of International Relations and Co-operation would secure her release and safe passage to the airport.
However, department spokesperson Ndivhuwa Mabaya said: “We don’t get involved in things like that, we offer consular services and non-financial help. We can only process documents for her return once she’s made an application.”
Mabaya would not confirm whether the woman had made an application. “That is privileged information and can only be made public if the applicant gave us consent.”
Jasmine Opperman, director for Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, said she was familiar with the woman.
“It’s not surprising that South Africans want to return now that the situation in Syria has changed,” said Opperman.
Five years ago, IS attracted thousands worldwide, but has since crumbled.
“We must be careful of underplaying the underlying risk presented by each person, but we don’t want to do what some Western states are doing, which is to revoke citizenships.
“They are South Africans at the end of the day. They have a right to fair trial which they will not get in Syria and Iraq.”
Opperman said adults should be brought back in a strict and controlled manner and subjected to a de-radicalisation programme, in co-operation with Muslim communities.
Imtiaz Sooliman, of the Gift of the Givers, said he knew of 23 South Africans in Syria, including the Cape Town grandmother as well as photojournalist Shiraaz Mohamed. Mohamed was captured in Syria, on his way back to the Turkish border in 2017.
“I have spoken to the department and the SA embassy in Turkey and asked that every effort be made to bring them back, especially children,” said Sooliman.