An Aussie grandmother has revealed her desperate five-year fight to rescue her three orphaned grandchildren from Syria after they were taken there by their mum to join their father, notorious Islamic State fighter Khaled Sharrouf.
The three surviving children, 17-year-old Zaynab, Hoda, 15, and Humzeh, eight, were taken along with their two brothers to Syria by their Aussie mum Tara Nettleton in February 2014 – months after their father flew from Sydney Airport himself to join ISIS in December 2013.
They are now staying with other IS brides and children in the al-Hawl refugee camp in north-eastern Syria. The two older brothers, along with their parents, are thought to have died.
Determined to be reunited with them, their gran Karen Nettleton has launched three separate bids to bring them home. Now, she has appeared on ABC’s Four Corners – set to air on Monday night – to detail her latest effort, having flown to Syria to search refugee camps in the hope of finding them.
“I just hope today is the day I get them. If not I will try again tomorrow and the next day because I’m not going home without them,” she says on the show, adding: “I’d never thought I’d be in this situation ever. I mean trying to get children out of Syria. I’m just a grandma from the suburbs.”
Karen has previously made two attempts to fly out and rescue them, but each time she’s failed. Nonetheless, she’s managed to keep up sporadic contact with them over the years – promising to do all she can to help them.
Breaking down in tears on the program, she insists that they don’t pose any threat to Australians and just want a chance of living a ‘normal’ life now both of their parents have died.
“They are not a threat or a danger to anyone,” she says on camera. “They’re not. I mean Zaynab is a mum – 17 years old, two children and one on the way. Humzeh is a little boy eight. His main worry is his friends and Hoda is the quiet one. She’s the real soft one. Just because their last name is Sharrouf, doesn’t mean they are monsters.”
The world only truly learned of the Sharrouf children in 2014 when their father published pictures of his eldest son Abdullah holding up the severed head of an IS prisoner, sending shockwaves around the world.
“This image… is really one of the most disturbing, stomach-turning, grotesque photographs ever displayed – of a seven-year-old child holding a severed head up with pride and with the support and encouragement of a parent,” then US Secretary of State, John Kerry, says on the program.
After extensive work in Syria, the Four Corners crew managed to track down the kids and spoke with eldest girl Zaynab. Asked what she would say to those who claim their family forfeited the right to come home by going to the IS caliphate in the first place, she replies: “Well I would say we weren’t the ones that chose to come here in the first place. I mean we were brought here by our parents. And now that our parents are gone, we want to live. And for me and my children I want to live a normal life.”
Recalling the moment they arrived in Syria, Hoda says they had no idea where they were going when their mother took them abroad.
“I didn’t know I was in Syria until after we crossed the borders and I heard people speaking Arabic, so that’s when I was a little bit weirded out,” she says on the show. “I asked my mum where we were. And she told me we were in Syria. I started crying.”
Zaynab is now seven-and-a-half months’ pregnant with her third child and has been diagnosed with dysentery and severe anaemia since arriving at al-Hawl three weeks ago, the ABC reports.
She says on the show that her and her remaining siblings have been trying to escape ISIS for some time, but feared what may happen to them if they got caught.
“People get raped, tortured. They get caught by other people. That’s why we never actually had the heart to leave,” she says.
They explain on the program that once they arrived in Syria, the two eldest boys were forced to attend IS training camps where they regularly had photos taken of them posing with guns – eventually resulting in the now famous photo of Abdullah circulating online.
Meanwhile, the ABC reports that their father also arranged for Zaynab, then 13, to marry his friend and fellow Australian jihadi Mohamed Elomar. They had one child together but Elomar was killed before the birth in a drone strike in 2015.
Zaynab reportedly went on to have another child to another friend of her father’s, who he again arranged for her to marry.
According to the ABC, the Federal Government said it would not help to evacuate any Australian children of Islamic State fighters from Syria, but told Karen if she can get them out of Syria, it would help from there.
Watch the full story of the Orphans of ISIS tonight (Monday, April 15) on Four Corners at 8:30pm on ABC TV and iview.