When I read the two-page report in yesterday’s Mail about ten-year-old Amira and her two younger siblings, the British-born orphans trapped in a refugee camp in northern Syria, I wept.
What these children have seen and suffered defies comprehension. The matter-of-fact way that Amira described her experiences to reporter Larisa Brown, in an outstanding feature that surely deserves to win many prizes, was heart-breaking.
It is unthinkable that the British government should fail to respond to this report. We cannot leave these children, and so many others like them, there to die.
Amira, her eight-year-old sister Hiba and six-year-old brother Hamza were taken from their London home to the Middle East when their parents joined the terrorist group Islamic State about five years ago. Their mother and three other children were killed during the Battle of Baghouz, the last stand of Islamic State in February this year.
The stark account of what Amira saw as she helped Hiba and Hamza to get to safety is blood-chilling: ‘We had to walk out. There was a little house and a big dusty mountain and behind it everybody was dead.’ It is a child’s innocent description of the smouldering rubble that remained after sustained bombing.
From her traumatised words, it appears she watched her older brother die as he tried desperately to save two younger children: ‘He was running up because he knows my Mum was dead there. But everything he could find they were hitting with bombs, and there were guns. He just ran in and went down, and then when he was running the little house broke and everything went on fire so he died.’
That is an appalling thing for anyone to have witnessed, let alone a child of ten. Yet Amira remembers other things: visits to her ‘Grandmum’ in London, a meal out with her family, a trip to the funfair. Despite everything, she is very much an ordinary little girl in many ways. Larisa Brown’s reporting gave her back her humanity.
But we cannot even be sure that the remnants of her shattered family are still alive. When Amira spoke to the Mail’s reporter, she and her siblings were fending for themselves in a camp near the town of Ain Assa. They were among 24 orphans there.
But on Wednesday, after American troops were withdrawn from peace-keeping duties, the camp was attacked – allegedly by Islamic State – and the children fled. Wherever they are, we must not allow them to continue to be punished for their parents’ crimes. They are innocent British victims, and we should be doing everything possible to protect them.
I do not believe that British soldiers need be put at risk to do this. Both Turkey and Syria would like to be rid of as many refugees as possible. I am certain that, through urgent diplomatic negotions, we could get rescue units into these camps quickly and safely to save the children, if the political will is there.
But this leads to a wider question, of what should be done about the captured IS fighters and the jihadi brides, the British adults who betrayed their country to wage war on behalf of an evil death cult. And there, I fully understand how many readers cannot stomach the idea of giving such criminals a second chance.
I have spoken with numerous Muslims who are boiling with anger at Islamic State and anyone who supported it. They feel, quite rightly, that this twisted insult to our peaceful religion has made life almost unbearable for Muslims all over the world. It has corrupted our children and profaned our most sacred beliefs. They don’t deserve one scrap of our forgiveness.
Though I sympathise with such anger, I cannot condone or agree with it. We live in a working democracy with a fair legal system, and we have to trust that the law will do its job. The criminals will be punished but not completely disowned. We have faced similar moral dilemmas before, with the worst serial killers and with terrorists from other eras, and we have upheld our own civilised values by ensuring them a proper trial.
In this country, we do not lock people up and throw away the key, or leave them in a hole to rot. That is very important, because the rule of law is one of the central pillars of our society.
There are many adults, male and female, who went to fight for Islamic State and who still espouse that cause. We must impose tough measures on them, but we also have to be humane, for our own sakes. We cannot let ourselves become as barbaric as IS.
There is no better way to teach disaffected young Muslims that the British way of life is superior to anything terrorism has to offer than by making a show of our civilised values.
It is also vital that we realise many of the young women who joined IS to become ‘jihadi brides’ were manipulated in shocking ways.
The name of Shamima Begum, who fled her home in Bethnal Green, London, aged 15 and had three children with an IS fighter – all now dead – has been much in the headlines. But fewer readers will know the story of the woman who helped to recruit Shamina. She had a very similar name: Sharmeena Begum.
I learned her full story during the course of research for a major report which I have co-written and edited, the first part of which is to be published next month. Funded by the Aga Khan Foundation, it is called The Inner Lives Of Troubled Young Muslims. Sharmeena’s story is sadly typical.
She was brought up in Bethnal Green largely by her mother Shahnaz, whom she adored. When she was 14, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly afterwards. Within months, her father remarried. With his new wife already expecting a baby, Sharmeena was packed off to live with her grandmother.
Of course she was shocked, angry and disaffected. That is natural for teenagers of all cultures. But the Islamic State recruiters seemed able almost to smell out the unhappiest Muslim girls. It was easy for a recruiter to convince Sharmeena that she could be reunited with her mother, if she fought and died for IS. The girl became a fanatical convert, and lured several friends including Shamima to join her.
Sharmeena was killed, aged 19 or 20, last February. It is too late to help her but we need to be compassionate to others like her – including her friend Shamima – and begin the long process of rehabilitating them.
Some readers may roll their eyes and say that I am a hopeless, liberal bleeding heart. But I was in Uganda earlier this year and saw compelling evidence of how rehabilitation can work miracles.
During the genocide in the neighbouring country of Rwanda in 1995, many of those involved in the mass killings were mere children. Over the past two decades, there have been concerted efforts to help those children become assimilated back into their villages, communities and families.
What Rwanda has achieved, in forgiving and helping young adults who committed the most appalling crimes in their adolescence, is nothing short of holy. Britain should be inspired by this example, which has largely been set by the women.
We have more wealth and resources in this country, so we should be able to do just as well. At the very least, we have to try.
Daily Mail, October 15th 2019