“When you belong to a group they do what they want with you, it’s like a sect, and when you open your eyes, you’re in Syria”
“They fill their heads with the idea that death’s no big deal.”
“These aren’t slackers or loners, kids who haven’t studied. They’re not young people who have been problems, no.”
“We need to be recognised as victims, not the families of terrorists,”
Mothers know. They know when something is not right with their children, when things are going wrong.
Yet most mothers of young Europeans who have gone to fight in Syria say they didn’t see it coming, that they had little idea their childrens’ heads had been turned to such an extent. For that fault some in society have pilloried them as negligent or complaisant and viewed them with suspicion, so not only do they have to cope with loss and bereavement, they have to cope with it alone and with little support or sympathy.
In France despite the uproar generated by 2015’s Paris attacks
the voices of these mothers are beginning to be heard. Dominique Bons is from Toulouse. Now 62, she lost her son in Syria two years ago. A convert, he became radicalised before leaving France. After nine months in Syria, he was dead. She is one of the first to have gone public with her story.
“I love this photo. He was a youngster, just like any other, he liked girls, he liked to look smart,” she sighs.“This is the year he converted…and this is three months before he left for Syria. It’s the last photo.”
While in Syria Nicolas appeared in ISIL propaganda videos alongside his half-brother Jean-Daniel, who left for Syria with him.
“He always said everything was fine. I would say ‘but you’re in country at war Nicolas, don’t tell me everything’s fine, it’s not possible’” says Dominique.
She is convinced her son was swayed by a recruiting network operating outside his place of worship.
“I don’t think this came from inside the mosque, I think it was an exterior influence. I think there are touts, agents, there’s certainly a human element, a network, that’s clear. And now of course there are online social networks.
They’re very clever, they get in the kids’ heads, rub out the past like with a power hose, teach them death isn’t serious, is inevitable, and can be good. Then they aren’t scared of death. How insane is that?”
Dominique set up an association Syrie prévention famille. Its goal is to prevent families from becoming isolated, and prevention. It also aims to bring people together so their voices can be heard. Today Dominique has a meeting in Belgium with a mother from Brussels, Saliha Ben Ali.
who has a similar story to hers.
“For her it’s even worse.” says Dominique. “Her son was dead after only three months He was young, too. Only 19. Everything I do right now is to bring this to the attention of the public. People need to know how this happens, what happens to us, what we go through.”
Saliha is originally from Morocco. Her son Sabri became radicalised and died in Syria two years ago. Ever since then she has fought against indoctrination by jihadist radicals. She has created, and runs the association SAVE (Society Against Violent Extremism) Belgium.
“What we do is prevention and raising young peoples’ and families’ awareness of the issues, and also working in a support role with families affected. You try to bring them something you wish would be offered to you if you were in that drama,” says Saliha.
Since the Paris attacks, Saliha has the feeling she is being listened to more.
“Before I had to go to the schools, and two or three would hear me out but since November 13 it’s the schools phoning me up, begging for help.This after two years working in the field.”
Back in France in Narbonne, another mother, another story. Christine is very careful about what she is willing to say. Her 29-year-old son is still alive and in Syria. He converted in May 2014, and nine months later he was in Syria.
Occasionally mother and son exchange instant messages. Christine does not want to give his name, or their family name, and only shows childhood photos.
“Here are some photos of my son. He wasn’t a little boy who fought at school, he was gentle and very reserved. He had a lot of empathy for suffering, and I think he was someone who wanted a different society to the one we have,” she says.
“Later on when he was bigger he lived in Paris. A normal life. He worked, he liked hard rock, he was like any young man of his time. Then he met the wrong people, and converted to Islam. Then everything moved very quickly. He radicalised, then disappeared. It effects any level of society, and family, united or divided. It hurts Muslim families, it hurts Christian families. It effects every social class,” claims Christine.
“We are always blaming ourselves,” says Dominique. “We tell ourselves that we missed a sign early on, that if we had said something in a different way…With hindsight we can change the world. I did what I could, for good or ill, I don’t know. But in any case I gave all my love to my children.”
Christine agrees. And she certainly is not blaming her son, either.
“It has something to do with how these young people think, seeking a social model, a sort of quest,” she says. “Is that a bad thing in itself? Because in fact the criminals, the dangerous ones, where are they? They’re looking straight at our kids, remote-controlling them onto this path. They are the ones we should be going after.”
In a documentary film, La Chambre vide, Saliha allows the camera to follow her daily life and mourning close-up. Dominique was at the film’s premiere in Brussels. The movie will help bring these womens’ voices out of the silence and underlines their conviction that they have a role to play in the fight against radicalisation.
“I am ready to speak to any young people to tell them about the suffering they can bring to their families, and above all the certain death that awaits them over there,” insists Dominique.
“The bombardments are getting heavier and their life is tough. Many have died and the fighters’ lives hang by a thread,” says Christine, who still has a thread to cling to…just. “I don’t have a lot of hope…I hope he comes back, but I don’t think so, I really don’t.”