Thousands of families were torn apart when their children left to join the so-called Islamic State terror group and its world of radical ideas and brutal acts. But many of these relatives are now among those fighting to bring the runaways – and their new families – home.
For some who know little about the fate of their loved ones, it has also become a journey to establish the facts around what actually happened after they left.
The story of Quentin
Veronique Roy Burin told Euronews her son Quentin, 22, was "a nice boy" who "simply made a bad decision" when he left France for Syria in 2014.
He was "naive, generous, extremely gentle," she added.
But a Whatsapp message sent to Quentin's parents in January 2016 shattered any hopes of reunification as it confirmed their son had died somewhere between Iraq and Syria.
"It was like the sky fell on us," his father Thierry said.
Since receiving the news, Quentin's family have been battling to find out the details surrounding the circumstances of his death.
"Where was he killed?" his mother asked. "How? On what date?
"We don't have a body and his death is not recognised...it's really hard to mourn."
'It starts with a choice'
Veronique’s Catholic family have led a quiet existence in the suburbs of Paris. But faced with the fait accompli of Quentin's conversion to Islam, they accepted his new faith – in some ways because of tolerance, but also for fear of losing him.
Veronique said her son became "trapped" as his views later grew extreme, and he was dragged into fundamentalism.
But little by little, Quentin was dragged into radical Islam...
“It starts with a choice. A conviction. He adhered. He bit the hook. He was trapped, hooked.” Veronique says.
After his escape, Veronique, her husband Thierry and their eldest son Yannis communicate regularly with Quentin to try and reason with him in an attempt to curb his radicalisation.
Veronique says she was ready to do everything to save him. The family went to the police and told them where their son was. But authorities said Quentin would have to make his way back the same way he had left - on his own.
“Let me tell you that when you’re a parent and that your son disappears - be him an adult, Quentin was past 18 when he left - and someone tells you ‘we won’t pick him up, it’s dangerous over there... we don’t do anything’. You tell yourself... it’s going to be long. It’s going to be hard.” Veronique went on.
She and Thierry have struggled to have the family recognised as a victim of terrorism and to prevent such a tragedy from happening to others.
“We are in a quest for the truth about the path taken by our children to go there. They seem to leave on their own will. But they don’t. These are young people that have been recruited. It’s an ideology, it’s mental manipulation. But it’s true they don’t leave on handcuffs. There’s no gun pointing to their heads... Well, in fact, what do we know?”
Five thousand Europeans
Quentin was among the over 5,000 young European nationals who, according to the EU, joined terrorist organisations between 2011 and 2016.
According to the UN, the phenomenon of “foreign fighters” − individuals who joined insurgencies abroad and whose primary motivation is ideological or religious rather than financial – involved close to 40,000 citizens from 110 countries.
The issue of what drove them to fight a war that wasn’t theirs continues to puzzle many countries today. But the most urgent challenge is perhaps to define what to do with them next.
Thousands of those who survived now languish in improvised prisons in Syria and Iraq and face trials that, rights groups say, are based on evidence obtained through torture.
For families like Veronique’s bringing these people back - so that those responsible face justice, and the victims are rehabilitated and reinserted into society - is Europe’s responsibility.
“In order to turn the page, we must take responsibility and hear what is not pleasant. We did that work. We heard all that was unpleasant about our child and it was not easy.”
Across Europe, thousands of families have been demanding a second chance for their children and grandchildren.
But how to deal with ‘returnees’ is a daunting question.
Past rehabilitation and reinsertion programs, particularly in Europe, have been plagued by controversy.
Britain’s Prevent programme reportedly over-emphasised security rather than rehabilitation.
France’s Pontourny Center set up a deradicalisation facility in the middle of nowhere for individuals referred by local authorities. It closed in less than a year after no one agreed to take part in it.
Research suggests that programs that involve returnees’ families and local communities are the most successful. The Aarhus model in Denmark and Slotevaart in the Netherlands are good examples.
Returnees can seek services including psychological support, financial guidance, and social bonding through mentoring and counselling.
But those programs have been tested on a limited number of people and questions remain on whether they can be followed on a large scale.
Add to that the fact that investing public funds on former fighters is a controversial issue - “Should we spend money on people who effectively turned their backs on western democracies?” I have heard that question again and again – and you have an explosive political mix.
There’s no easy answer.
Authorities have to weigh the danger former fighters pose against the costs of bringing them back.
But for Veronique’s family, running the risk of losing track of them forever is a too high a price to pay:
“What is important for us is to, one day, be able to sit around a table to discuss and say... never again in France. This should not happen again. People shouldn’t be able to just leave. 2,000 departures are not anecdotal.”
It’s too late for Quentin. But Veronique, who has written a book about her family’s experience with terrorism, says her fight is far from over:
“People don’t want to hear that we suffer. We raised our kid well. Our kid is not the result of a family’s radicalisation. He is the result and an experience exterior to the family...
He met people he shouldn’t meet, that guided him to think about his religion, the religion he chose, a certain way and about politics in the Middle East. He wasn’t ready. All this contributed to his departure.
And It’s not because our son is dead that we have nothing else to do with this. The government doesn’t do anything to bring them back. It’s the worst thing that can happen. They think history doesn’t repeat itself, but there are similarities...
If France repatriates everyone, we can maybe establish the truth, we can maybe find pieces of his story that we don’t know today.”