Geopolitics

A French Kid Dragged Into Jihad, Lingers In A Syrian Prison

An 18-year-old prisoner recounts his departure from Roubaix, his life in a country at war, and his detention with no way out.

Prison in Tal Abyad, Syria
Prison in Tal Abyad, Syria
Allan Kaval

Mourad can no longer remember the titles of the books he used to borrow from the library at his former elementary school in the northern French city of Roubaix. There are no books where he lives now, in a prison in northeastern Syria. His parents forcibly took him to the land of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), when he was only 12 years old.

And even if the "caliphate" is no more, he's remained a prisoner here: "I forget things ..."

Mourad, whose name has been changed, has spent the last six years living under falling bombs. His face twitches. He sits, often with one hand rubbing his eyes, in a bare room of a prison filled with incarcerated jihadists. He says that when he was little, he loved swimming and mathematics. That there was a large garden around his grandparents' home. Mourad's face is gaunt, his body lean. When Le Monde met him, it was the day before his birthday.

We had changed the country. My father said we would get used to it.

Like all the other prisoners, he is wearing an orange jumpsuit and plastic sandals. The words collide in his mouth. He chokes at the evocation of a past that seems impossible from where he stands. He speaks shards of childhood language which, little by little, disappear inside him, breaking against the prison walls. Then his eyes fly to invisible hells, where the memories of happy days struggle to come forth.

"I liked... I liked... school." He tries to go back in time. He tries to traverse, somewhere in the depths of his memory, this frontier so far from his former life. "I think that my father... I think he told us we were all going on vacation in Turkey. We went there and then one night ... In the morning, it was different. Houses ... There were things exploding. We had changed country. My father said we would get used to it."

Prison in the Syrian northern town of Tal Abyad, Oct. 2019. — Photo: Juma Mohammad/IMAGESLIVE/ZUMA

Mourad has just been released from a cell where the lives of 154 men and boys mingle in a miasma of sick bodies, gray blankets and lentil soup. Like all other prisoners on-site, these men were captured in Baghouz in March. Like Mourad, they were among the last subjects of the "caliphate", the last to have left the slime of mud, metal and flesh, that had been the last territory held by the jihadists.

23 adults and children from the same family, led by radicalized members, left France to answer the call of the new caliph.

Mourad recalls that during his childhood, his father worked in a bakery on a straight street with red brick houses whose name he does not know how to spell. One day, in late August 2014, his father decided to take his family to the chimerical lands of the "caliphate". Back then, the IS reigned supreme between the Tigris and Euphrates. Its Ieader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, had just demanded the allegiance of all Muslims. The jihadist group organized the migration of thousands of foreigners who adhered to its ideology of death.

"We left by car: my father, my mother, my brothers and sisters, my grandparents, my aunts, my uncles ..." Between Iraq and Syria, Al-Baghdadi's men had just restored the practice of slavery. They were organizing the distribution of their most recent human plunder: Yazidi captives rounded up in Iraq near Mount Sinjar. In Roubaix, 23 French adults and children from the same family, led by radicalized members, left industrial northern France by car to answer the call of the new "caliph".

Two months later, Mourad turned 13 in Syria: "We settled somewhere near Aleppo ... Manbij ... All the maternal side of the family was there, we were together." Little by little, his northern French accent returns. Manbij is close to the Turkish border. This is where the attacks of November 2015 were organized after their initial conception in Rakka, the capital of the "caliphate". Mourad learned Arabic and read the Koran.

The war picks up in 2016 with the arrival of the Syrian Democratic Forces, dominated by the Kurds. According to Mourad's story, the war continued to hound his family, whose journey through a Syria in flames began following the successive retreats of the "caliphate". "We went to Rakka, the bombs ... it started again. My brother was 5 and a half years old, he was wounded."

When the fall of the ISIS capital became inevitable, Mourad's family was dragged along the Euphrates in a hurried escape that lead to their defeat in the Baghouz compound, where the last of the jihadists were defending a few acres of mud strewn with tents and corpses. Meanwhile, according to Mourad, one of his younger sisters had her leg amputated after she was struck by a burst of a mortar shell.

Baghouz was a horror movie.

He woke up in a hospital with a broken leg after the bombardment: "Since then, I lost sight in one eye ..." He rubs his eyelid. During the last year of the "caliphate", Mourad's grandparents fled to an area held by the Kurds. He says he hadn't heard from them before he learned of his grandmother's death in a camp in northeastern Syria.

"Baghouz, it was the worst thing I saw in my life ... It's a horror movie. They shoot from the front. They shoot from the back. You see someone in the street... He dies. There are bullets, bombs. You do not understand what's going on ... The food ... nothing. A jar of jam costs $25, children, small, starve," remembers the young man, one word after another.

There, everywhere, death roams. Mourad says that his two little sisters were killed. His father left and went back to the front. One day, he died. "I became the head of the family. There was an agreement with the Kurds to bring out the women, the children. I refused to allow my mother, my brothers, my sisters to be separated," says Mourad. "At night they bombed all the time. You had to forget the light." His good eye looks lost. Eventually, his family was evacuated. He found himself alone and surrendered to the Kurdish forces.

"I remember, we were in the desert. The Americans had tables, computers. Foreigners, we passed them one by one," says Mourad. They told him to put his valuables, his watch, in a bag with his name on it. He was 17 years old when his third life began, full of truck rides and interrogations. It was spring, and he was a prisoner. Then, in the middle of summer with impossible heat, he was thrown in a cell to slowly cook with dozens of other prisoners.

French authorities seem to have chosen to let him disappear into the oblivion of his jail

"You took your clothes, you wrung them out. It was flowing on the floor," he recalls, twisting an invisible cloth between his clasped hands. "There was an opening, a fan pulling in the air, and then men began to die. They were choking. I'm not dead ... Some went crazy. They began to beat each other." One night, the Kurdish authorities reacted and ambulances arrived. They open the doors for the survivors and threw cold water on them: "They fell like apples, one on the other." He taps his right palm on the back of his left hand.

Mourad has not seen the sun since his arrival in prison. "You forget the light." He lists at length the dishes served to the prisoners throughout the weeks, in the same order, always: "There are five different meals, rice, cracked wheat, beans, lentils, pasta ... in the morning there is date syrup, jam." Mourad's mind seems to be used to collecting the rare clues that prove he is living a different day from the day before, and that, in spite of everything, time in the prison is running its course.

What happens once that time is done? "Sometimes they say we are going to be judged. By who? I do not know ... They do not know..." Mourad says he has never seen a representative of the French government. Despite the fact that he was taken to Syria as a child, French authorities, who are present in the northeast of Syria, seem to have chosen to let him disappear into the oblivion of his jail. Children are left in closed camps without assistance. Is it because he is a minor that he has not been transferred to Iraq, like the eleven other Frenchmen who have since been sentenced to death?

Or does a more desirable fate await him in this disease-infested prison? He says that food is becoming increasingly rare. Then his words begin to fade. There is something he cannot say: "Life here, life before ... it's two things ... it does not mix ... it's impossible." A guard waits. We must leave. Mourad will return to the shadows. It's his birthday tomorrow: "My mother does not know if I'm dead or alive." Neither does his mother country. The last time his homeland saw him, he was 12 years old.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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