The 11 South African nationals repatriated after escaping ISIS-held territories journeyed to Syria in the hopes of providing humanitarian aid to those in need, claims a lawyer representing the group. The return of the individuals was facilitated by the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) after they managed to cross the border into Turkey before making contact with their respective families back home.
Yousha Tayob from the Muslim Lawyers Association (MLA), said the group had embarked on the journey to Syria believing it to be their religious and humanitarian obligation to provide assistance to those affect by the country’s civil-war. They are believed to have travelled via the Turkish border to the city of Aleppo during the early stages of the conflict.
“They were certainly upset by the fact that Muslims were being injured and hurt, and they wanted to fulfil their obligation of serving fellow Muslim brothers and sisters who were in trouble. They decided to leave and go there, and when they came under attack as aid workers, realising the lawlessness they then notified their families back home to do what was necessary to bring them back,” he claimed.
Doubts however remain over the narrative, especially considering the group failed to follow more ‘structured methods’ like approaching recognised aid organisations that operate in Syria. Tayob stressed that the group were simply spurred by the atrocities they witnessed through the media, and chose to make an “emotionally charged” decision. He refused to fault the returnees on the decision, and denied suggestions they may have been naïve to the war situation.
Other issues of contention include the fact that three children under the age of 18 were amongst those that left for Syria, as well as that the party returned home without any South African documentation; in line with accounts that ISIS migrants are stripped of all documents upon entering the region. But Tayob suggested a different explanation for this.
“Because they got into Turkey and had to be taken across to Syria, in that process they lost some of their personal belongings, including passports which were all contained in one bag because they were travelling together,” he alleged.
While their route into Syria has been revealed, there is less clarity on how the group managed to escape ISIS territory unscathed, with the militants known to take a hard-line stance on anyone who attempts to leave the region. Tayob was unable to provide more information beyond stating that they were able to safely get across the Turkish border.
He was also unaware of allegation that some of the ‘aid workers’ are reported to have sold their assets and belongings prior to departure.
Instead, he said the fact that the 11 were released by local authorities after a two hour interrogation upon return, should serve as sufficient proof to clear them of suspicion.
“If they (authorities) had picked up an issue they would have been arrested,” he concluded.
The task team which questioned the group have been accused by Tayob of denying the MLA access to their clients. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)