23 Sep 2015

The British mother and children who escaped Isis

Shukee Begum and her five children have been rescued from a gang of Syrian criminals – after they were taken hostage trying to escape from the so-called Islamic State in Syria.

Above: Shukee Begum pictured with her five children

She took her children to Syria last year to try to convince her British husband to stop fighting for Isis and return to the UK.

But ten months later Shukee Begum, 33, and her children aged nine, seven, five, three and 11 months, had to flee from Isis territory in June, only then to find herself taken hostage by criminal smugglers on the Turkish border.

But now for the first time in months her family say she is apparently safe and in a Syrian area controlled by Al-Nusra militants, a rebel group with links to al-Qaeda but who are opposed to Isis.

The law graduate, from Greater Manchester, travelled to Syria last year in an attempt to persuade her British Jihad-fighting husband to return to the UK. She took with her their five children, including her youngest child who was only four weeks old at the time.

But once in Syria, Ms Begum had her passport taken from her, and her husband later refused her requests to leave, effectively trapping her and the children. It left her with no choice but attempt to escape.

Channel 4 News established contact with Ms Begum while she was trapped in Isis controlled territory and stayed in touch with her and her family in UK throughout the ordeal.

In a letter passed to Channel 4 News she described how her husband joined the so called Islamic State in April 2014 and urged her to accompany him, despite her being six months pregnant at the time.

She refused and after their fifth child was born she tried to persuade him to come back.

Ms Begum wrote in her letter: “All I keep thinking was I don’t want the kids never to see their father again, and I don’t want the baby to never have meet his dad.

“I suggested we meet in Turkey but he said it was unsafe. So I came [to Syria].

“I intended to see him then go back.

“On my way in my bag was snatched – it had my phones, passports and my travel money.

“I thought I’d be allowed back and didn’t think he would stop us… But he says he didn’t want us to leave so therefore will not help us back.”

Under Isis everything here takes ages. Except killing – that’s done very quickly

In communications over several months with Channel 4 News, she said she hated life under Isis, in particular how quick they were to kill people.

Under Isis, “everything here takes ages,” she said. “Except killing. That’s done very quickly.”

She complained of constant power cuts and the lack of facilities in Raqqa.

She lived in the Isis stronghold of Raqqa, but decided for her young children’s safety to move out of the capital to a small village, outside the city of Al Bab.

She said: “I never did and do not support Isis.

Ms Begum even appealed to the Isis Sharia Court but her request was denied. She was warned the court may take her children from her because she wanted to leave.

Shukee Begum pictured with her five children trying to leave Isis territory

Fleeing Isis

Eventually she decided there was no choice but to attempt to get her and the children out of Syria.

Under cover of darkness one night in June, when her husband was away from home, she and the children were picked up and smuggled across Isis lines.

They were helped to the town of Azaz, close to the main Turkish border crossing at Killis. Like thousands of desperate Syrians they tried to cross – but with no passports and no money they failed. She and the children made at least 4 attempts to get to Turkey – but they met with no success.

Stuck just miles from the border in Syria, the family were put up by a Syrian people smuggler and his family, but as time went on relations strained.

In one snatched phone conversation with Channel 4 News Ms Begum said she feared the family were losing patience with her, and had looted her belongings.

“My children are hungry. They’re really not giving us much food at the moment because they said every time we ask for something they say it costs money.

“[The smugglers] wife keeps threatening to hurt the children behind my back but I caught her at it and confronted her.”

For more than 80 days she had no contact with her family. During that time this video emerged from a Syrian group claiming to be helping her. Several media organisations were approached – and offered an interview with Shukee for a fee. But she was being held against her will.

Family pleas

Shukee’s family say she and the children were finally rescued on Monday.

Speaking exclusively to Channel 4 News her family spoke of their relief at the news today that their sister and her children had been “rescued” by Al Nusra militants.

“We do believe she’s in good hands because she’s actually made contact with us after three and a half months.”

“She said she was away from the bad people who had her kidnapped and held her against her will and that she was set free now, and now she was with people who were actually helping her”

When asked how a mother with five children could end up in Isis territory her sisters said:

“There’s a lot of questions that still need to be answered – how she ended up there, who was responsible for taking her there?”

“We are just worried about her. She’s been through a lot already. Obviously when they return will have to question her.

“With the last call she just seemed weak and exhausted. What effect is it going to have on the kids? They just need to be back with their family”

“She was taken against her own will. Her children are everything to her. She would never ever put them into any kind of danger.”

“Anybody who even consider [joining Isis] would need psychological help because you’d have to be pretty evil to support such a barbaric group”

Earlier in the year her family in Greater Manchester made an emotional appeal for the British government to act to bring the family home.

Her sister Shiblee begged the UK authorities to allow the children back to the family home.

She said: “Well at the end of the day they’re children. They didn’t make any decisions. They’re totally innocent, and they need to be back home where they’re safe.

“No child is safe there. No child should be forced to stay in that situation.”

Another sister Shunam added: “Just bring her back, question her here. As long as she’s just out of there. She needs to be home, then we know she’s safe.”

Her sisters insisted Ms Begum travelled to Syria only to bring her husband back home after giving birth to their fifth child and wanting his support.

They said she has never agreed with Isis, and repeatedly condemned their actions.

Her sister Shopna said: “She’d just had the baby as well and was looking after them herself, which is probably what made her want to get him back more, because she was trying to manage five kids by herself.

“After the beheadings happened she did express her views. She said that it was more like they were acting like celebrities, just killing people and then posing on camera.

“She was totally against it. She was against Isis, she didn’t agree with anything they did.”

The Foreign Office say they continue to work closely with the Turkish authorities on the whereabouts of a British national and her children, and stand by to provide consular assistance.

April 2014: Shukee Begum's husband travels to Syria to join Isis. He asked Shukee to join him. Six months pregnant with their fifth child, she refuses.

August 2014: Shukee Begum and her five children, including the newborn, travel to Syria, through Turkey, to attempt to convince her husband to return home.

2014: After living in Raqqa, Shukee and her five children are allowed to move to a village outside the city of Al Bab.

June 2015: While her husband is on a mission with Isis, Shukee flees with her five children in the dead of night.

Mid- June 2015: All communications from Shukee Begum to her family cease. Her whereabouts are unknown.

15 August 2015: The Daily Telegraph reports that Shukee has been freed by anti-Isis activists and is in Turkey. But her family receive no word from her and believe she is being held hostage.

23 August 2015: The Sunday Times release a video showing Begum and the children. They report she is being held by activists. It is later reported that she is being held against her will.

21 September 2015: The family hear that fighters from Al Nusra have located Shukee Begum and have freed her from the kidnappers.

22 September 2015: Syrian opposition releases a statement saying a British woman and her five children have been rescued.