An Islamic State Orphan Returns To Tajikistan

Muhammadrahim Shoev has finally gotten his wish -- the Tajik man has been reunited with his 10-year-old granddaughter, the only member of his son's family of six to have survived their move to Iraq.

Maryam Shoeva was among four Tajik children who were returned home on April 25 following a months-long effort by authorities to repatriate Tajik children and women who had been stranded in Iraq and Syria. In most cases their families are suspected of having left Tajikistan to join the extremist Islamic State (IS) group.

Maryam's parents and three younger siblings are believed to have died in air strikes targeting IS in Mosul, Iraq, last summer, and her grandfather had been seeking her return since discovering in February that she was still alive.

"Maryam is back, finally, safe and sound," Shoev said after the girl was handed over to her grandparents in the village of Ghairatobod on the outskirts of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.

Appearing sleepy after her early hour flight from Moscow, Maryam clutched a small bag and a bunch of flowers as she rested her head on her grandfather's shoulder while media documented the reunion.

Her father, 37-year-old Jamoliddin Shoev, left the village along with his wife and children in 2015, telling his parents that he was going to Egypt, where he had studied more than a decade ago. Tajik authorities say he wasn't on their list of suspected IS fighters from Tajikistan.

He would make occasional phone calls to his parents -- the last came in August 2017, according to the elder Shoev -- who say they have no idea how he ended up in Mosul.

Pleading For Home

Just weeks later, Maryam appeared on a Russian TV program about Russian-speaking children who had been taken to a Baghdad shelter after Iraqi government forces recaptured Mosul from IS control.

The footage showed Maryam saying her parents had been killed in an air strike. Later she appeared on a YouTube video, pleading with her relatives to bring her home.

Shoev asked Tajik authorities to help, a task Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry said would take several months.

In a statement on April 25, the ministry said that the repatriation of the four Tajik minors, including Maryam, was facilitated with assistance of authorities in Iraq, Kuwait, and Russia, several other countries, UNICEF, and the International Red Cross.

The ministry will continue its campaign to repatriate other Tajik minors still remaining in the "war-torn Middle East regions," the statement said.

The ministry didn't identify the four children by name; Maryam's grandparents, however, agreed to speak to RFE/RL upon her arrival.

The three other children were identified by a Tajik diplomat as siblings – a girl and two boys – aged between 3 and 9.The diplomat requested anonymity as he wasn't authorized to speak to media.

The diplomat said the siblings' eldest sister, who is 16 years old, remains in a Baghdad shelter. He wasn't able to provide information as to why the teenager was left behind.

Tajik authorities say the return of unaccompanied and undocumented minors from the conflict zones is a complex procedure, which involves identifying the children and issuing provisional travel documents to submit to Iraqi authorities before arranging their flights from Baghdad.

Next of kin like Shoev are required to provide photos and documents to prove the children's identities and family ties before custody can be granted.

'A Good Rest'

Dushanbe estimates that there are some 200 children among more than 1,000 Tajik nationals who are believed to have left for Iraq and Syria to join IS since 2014.

A Tajik official in Dushanbe told RFE/RL on April 25 that authorities have so far identified 13 unaccompanied Tajik minors who were rescued from former IS-held areas and taken to government shelters in Iraq and Syria.

Their parents are thought to have been killed in military conflict. The official requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

The government has offered amnesty to all its citizens who were not involved in IS violence. Dozens have come back and reintegrated into normal life.

Back home, doctors and psychologists are expected to work with the families to help with the rehabilitation of children who had experienced the trauma of war.

"Maryam hasn't spoken much yet, because she is still very tired after a long flight," Shoev said. "We've a lot to tell to each other, but for the time being she needs a good rest."

Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Amriddin Olimov