Australian teenager Yusuf Zahab ‘alive’ in Syrian prison months after reports he was killed in IS strike

An Australian teenager believed killed in an Islamic State airstrike in Syria more than a year ago is believed to have been found alive. His family say they are “overwhelmed with joy”.

Yusuf Zahab was just 11 when he was taken into Syria by his family nearly a decade ago: his older brothers were IS fighters and recruiters.

Despite not being accused of any crime, Zahab was imprisoned from the age of 14. He was believed to have been killed by a January 2022 airstrike on al-Sina’a prison by IS fighters, seeking to break jailed insurgents out.

But a video has since emerged of a teenager, aged about 19, believed to be Zahab speaking into a camera. It is believed the video was shot inside a prison in the city of Hasakah in Syria’s north-east.

In the video, he identifies himself, names his parents, and gives the date as 15 September 2022. Wearing a T-shirt, he is said to look relatively healthy and uninjured.

While the video is nearly a year old, it appears to confirm Zahab survived the IS attack on the prison where he was being held.

The video has been passed to Australian authorities, and shown to Zahab’s family members in Australia. Syrian Democratic Forces have identified the teenager as Zahab. International charity groups are seeking to further confirm his identity.

Zahab’s family said they “have received information from several sources that our beloved Yusuf is indeed alive”.

“We are simply overwhelmed with joy by this news and are so thankful to now have hope again that we will soon be reunited with him.

“Unfortunately, this news follows 12 excruciating months in which numerous sources had indicated that Yusuf had died, and we are very concerned that he is still isolated from his family and stranded in north-east Syria where he remains unsafe.

“Yusuf was just a young boy when he was taken to Syria. We can only begin to imagine the horrors that he has suffered through since then.”

Yusuf Zahab was presumed dead after an IS attack at the prison where he was detained

Zahab’s mother and sister, and his sister’s young children, are currently being held in a detention camp in north-east Syria. His brothers, Khaled and IS recruiter Muhammed, were killed in airstrikes.

His family said now that the Australian government had received evidence Yusuf Zahab was alive, they hoped the government would act to bring him home to Australia.

“We also hope that the Australian government will bring the other Australian children home from north-east Syria, especially as some of them are at risk of being separated from their mothers and placed in similar conditions to Yusuf.

“The only way to truly protect all of these children is to bring them and their mothers home to Australia immediately, as the government has previously committed to doing so.”

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The Australian government has launched two repatriation missions to bring home Australians held in Syria.

In 2019, eight orphaned children, including a pregnant teenager, were returned to New South Wales from the camps.

And last October, four women and 13 children were brought back, also to NSW.

But there currently remains about 40 Australians – 10 women and 30 children, the wives, widows and children of slain or jailed IS fighters – held in the Roj detention camp near the Iraqi border.

There is a smaller cohort of Australians held at the al-Hol detention camp, larger and said to be more dangerous.

The Australian government has committed to bringing home the remaining Australians it can safely extract but has given no commitment as to when it will do so.

There are growing fears inside the camps for the boys within the Australian cohort.

As Yusuf Zahab was, boys reaching puberty are being systematically separated from their families and placed into detention centres and prisons, ostensibly out of fear of radicalisation. They are being arbitrarily detained in prisons across north-east Syria.

“The indefinite, cradle-to-grave, camp-to-prison detention of boys, based on crimes allegedly committed by their family members, is a shocking example of the legal black hole that North-east Syria currently epitomises,” a panel of UN experts, led by special rapporteur Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, said in a recent statement.

“We are extremely concerned that serious harm may befall these boys and fear they may be forcibly disappeared, and subject to sale, exploitation and abuse, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.”

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