Albanian family pleads for the return of ISIS-held children
Xhetan Ndregjoni, 50, says he will never forget January 27, 2014, the day his brother-in-law left Albania with Ndregjoni’s niece and nephew, then nine and seven years old.
The family believed that Shkelzen Dumani was taking his children to neighbouring Montenegro for a short holiday. When he called three days later saying they were with Islamic State fighters in Syria, a gut-wrenching ordeal began that has lasted four long years.
“I could write a book or a movie script about the struggles we have faced over these years,” Ndregjoni, an administrator at a construction company in the Albanian capital, Tirana, told BIRN. “We are living through hell on earth.”
The ordeal may be about to reach a climax, with the ISIS caliphate that once spread across large parts of Syria and Iraq now reduced to a last scrap of Syrian soil in eastern Deir ez-Zor province.
Many women and children have been evacuated from the enclave to refugee camps run by Kurdish forces and the US-backed anti-government coalition Syrian Democratic Forces in anticipation of a final, bloody stand by ISIS fighters. There are indications Ndregjoni’s niece and nephew may be among them, alongside other children of ISIS fighters from the Balkans.
With the children’s mother, Ndregjoni’s sister Mide Dumani, suffering from severe depression, Ndregjoni told BIRN he was calling on authorities in Albania and other international actors in the conflict to identify those in the refugee camps and return them to their families without delay.
“They have suffered so much and we have waited for so long,” he said. “For the rest of my life I will be grateful to whoever makes this possible, Albanian or foreigner”.
A report released in March 2016 by the Albanian Institute of International Studies, AIIS, said the number of fighters from Albania joining ISIS in Syria and Iraq peaked in 2014, when between 90 and 150 people left from Albania, including 13 women and 31 children.
It is unclear how many are alive and are in the refugee camps.
Ndregjoni said no one in his family ever believed his sister’s husband, Dumani, would be capable of such an act. Dumani is believed to have been killed in Syria in 2014.
“He was not only my brother-in-law but we also worked together in the contraction company for years,” he told BIRN. “He was one of the most peaceful and calm people that I’ve ever seen. I can’t imagine how he turned into an ISIS fighter.”
Originally from Albania’s Diber country but living in Tirana, Dumani was 39 years old when he left with his two children and a large sum of money. He had duped his wife into signing a travel consent form, telling her he would take them “for a few days vacation in Montenegro”, Ndregjoni said.
They boarded a plane to Istanbul and entered Syria from Turkey.
Ndregjoni said Dumani called three days later saying he and his children were in “the sacred land” and that the rest of the family should join them. The family went to the police.
Ndregjoni said the family believed Dumani had been encouraged to join ISIS by two notorious members of the group – Almir Daci, a former imam from eastern Albanian, and Lavdrim Muhaxheri, an ethnic Albanian from neighboring Kosovo.
Desperate over the fate of her son and grandchildren, Dumani’s mother joined them in Syria in March 2014 in the hope of convincing him to return to Albania.
“She spoke a few weeks later over Skype, saying that the ISIS camps were a great place and that even we should join them,” Ndregjoni said. “It was obvious that she was under coercion and surveillance when speaking to us.”
She remains in Syria. BIRN is not naming Dumani’s mother or the children.
Source: Balkan Insight