Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

The European administration and the lost children of al-Hol

FAMILY / European governments still refuse to repatriate their state members, including their children

Patricio is a young Swedish grandfather and musician living in unstable financial conditions. His life is a little chaotic, as he admits himself. He doesn’t really notice the sliding of his former multicultural daughter to the Islamic religion, as well as her growing radicalisation. Religion for him is simply self-determination, by itself not problematic, believing that tolerance is needed.

Children of the Enemy, a film by Gorki Glaser-Müller
Children of the Enemy, a film by Gorki Glaser-Müller

It’s complicated

He has also not observed the next step of his daughter Amanda, a union with a militant ISIS member, who ultimately accepts a proposed marriage with this Swedish radical, leaving leave for Syria to create a caliphate in 2014.

Her husband is the most well known figure on the Internet for ISIS propaganda in Sweden. It was already too late for Partricio to act. In 2019, in the last letter she sent, she asks him for money after already scouping from the Kurdish troops with not enough food for her now seven children. She subsequently dies with her husband in military attacks and the children get captured in the al-Hol refugee camp, close to the Syria-Iraq border. The camp enclosed 80,000 people, most of them children.

This time Patricio wants to act, but his phone calls and letters to the Red Cross, the Save the Children foundation, different aid agencies, security services and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs only answered him with an «it’s complicated» message. On his journeys he will be accompanied by Gorki Glaser-Müller, not only the filmmaker, but also his friend, capturing the encounters, hotel rooms, office meetings, phone calls from an intimate perspective. For such a critical situation he is not hesitant to appear and help out in the picture. This confidence makes it possible to involve the private commentaries of Patricio, a man on the borderline between energy, helplessness, hope and improvisation. The last letters and photos of Amanda find their place as does also the worried moments of the grandfather’s self-reflection.

Read Also: What happened to Sweden? by Melita Zajc

In 2019 Patricio met an international human rights lawyer in London with access to the al-Hol camp. His simple message: politicians are cowards and don’t want to do anything at the moment concerning the repatriation of ISIS fighters, even not for their innocent often abandoned children. His only advice is that Patricio has to create a situation where it is worth the authorities to act. Otherwise, collaborating with the press seems to be the best tool.

Against the advice of the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Patricio arrived in northern Iraq, controlled by the Kurdish administration, carrying clothes, games, shoes, medicaments, including for himself suffering from high blood pressure.

The camp enclosed 80,000 people, most of them children.

No agreements, yet

Again he tries to take contact. The Bring Hope Humanitarian Foundation told him he would need a document from the Swedish ambassador in order to rescue the children. The humanitarian aid organisation Barzani Charity Foundation confirmed that the handling of children is still «a pending issue» in Europe. From the Northern Syrian foreign minister came the message that the Swedish government hadn’t been in contact or «hadn’t made any agreement» yet.

After fifteen days and intense media coverage, Patricio received a phone call from the Swedish Embassy in Iraq, criticising him for his press contacts and warning him not to go Syria, without telling him the reasons for their alert. Only information that the Kurdish administration wants a «broader agreement» is mentioned. Unfortunately, we don’t find any information about this key question in Gorki Glaser-Müller’s documentary, nor what this «agreement deal» about letting children free concretely implicates.

Meanwhile the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs declares on TV, that in case children come to a Swedish embassy or consulate, there will be a «look into their case». But how can the children possibly come to the embassy if they are imprisoned in the camps? On the other side the «Sweden Democrats» simply declare, these children are no longer Swedish, so it’s not Sweden’s problem any more.

When Patricio finally received a call again from Swedish Embassy about running negotiations for his travel permission to Syria and to bring the seven children back, the Swedish channel TV4 is also present to capture this news in real time. And the enthusiastic Patricio of course talks again about the finally received administrative help. But again, he got a ministry’s warning that it was a mistake to integrate the press, accusing him of risking the failing of the negotiations. From this moment nobody answers Patricio’s phone calls for days. On Day 38 in Iraq, he decides again to act on this own and to travel to the camp. In this moment the message arrived to him that the children are finally now under Swedish protection. Patricio can collect them.

Children of the Enemy, a film by Gorki Glaser-Müller
Children of the Enemy, a film by Gorki Glaser-Müller

Public image

Suddenly the grandmother shows up, declared that the children are Muslims, and that the wish of her daughter should be respected. Therefore the children need to be protected against the Swedish social system. Gorki Glaser-Müller’s documentary opens up for a completely new subject here, worth assessing in detail, because this woman declared never being an ISIS member, but a prisoner and had been forced to flee for six months. Glaser-Müller can’t deliver a fact check here. But the fact is that her public image as allied to her ISIS daughter risks the security ad future of the children still on Iraq’s Kurdish territory.

After having paid some thousands of dollars for new passport deliveries, Patricio can finally travel back to Sweden. He loses the administrative responsibility for the children. All of them are sent to foster families. Aware about their stigmatised image, Gorki Glaser-Müller hides the childrens’ faces systematically from the beginning. The Swedish State grants protection identities to them. At least Patricio can stay in regular contact.

During the last months Patricio has received hate messages like «stay in Syria with your children» or «father of a terrorist». During an interview with a Swedish radio station he was asked about the suffering of Yazidi women, raped by ISIS members, about their and their childrens’ destiny, a question often exploited as an argument against his initiative.

Crying he simply states: «If this vicious circle of hate continues, it will never end». On another occasion he reminds: «If children are feeling no help but just hatred, they can get worse as their parents».

There are still thousands of children in the camps, some of them are Swedish. Would something have moved for Patricia’s children without his personal acting and press coverage?

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Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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