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Bringing orphaned IS baby girl 'home' to Sudan

  • 4-month-old infant Lojien being fed by her grandmother Manal Fadlallah at home in suburban Khartoum. Photo courtesy: AFP

By Jay Deshmukh and Abdelmoneim Abu Idris Ali

Khartoum (AFP) -- When Sudanese security agents came to call on businessman Alithi Yousef at his home in Khartoum, he knew immediately that his worst fears had been realised.

"They told me on January 17 that my daughter Aya had been killed in fighting in Sirte," he said.

The Libyan city on the Mediterranean coast was a former bastion of the jihadist Islamic State group, of which his daughter was a member. Pro-government forces retook it last December.

"But they also said they had some good news -- Aya had a four-month-old baby" daughter, Yousef said.

On August 30, 2015, Aya, then a 20-year-old medical student at a Khartoum university, disappeared from a restaurant in the city just hours after finishing her exams.

For two months her whereabouts were unknown.

But then Yousef received a call from Aya to say she had joined IS in Libya along with four female friends from Khartoum.

Officials say dozens of Sudanese students -- some also holding Western passports -- have joined IS in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

Sudanese media have reported the deaths of some of them.

Yousef said some of Aya's friends who joined IS had American or British passports.

"I was sure Aya couldn't go because she had a Sudanese passport, but I didn't understand," Yousef told AFP at his luxurious two-storey house in a Khartoum suburb.

'Her own world'

Aya travelled to Libya by road -- her passport was found in a Khartoum apartment a few days after she went missing.

In Libya she married a Sudanese IS member who had also been to the same university, Yousef said, showing a marriage certificate registered by the jihadist group in Sirte.

Details of their deaths remain sketchy, but Yousef and his wife Manal Fadlallah vividly remember the rapid changes they saw in their daughter before she joined IS.

Educated partly at an English primary school in Abu Dhabi where the family lived years ago, Aya had grown up listening to Western music and reading English novels.

But Aya's journey to "radical Islam" was swift.

Her personality changed in her second year at university, said Yousef as his wife fed milk to their granddaughter Lojien.

Although she used to dress casually in trousers and T-shirts, Aya began wearing conservative clothes, and donned an Islamic headscarf.

Praying five times became a daily norm, and she was heard reciting Koranic verses late into the night, Yousef said.

Aya soon stopped visiting relatives or exchanging greetings with men.

"She just went into a shell, into her own world which was hidden from us," Yousef said.

Almost every day there was some further change in Aya, said her mother.

"When we asked her who was behind this, she told us 'Now I know my God'," Fadlallah said.

A life unravelling

Yousef said he had trusted his daughter and never checked her mobile phone or laptop.

"If I'd had any idea about her plans, I would have stayed in her room all the time and never left her alone," said the father of four, dressed in a Sudanese traditional white jelabaya.

The couple's shock at how Aya's life unravelled is evident from their family albums and her room.

Beside her bed is a small side table and a wooden cupboard, its shelf lined with English novels including renowned Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini's "The Kite Runner".

Next to it are school textbooks and medical journals.

"She loved going to school wearing new clothes for celebrations like Christmas," said Fadlallah, showing some childhood photographs.

In one, Aya is pictured sitting next to a Santa Claus while celebrating Christmas at school in Abu Dhabi.

In another, she is seen holidaying on a beach with her family in the Egyptian city of Alexandria.

"Our shock will last for years," said Yousef, looking at the only photograph of Aya wearing a headscarf.

Her parents now have the task of raising Lojien themselves.

Yousef initially refused to bring her from Libya when Sudanese officials offered to escort him to the war-torn country.

Easing the pain

"I'd lost my daughter: what was the point of bringing the baby here?"

But he relented, and a few days later decided to go after all.

Two Sudanese female officials accompanied him to Misrata, east of Tripoli, where Lojien was being cared for by the Libyan Red Crescent.

"As women we were very concerned about the security situation there," one of the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"This was also our first experience of bringing a baby back to its family."

Lojien was brought to Khartoum in February, and in a way, bringing her "home" has helped to ease the family's pain.

"We have a major responsibility," said Yousef, vowing to make sure his granddaughter wants for nothing.

"Lojien is very dear to us. She is Aya's daughter and Aya was special."

 

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