RANST, Belgium - The children's voices crackled through the phone and into Fatiha's gray-walled living room.
"When are we going to grandma's?" one implored in the background, and then into the phone: "Are you coming to get us?"
In the hallway, six coat hooks were fixed in a row at child's height. A backpack hung on each one. Up a steep stairway, sheets with characters from Pixar's "Cars" were carefully tucked into bunk beds, awaiting the children's return.
But Fatiha, a Belgian whose grandparents emigrated from Morocco, didn't know when her six grandchildren - who range in age from 10 months to 7 years - would be back. They are among the hundreds of children born to European citizens who went to fight for the Islamic State. Now that the caliphate has collapsed, and the planned U.S. withdrawal has compounded regional instability, grandparents across Europe are pushing to save children whom in some cases they've seen only in photos, looking up at them from the dusty desert floor.
"We're waiting for them, everything is ready for them," Fatiha, 46, said in an interview at her home outside Antwerp, in a bucolic village where backyards give way to hayfields. The children's fathers are dead, and their mothers - Fatiha's daughter and daughter-in-law - would face prison sentences if they return to Belgium. So Fatiha has prepared to care for the children herself. To protect her grandchildren, she spoke on the condition that her last name not be published.
For Belgium, France and other countries that saw some of their nationals gravitate toward Islamic State territory as it expanded across Syria and Iraq, the plight of children who have claims to citizenship has ignited questions that would test the most Solomonic of judges.
Governments are grappling with how much responsibility they bear for the safety of these small citizens, most of them younger than 6, in a region where fresh conflict could erupt. Courts are weighing whether the rights of the children extend to returning with their Islamic State parents. And a bitter public debate is underway about whether grandparents whose own children ran away to the Islamic State can be trusted to raise a new generation differently.
The Kurdish authorities who control the territory in northeastern Syria where many of these families ended up estimate they have more than 1,300 children in their refugee and prison camps. Russia repatriated 27 children last week. France is considering bringing back more than 100 fighters - who would face trial - and their families. But until now, most governments have calculated that the political downside of retrieving parents who may pose security risks outweighs any need to bring back the children.
In Fatiha's case, a judge ruled that Belgium must repatriate her six grandchildren, along with her daughter and her daughter-in-law - Belgian citizens who joined the Islamic State and now want to come back. The two women were convicted in absentia of joining a terrorist organization and would each face a five-year prison sentence upon their arrival on Belgian soil. But the judge ruled that bringing the children home and leaving their mothers in Syria would violate the children's human rights.
The Dec. 26 ruling has spurred a furious response from Belgian leaders, and the government plans to appeal in court on Wednesday. Authorities expect whatever precedent is set to affect decisions about other Islamic State families. At least 22 Belgian children are in Syrian camps, and more than 160 are believed to be in the conflict zone.
The most vociferous objections relate to the return of the parents.
"We won't punish young children for their parents' misdeeds," Belgium's migration secretary, Maggie De Block, said in a statement last month. "They have not chosen the Islamic State. That is why we want to make efforts to bring them back to our country. For the parents, the situation is different. They themselves have deliberately chosen to turn their backs on our country and even to fight against it. Repeatedly.
"Solidarity has its limits," she said. "The freedom you enjoy in our country to make your own decisions also means you bear responsibility for the consequences."
Spokesmen for De Block, the justice ministry and Belgium's prime minister all declined to comment for this report. They would not confirm whether the government was paying the judge's prescribed penalty of 5,000 euros per child per day if they weren't returned by Feb. 4.
Even for the children, Belgian sympathy goes only so far. Many people are anxious. Belgium contributed the largest number of Islamic State fighters to Syria per capita of any European Union nation, and the country remains scarred by the attacks of 2016, when Belgian citizens with Islamic State connections targeted Brussels with deadly bombings. Discussions on talk shows and in editorial pages have stoked fear about what the children may have learned from their parents or from Islamic State training camps, which targeted children as young as 6 for indoctrination - although little evidence exists that any of the Belgians were exposed.
Belgium needs to protect "these children as well as our children, and to protect the parents of our children," said Nadia Sminate, a lawmaker in the regional parliament for the Dutch-speaking north of Belgium who has been a vocal critic of plans to bring back the children. "These children have been raised with different values and norms than our children. We don't have to be silly about that. They've seen the cruelest things in the world."
When Fatiha needs to cheer herself up, she plays a video her daughter sent last summer of her grandchildren raucously singing "Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" in Dutch - their first and only language.
Her days are a blur of frustration. A visit from the police, interviewing her yet again to determine whether she would raise the grandchildren in a radicalized home. A phone call with her lawyer, who is battling the Belgian government to carry out the judge's order. A rattling train trip to Brussels alongside other grandmothers who are pushing policymakers to repatriate their toddlers. An anxious internet search of prison conditions in Deir Ezzour, Syria, where she was worried her daughter, daughter-in-law and grandchildren had been taken after they dropped out of contact for more than two weeks last month.
When they resurfaced, they reported that Kurdish authorities had blindfolded them and transferred them not to Deir Ezzour, but to a more brutal camp than they'd been in previously. One of Fatiha's grandsons has chronic diarrhea, and now he has only a single pair of pants, his mother said. Another has asthma, but no medicine.
"Everything keeps getting worse," Fatiha's daughter, Bouchra Abouallal, 25, said in an interview with The Washington Post via a messaging service. "I keep telling the children, 'Don't be afraid. Nothing is going to happen.' But they're not stupid anymore."
After the December court order, "we told our children, 'We're almost home. We'll be there in a month,' " Abouallal said, her voice cracking.
A boy's voice interrupted. "Why are you crying?"
"It's now they who are calming me down, not the other way around," Abouallal told The Post.
By Fatiha's account, her family's problems started with her 2009 divorce from her children's father, which sent them searching elsewhere for support.
The family had worn its faith lightly. Fatiha said they practiced "modern Islam." But her eldest son, Noureddine Abouallal, fell in with an Antwerp group called Sharia4Belgium - which would later be connected to 2015 and 2016 terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. Noureddine Abouallal shaved his head and grew a beard. He and his wife - Tatiana Wielandt, who converted to Islam to marry him in 2010 - marked their son's birth with an announcement that included images of a fighter and a gun.
Bouchra Abouallal and her husband also joined Sharia4Belgium.
In 2013, when eager adherents of jihadism were streaming toward the fighting, the two couples went with their babies to Syria. The men were killed within a year. Abouallal and Wielandt - each pregnant with her dead husband's child, and each with an older son in tow - returned to Belgium in 2014. The state didn't seek to prosecute them then.
Fatiha said she was furious that they had run away, but she let them back in her life. Abouallal and Wielandt crammed into a bunk bed. Two baby boys were born. Their toddler sons settled in at a school two doors down.
Once, at a backyard barbecue, one grandson dived under a table as a plane flew overhead - perhaps a reaction ingrained from bombings. But otherwise the boys showed little evidence of what they had been through, Fatiha said.
Then, one day in 2015, they all disappeared, leaving Fatiha with a house full of toys and a child-size Nutella handprint on the door to the backyard.
"I felt like I was stabbed in my back. I felt like I didn't want to have anything to do with them," she said. She left the handprint.
In the end, she said, she decided it was better to keep in touch. The young women made it with their children to the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa. They remarried, but their second husbands were killed around the time Wielandt gave birth to her third child. After Western forces bombarded the city into submission in late 2017, they fled into Kurdish-controlled territory and eventually to the al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria.
Her daughter and daughter-in-law ask Fatiha for reminders about what Belgian primary schools teach, so they can try to replicate the lessons. In video clips, the kids show off their somersaults and tumbling. Recently, Abouallal sent a video of Fatiha's newest granddaughter, born last April, wearing her first headband and plucking at the unfamiliar white elastic as it slipped over her eyes.
"I told them I want to see everything as they grow up," Fatiha said. "I don't want to miss a thing."
But as the Belgian government stalls, and as the security situation in Syria becomes increasingly uncertain, Fatiha and the other grandmothers are growing embittered.
Nabila Mazouz - whose son was caught at the airport as he tried to make his way to Syria - started a support group called Mothers' Jihad to help fight for the return of Belgians who spent time in the caliphate.
"I understand the government. I understand the security issues," Mazouz said. "But I guarantee they're going to come back, and if they come back in 15 to 20 years, what kind of mood are they going to come back in?"
She said that after being repeatedly spurned by Belgian authorities, she now better understands her son's disaffection.
"I never asked myself, 'Am I Moroccan or Belgian?' I said I was Belgian," she said. "I was born here. I work here. I pay my taxes here. But now I ask myself. Now the parents understand the perspective of the young adults."
Advocates for the children in Syria have been targeted with bile.
"Normally, everybody likes what we do," said Heidi De Pauw, the director of Child Focus, a Belgian organization that is modeled on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States. But for pressing Belgian authorities on this case, she has received death threats and been told that the children should be "drowned like kittens."
De Pauw and others say the children should not be condemned because their parents made bad decisions.
One psychologist who traveled to Syria in October to assess Belgian children in the camps, including Fatiha's grandchildren, said despite everything they have been through, their play and development were relatively normal.
"We were really surprised about how these children were doing," said Gerrit Loots, a child psychologist at the Free University of Brussels. "Once these children have adapted, they can go to school, they can be with others."
Loots said his greatest concern was how attached the children were to their mothers. "They've never spent a day apart," he noted.
He said taking the children back to Belgium without their mothers would be "psychologically disastrous." Bringing them all back together, even assuming the mothers go straight to prison, would be easier to manage, Loots concluded.
The mothers say they want to return, but they are ready to stay behind in Syria if that's the cost of getting their children back to Belgium and safety.
"I have no problem with that," Abouallal said. "I just want my children to have a secure life, and have a normal life, and that they don't punish them for the mistakes we've made."
Fatiha sucked in her breath, then dabbed a tear, as her daughter described conditions in their new camp.
"Try to keep them busy," Fatiha urged her daughter. "Tell them a story."
"I love you," the grandmother told them all, before she hung up the phone and slumped into her couch.
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Annabell Van den Berghe in Ranst and Quentin Aries in Brussels contributed to this report.
DUETTE, Fla. - Human and machine have 10 seconds per plant. They must find the ripe strawberries in the leaves, gently twist them off the stems and tuck them into a plastic clamshell. Repeat, repeat, repeat, before the fruit spoils.
One February afternoon, they work about an acre apart on a farm the size of 454 football fields: dozens of pickers collecting produce the way people have for centuries - and a robot that engineers say could replace most of them as soon as next year.
The future of agricultural work has arrived here in Florida, promising to ease labor shortages and reduce the cost of food, or so says the team behind Harv, a nickname for the latest model from automation company Harvest CROO Robotics.
Harv is on the cutting edge of a national push to automate the way we gather goods that bruise and squish, a challenge that has long flummoxed engineers.
Designing a robot with a gentle touch is among the biggest technical obstacles to automating the American farm. Reasonably priced fruits and vegetables are at risk without it, growers say, because of a dwindling pool of workers.
"The labor force keeps shrinking," said Gary Wishnatzki, a third-generation strawberry farmer. "If we don't solve this with automation, fresh fruits and veggies won't be affordable or even available to the average person."
The problem is so pressing that competitors are banding together to fund Harv, which has raised about $9 million from corporate behemoths like Driscoll's and Naturipe Farms, as well as from local farmers.
Wishnatzki, who created Harv with former Intel engineer Bob Pitzer, one of the minds behind the television hit "BattleBots," has invested $3 million of his own money.
The electronic picker is still pretty clumsy.
During a test run last year, Harv gathered 20 percent of strawberries on every plant without mishap. This year's goal: Harvest half of the fruit without crushing or dropping any. The human success rate is closer to 80 percent, making Harv the underdog in this competition.
But Harv doesn't need a visa or sleep or sick days. The machine looks like a horizontally rolling semitruck.
Peek underneath and see 16 smaller steel robots scooping up strawberries with spinning, claw-like fingers, guided by camera eyes and flashing lights.
Growers say it is getting harder to hire enough people to harvest crops before they rot. Fewer seasonal laborers are coming from Mexico, the biggest supplier of U.S. farmworkers. Fewer Americans want to bend over all day in a field, farmers say, even when offered higher wages, free housing and recruitment bonuses.
The number of agricultural employees in the United States is expected to stay flat over the next seven years, according to the latest projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As "productivity-enhancing technologies" mature in the realm of mechanization, farms will require fewer people, even as demand for crops grow, the government researchers wrote.
Manufacturing underwent a similar evolution. U.S. factories have increased output over the past two decades with a smaller workforce, thanks to machines that improve efficiency.
One Harv is programmed to do the work of 30 people. The machine hovers over a dozen rows of plants at the same time, picking five strawberries every second and covering 8 acres a day.
That potential is increasingly attractive to growers, who say the Trump administration's tighter immigration policies are squeezing off the supply of seasonal workers, as well as undocumented labor.
About half of the country's 850,000 farmworkers are not in the United States legally, according to 2016 data from the Department of Labor, the most recent available.
Agricultural analysts say the labor shortage is already forcing up wages.
From 2014 to 2018, the average pay for farmworkers rose faster than employees in the broader economy, jumping from $11.29 to $13.25, according to numbers from the Department of Agriculture.
Agriculture economists at Arizona State University last year estimated that if farmers lost their undocumented workforce entirely, wages would have to rise by 50 percent to replace them - and that would crank up produce prices by another 40 percent.
Then there are other risingcosts.
Starting in 2025, all farms in California - the nation's largest fresh-food producer - must pay their employees overtime after eight hours a day instead of 10.
"Automation is the long-term solution, given the reluctance of domestic workers to do these jobs," said Tim Richards, the Morrison chair of agribusiness in the W.P. Carey School of Business at ASU.
Wishnatzki said he lost about $1 million due to spoilage last year. He said he pays experienced pickers about $25 an hour.
Harv would diminish the need for field labor, Wishnatzki said, but it would create new jobs, too. Wish Farms, his family business, would train pickers to become technicians.
"We need people to clean, sanitize and repair the machines," he said.
Some workers view that plan with anxiety and skepticism.
"I see the robot and think, 'Maybe we're not going to have jobs anymore,' " said Antonio Vengas, 48, one of the about 600 employees on the farm with Harv.
Vengas moved to Florida 15 years ago from the Mexican state of Oaxaca and makes about $25 an hour. About 75 percent of his co-workers are Mexicans on seasonal work visas.
They all make good money, he said. They're motivated.
"People can pick strawberries without hurting them," he said. "They know which ones are too little or rotten. Machines can't do that."
Labor groups also doubt that robots are prepared for the job.
"A machine cannot harvest delicate table grapes, strawberries or tree fruit without destroying the perfect presentation demanded by consumers and the retail food industry," said Giev Kashkooli, political and legislative director for the United Farm Workers of America, which represents about 20,000 farmworkers across the country.
Unions don't oppose technological advances, though, Kashkooli added.
"Robotics can play a role in making the job less backbreaking and play a role in helping people earn more money," he said.
Out West, engineers at Washington State University are working with local farmers to test an apple-picking machine that has 12 mechanical arms.
It drives down orchard rows, snapping pictures of trees. A computer brain scans the images and finds the fruit. The arms grab and lower apples onto a conveyor belt.
Expect to see this technology on the market in the next three years, said Manoj Karkee, associate professor at the school's Center for Precision & Automated Agricultural Systems.
Farmers who struggle to hire workers wanted it "yesterday," he said.
"We all know we need to go in this direction," Karkee said. "The last advancement in apple picking was the invention of the ladder."
The robot rarely hurts the produce. But as of today, one robotic apple-pickercosts at least $300,000 - too much for most budgets.
On the day Harv is put to the test, farmers and researchers arrive in three buses to Wishnatzki's farm. They've come from Canada, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and across the United States. Curiosity hangs in the air like the hawks circling overhead.
Blaine Staples, a strawberry grower from Alberta, steps through the dirt toward the machine, which hisses as it claws up fruit. Dozens of people around him crouch to the ground. The machine's arms go to work amid exclamations of awe and disbelief from onlookers.
"This is pretty much the new industrial revolution," Staples said.
His Canadian farm is tiny compared with Wishnatzki's 600 acres. But he could see himself renting Harv for a season - as long as it's comparable to his current labor costs.
Under Harv's proposedbusiness model, farmers would pay only for the fruit the machine picks at the same rate they pay seasonal work crews.
A few strawberry rows over, Doug Carrigan, a North Carolina farmer, stands in the group with his eyes locked on Harv.
"It doesn't care if it's a Sunday or a holiday," Carrigan said. "The machine will work regardless."
He pays his workers between $10 and $14 hourly. They're mostly local folks.
"A lot of Americans have become lazy," Carrigan said. "They want a paycheck. They don't want a job."
Any time you can automate work without sacrificing quality, "that's a win," he said.
Behind the crowd of farmers, a team of engineers watch the spectacle on a flat-screen TV in a white trailer, their makeshift command center. Cameras in Harv give them a close-up.
Lights flash. The 16 smaller robots spin, clawing up strawberries. Engineers compare them to duck feet, paddling furiously.
"The best view in the house," said Alex Figueroa, 24, director of machine vision.
Everything looks to be running smoothly. Nobody's stress-eating the oatmeal raisin cookies they ordered.
"No errors!" Figueroa pleads aloud.
"Knock on wood," another engineer replies.
In another section of the field, far from the commotion, the pickers work like they have always worked.
It's 80 degrees outside, but they wear long sleeves, pants and scarves below their eyes to block the sun. They bend over, pluck the strawberries and slip them into plastic cases.
Then, they sprint through the plant rows to a supervisor, who scans in each package. They are paid by the package. Slowing down means losing money.
Parked nearby is an old school bus, which shuttles them free to work. Most of the pickers live in housing Wishnatzki provides.
Santiago Velasco, 65, has worked here for 35 years and has done practically every job: picking, digging, irrigating.
Harv is a newcomer that doesn't concern him.
"I don't think it'll work, because the people know how to pick," he said, "and they go faster."
His prediction held up on demo day.
The robot found more than half the strawberries on each plant, but the fruit this season was bigger than anticipated. A bunch tumbled from Harv's claws - red and juicy and now gone.
Engineers aren't sure how many - they've got to review hours of video. They can't be sure Harv hit this year's target. But they're confident the machine can get it right next year.