RANST, Belgium — The children’s voices crackled through the phone and into Fatiha’s gray-walled living room.
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 group’s self-declared caliphate has collapsed, and the planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria has compounded regional instability, grandparents across Europe are pushing to save children who 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 To protect her grandchildren, she spoke on the condition that her last name not be published.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 northeast 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 on Feb. 10. France is considering bringing back more than 100 fighters — who would face trial — and their families.
With the Islamic State losing control of its final pockets of territory, President Trump last weekend urged European allies to take back and prosecute their citizens who went to fight with the Islamic State. “The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them,” he tweeted. “The U.S. does not want to watch as these ISIS fighters permeate Europe, which is where they are expected to go.”
But until now, most governments have calculated that the political downside of retrieving fighters who may pose security risks outweighs any need to bring back their 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 planned to appeal in court this week. 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 thought 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. They have not chosen the Islamic State. That is why we want to make efforts to bring them back to our country,” Belgium’s migration secretary, Maggie De Block, said in a statement last month. “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.”
Last Sunday, in response to Trump’s tweets, Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens said his government was in contact with Britain, France and the Netherlands to explore the security consequences of bringing back former fighters.
But spokesmen for De Block 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 both 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 “Head, 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 the children. An anxious Googling of prison conditions in Deir al-Zour, 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 finally resurfaced, they reported that Kurdish authorities had blindfolded them and transferred them not to Deir al-Zour 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 hair 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 — both pregnant with their dead husbands’ children, 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 yard.
“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 on her door.
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 about 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 northeast 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.
Annabell Van den Berghe in Ranst and Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that a spokesman for Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens declined to comment.