From detention in northern Syria, alleged Irish jihadist Alexandr Bekmirzaev describes hunger and fear as missiles pounded down on the last shreds of the Islamic State group’s “caliphate”. “I thought we were going to die from the starvation,” the Muslim convert, 46 this year, told AFP in English, captured after fleeing the extremist group’s crumbling last pocket in eastern Syria.
Bekmirzaev said he fled into territory held by Kurdish-led forces, who detained him along with four other alleged foreign jihadists late last month. Backed by air strikes of the US-led coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have since September been whittling down the last IS holdout near the Iraqi border.
US-backed fighters advanced inside the jihadist pocket, taking village after village, Bekmirzaev and his family were forced to flee deeper into jihadist-held territory.
Brought in for an interview by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) who are still interrogating him, the detainee described watching the IS stronghold collapse around him. The hundreds of suspected jihadists captured by the SDF are usually keen to be sent home.
The Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria also wants to send the prisoners back for trial, but governments in their countries of origin are often reluctant. France said Tuesday for the first time that French jihadists held by Kurdish forces in Syria could be allowed to return home.
“We are examining all options to avoid the escape and scattering of these potentially dangerous individuals,” the French foreign ministry said.
Bekmirzaev was detained by SDF forces on suspicion of being a fighter trying to blend in with fleeing civilians, with the aim of escaping and then setting up IS sleeper cells to carry out further attacks. He insisted he had never carried a weapon for Islamic State — but his claim could not be verified by AFP.
Bekmirzaev said he fled into territory held by Kurdish-led forces, who detained him along with four other alleged foreign jihadists late last month.
Since summer, there had been “bombing, bombing, bombing” on a near-daily basis, said Bekmirzaev, who was born to an Uzbek father and Belarusian mother. With the so-called Hajin pocket encircled by the SDF, there was no flour in the market, and meat was prohibitively expensive, he said.
Bekmirzaev said he, his wife and five-year-old son were forced to eat bread made with wheat husks, what little the neighbours gave them, and sometimes grass. “Vegetables? You wish. There is nothing, absolutely nothing. This is grass we eat,” said the bearded man.
As US-backed fighters advanced inside the jihadist pocket, taking village after village, Bekmirzaev and his family were forced to flee deeper into jihadist-held territory.
“I left my home because the SDF approach probably around 800 metres from my house” in the village of Kishmeh, he said. He and his family fled south along the eastern banks of the Euphrates River to the village of Al-Shaafa, he said, where they slept in a mosque.
There had been “bombing, bombing, bombing” on a near-daily basis, said Bekmirzaev, who was born to an Uzbek father and Belarusian mother.
From there, they again escaped in a large group including women and children, guided by a young man who helped them avoid landmines. We thought, “if we go as a big group, it will be less dangerous, because they will see so many people, specially with the kids, kids crying,” he said.
Bekmirzaev says he has been in Syria for five-and-a-half years, his Belarusian wife and son a little less. He claims he never intended to fight for IS and worked as an ambulance worker for around a year in 2014-2015, but it is not clear what he did after that.
He also says an IS commander confiscated his passport, and he had already been thinking of escaping the jihadists with his family from as early as 2015.
Bekmirzaev says he converted to Islam in his early twenties in Uzbekistan, after a troubled period “drinking a lot, taking drugs” following a brother killing himself. He then lived and worked in Ireland for more than a decade, selling menswear and as a nightclub bouncer, before becoming an Irish citizen in 2010.
He and his family fled south along the eastern banks of the Euphrates River to the village of Al-Shaafa, he said, where they slept in a mosque.
But in 2012, a year after Syria’s war started with the brutal repression of anti-regime protests, he lost his job. He says he plunged into depression, to the backdrop of endless news reports about the conflict in Syria.
“I thought, ‘I need to help to the Muslims’ so I decide to come here,” in September 2013, he said. Four months later, his wife and then 10-month-old son joined him. IS overran large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq the following year, and the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a “caliphate” there.
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But the jihadist group has since lost most of that territory to various offensives and is down to its last fighters in what remains of its eastern holdout. Bekmirzaev now describes his decision to come to Syria as a “mistake”.
Disillusioned, he asked where the group’s elusive leader was. “Where is this guy called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Where is he? This is my question,” he said. “I didn’t do anything,” he claimed. “I want to go back to my country. I hope they won’t abandon me.”
© Agence France-Presse