LESBOS, Greece: Nahil Alhelb was beginning to worry her toddler son would forget about his father Mohamed, who had been missing for more than a year after being kidnapped by Islamic State militants in Syria. But the family was happily reunited on the Greek island of Lesbos after Mohamed escaped and embarked on a long, frantic quest to rejoin his wife and son. "I only learned that my husband was alive three months ago. I could not believe hearing his voice," says Nahil, a 26-year-old ethnic Palestinian, with her son Abdur in her lap. "All this time, our son refused to eat and I was beginning to wonder (if) he would forget all about his father," she told AFP at a seaside cafe in Lesbos.
Nahil and Mohamed, a tailor, had been living in Jordan, where they had met in 2013, safe from the Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 330,000 people since 2011. Then in 2016 the couple moved to Turkey, planning to cross into Europe. But when Mohamed went to Syria to fetch personal documents to help his mother also make the journey, he was captured by IS and held for six months in the northwestern city of Al-Bab in Aleppo province.
"I was blindfolded as soon as I was arrested," recalls the 30-year-old, trying to push the worst images from his mind. "They took us underground to a very small area, and when they removed the blindfold it was pitch black. The room was so small I could not stand or lie down. I constantly heard voices of people being tortured. I too was beaten and insulted for not enlisting under IS. I try not to remember the torture," he says. When Turkish forces pushed IS out of the area, the militants tried to get rid of their captives. "They thought most of us were dead, so they took us to a mass grave. This is where I escaped," Mohamed said.
It took him weeks to get into Turkey, trying to reach the area where he had left his wife and child with relatives. He succeeded in crossing the border on his eighth attempt, but his family was gone. Nahil and her father, a sailor, had managed to cross from Turkey to Lesbos in Nov 2016. Mohamed followed in pursuit after hearing from relatives that his family was in Greece. "Three times I tried to reach Lesbos, but the Turkish coastguard pushed our boat back," he says.
Mohamed eventually reached the nearby island of Samos, where it took nearly two months to persuade Greek authorities, with the help of the UN's refugee agency, to let him rejoin his family in Lesbos in August. "They were waiting for me at the harbor. My son could walk!" he beams. "Ever since he saw his father, he is laughing, running about, playing with him," says Nahil. "It's like he's a different child altogether," adds a social worker from the local support group Iliaktida, who declined to be named. The family - whose tale could not independently be confirmed - has been granted asylum in Greece and will soon depart for Athens. "My uncle is there, I'll try to get a job," says Mohamed. "The important thing is to be alive." - AFP