Yusuf Zahab, an Australian teenager who was taken to Syria as a child, has died after he had been wrongfully kept in the prison for over three years. His family had been begging for help from the Australian government to repatriate Yusuf. Find out how did Yusuf Zahab die here.
Human Rights Watch announced today that Yusuf Zahab had moved to Syria when he was 11 after his family including his parents and siblings were radicalized and manipulated in 2015. At the age of 14, Yusuf was separated from his mother and sister after the fall of the Islamic State.
In 2019, Yusuf was imprisoned without any charges. He was sent to the children’s section of the adult prison as he was over 12. He was last heard in January 2022 when he sent desperate pleas for help during an ISIS siege of Al-Sina’a prison in al-Hasakah city.
“I’m Australian,” Yusuf said repeatedly in phone-recorded audio clips amidst the chaos. “I’m scared I might die any time … people are screaming next to me. People are scared. I really need help. I really want to come back home.”
Who was Yusuf Zahab?
Yusuf Zahab was an Australian Muslim teenager who moved to Syria when was just 11 years old after his family was radicalized. He was among around 850 children who had been detained at the prison after the fall of IS in 2019 in case they posed a risk, the UN Children’s Charity Unicef said.
Yusuf has been living in Syria since 2015. He was separated from his mother and sister at the age of 14 and was later imprisoned. His family in Australia describes him as a happy and compassionate child who loved sport, school, and playing with his cousins.
His Sydney-based family revealed in a statement that Yusuf grew up in Southwest Sydney “like any other Australian youngster, going to school, playing with his cousins, and enjoying the sport on the weekends.”
He was an affectionate and compassionate guy. Even in his last words to the family, Yusuf urged them to tell his mother how much he loved and missed her.
How did Yusuf Zahab die in the Syrian Prison?
Yusuf Zahab, an Australian teenager imprisoned wrongly in a Syrian prison has died as reported by Human Rights Watch today. He was forced as a child to live under the Islamic State (ISIS) and was detained without charges in 2019.
His family in Australia had been begging for help for years while the Australian government had previously said it is too dangerous to repatriate its citizens. Yusuf Zahab’s Sydney-based family says they are “heartbroken and angry” about the death of the 17-year-old.
“Even in the final messages we received from Yusuf, he asked us to tell his mum that he loved and missed her,” the family said in a statement. “Yusuf didn’t need to die.”
In his last audio recording, Yusuf told his family that he was scared he “might die at any time” as the fighting intensified. “My friends got killed in front of me, a 14-year-old, a 15-year-old.”
“I lost a lot of blood… There are no doctors here, there’s no one who can help me.”
What was Yusuf Zahab’s Cause of Death?
The exact cause of Yusuf Zahab’s death is unknown at the moment. He was severely injured previously when the Islamic State group attacked a prison in northeast Syria in an attempt to free its fighters.
Yusuf had been detained in Guweiran prison in Hasaka city alongside suspected members of the IS for three years. On January 20, 2022, the violence broke after a car bomb was detonated in an attempted jailbreak.
The chaos ensued as the fight between IS militants and Kurdish-led forces with US support grew intense. It lasted for over a week and left more than 180 people dead. Yusuf got injured in the head and got his arm broken.
His audio recording begging for help made it outside the jail and was widely publicized. At that time, the Syrian Democratic Forces stated that they wouldn’t take responsibility for the 700 boys detained in the prison after reports emerged of children dying and being used as human shields.
A family representative told Human Rights Watch that Yusuf Zahab had caught tuberculosis in a severely overcrowded makeshift prison run by a Kurdish-led armed group. It’s possible that either TB or the loss of too much blood from his injuries led to Zahab’s death.
Yusuf Zahab’s Tragic Death Causing Social Outcry
The death of the Australian teenager, Yusuf Zahab, in a Syrian prison has been causing a social outcry as people are criticizing the Australian government’s efforts about repatriating their citizens. Yusuf’s family had been pleading with the authorities to bring him back for years.
The Sydney-based family revealed that Australia’s previous government “knew about Yusuf’s predicament for more than three years” before leaving office in May. “We are unaware of any efforts to support, care or inquire about him.”
Human Rights Watch and Save the Children have also been pleading for Australia to repatriate women and children who remain in Syria. Previously, Australia evacuated eight orphans in 2019 but at least 63 Australians remain stuck in Syria. Around 40 of them are children.
“We have to remember these children were brought there against their will or were born over there,” Human Rights Watch’s Sophie McNeill said in an interview.
“Tragically, the reported death of teenage Yusuf Zahab should be no surprise to Australia and other governments that have outsourced responsibility for their nationals held in horrific conditions in northeast Syria,” said Letta Tayler, associate crisis and conflict direct at Human Rights Watch.
“His death should prompt these countries to urgently bring their detained citizens home,” she added.
Over 41,000 foreigners from dozens of countries have been held in Syrian prisons since at least 2019. The conditions are often inhuman and life-threatening. Our support goes out to Yusuf’s family in these tough times.