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What happened to women, teens missing from repatriation flight? Family receives proof of life from Syria

After two weeks of nightmarish silence, one Edmonton family finally received proof of life from their loved ones who disappeared from a detention camp in northeast Syria.

The two women, who are sisters-in-law, and three teenage daughters had been detained at the Al-Hol camp and were supposed to be on a repatriation plane that flew out of Syria on April 5. The five Canadians never made it to the meeting point.

According to lawyer Zachary Al-Khatib, who represents the Edmonton mother of one woman who went missing, his client received a call from an unknown number at 6:02 a.m. MDT on Tuesday. When she picked up the phone she heard her daughter's voice.

"(She said) they were alive and had been in prison for the last 11 days and mistreated by Kurdish guards - that they were in need of medical attention. All their personal belongings were confiscated and they had nothing but the clothes on their back," said Al-Khatib.

Al-Khatib says the conversation between the detainee and her mother lasted four minutes. Then the phone call was abruptly "cut off."


The five were part of group of 19 Canadians that Global Affairs Canada agreed to bring home after they sued the federal government in federal court. The women and children have been languishing for years in sprawling camps run by Kurdish forces.

The camps hold wives, widows and children of foreigners who are suspected of joining the Islamic State during the Syrian civil war.

The GAC settlement was reached in January, but there didn't appear to be movement on the matter until RCMP officers visited the camp at the end of March.

The plan, according to Al-Khatib, was for the group of five to be driven from Al-Hol to meet up with a larger group detained at Al-Roj camp. From there, all 19 Canadians would be taken to a nearby airstrip where they would transported out of the region on a U.S. military plane to Germany. In Germany, the detainees were to be transferred onto flights to Canada.

Al-Khatib says the two sisters-in-law were given assurances by Global Affairs that repatriation would take place. They identified themselves to Kurdish authorities for transfer as directed by Global Affairs. Then they went missing.


Al-Khatib says the family learned through backchannels that the women and teen girls, all under 18 years old, were taken to two separate prisons in the area, including one with the ominous nickname "the red prison."

According to human rights workers, Al-Hol camp is one of the most dangerous detention camps in the area.

Letta Tayler is an associate director at Human Rights Watch who researches the Islamic State. Tayler last visited Al-Hol camp last year. She says there are areas of the camp still controlled by ISIS that security forces are too afraid to patrol.

Tayler says "the red prison" is likely a red-brick-coloured tower surrounded by barbed wire in Al-Hol, which is operated by the Asayish Internal Security Forces.

Tayler says detainees are taken to the building for questioning before they are transferred elsewhere.

"It's used for interrogation. Some women have alleged they were mistreated and in some cases tortured inside," Tayler said. Some women and boys have recounted being physically mistreated in latrine cubicles used as detention cells.


CTV News has inquired about the conditions of missing Canadians since April 5, when it became clear that only 14 women and children were on the plane.

At the time, Ottawa lawyer Lawrence Greenspon, who represented the detainees in their federal lawsuit, said that he had notified the families of 19 people that they were on their way home.

The federal government has not provided any additional information about what happened, but some more details about the confusion that ensued were revealed in an audio recording shared with CTV News.

In the 16-minute phone call, a consular official tells Al-Khatib's client that she is "devastated" that the women were not on the plane.

CTV is not naming the client to protect her privacy. The Edmonton woman has not seen her daughter and grandchildren for nearly a decade.

Her conversation with a woman who Al-Khatib says was Global Affairs development officer Kimberley Mast took place on April 11, one week after the Canadians had gone missing.

On the call, Mast says that Global Affairs is trying to get answers from the Kurds and trying to work with the Americans and other foreign nationals on the ground to get more information about the "red prison."

"We had never heard about this before. We are kind of at a loss at even what that prison is," said Mast.

Edmonton Lawyer Zachary Al-Khatib listening to an audio recording between Global Affairs and his client. He represents the family of five Canadians who went missing before they could board a repatriation flight from Syria. (Jay Rosove / CTV News)


The conversation also apparently reveals that Canadian diplomats participated in a handover ceremony with Kurdish officials knowing that not all the Canadians they requested would be on the plane.

"Even during the handover of the rest of the women when we signed the agreement, we let it be known we’re missing five other people we expected to have. We want answers on that," said Mast in the call to the Edmonton family. "We wanted 19 and we only got 14. That’s not right."

The Kurdish authority put out a news release lauding a repatriation agreement. Photos on the website from April 5 show three Canadian diplomats meeting with officials with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Sebastian Beaulieu, Global Affairs chief security officer, is photographed signing a document.

A signing ceremony between Canadian diplomats on the left side and Kurdish authorities on April 5. Source: Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES)

In her conversation, Mast told the Edmonton woman last week that it may take two more months before Global Affairs can arrange another flight.

Al-Khatib says Global Affairs has now confirmed to the family that the detainees have been moved to the safer Al-Roj camp. Al-Roj is also closer to the U.S.-owned airstrip used for flights. The lawyer says the Canadian government needs to account for this failed repatriation.

"We need assurances now that they really are safe… The government has not, up until this point, fulfilled its commitments to them," said Al-Khatib. "We need a timeline for their immediate repatriation."

Global Affairs did not respond to CTV’s request for more information by the publication deadline of this story.



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