Baraa Zayani is nearly four years old and has spent more than half of his life in a Libyan prison. His only offence: he was born to a Tunisian father, now deceased, who joined the ranks of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) abroad.
Zayani, and his mother Wahida Bin Mokhtar Rabhi, 30, have been held in the Maitiga prison in Tripoli since February 2016, after a US air attack exposed a network of ISIL cells in Sabratha, a coastal city about 130 kilometres east of the Tunisian border.
Rabhi, her son, and her husband, Ezzeddine Ben Habib Zayani, a mechanic who allegedly manufactured explosives and car bombs, were trying to flee south when Libyan militia members intercepted and began shooting at them.
Baraa’s father was killed and he and his mother eventually wound up in the custody of the Special Deterrence Forces, a militia affiliated with Libya’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
More than two years later, Rabhi and her son now sit in diplomatic limbo, along with 36 other Tunisian women and children being held in the Maitiga prison. At least a dozen other women and children are being held in a separate facility in Misrata.
Officials in the GNA have been engaged with Tunisian authorities to negotiate the return of these women and children for almost a year, yet, for various reasons, the cases have stalled.
The issue of repatriation for the Libyans is not confined to the imprisoned women and children, but also includes the question of suspected Tunisian ISIL fighters, said Ahmad Ben Salem, spokesman for the Special Deterrence Forces, in a phone interview.
According to Ben Salem, there are more than 60 Tunisian ISIL suspects currently in prison: some are awaiting trial in Libya; others are being held on ambiguous charges pertaining to Libya’s national security. Tripoli also seeks to return at least 80 bodies of alleged Tunisian ISIL fighters who died on Libyan soil and are in morgues.
Tunis and Tripoli are both dependent on numbers provided by Libyan militias – difficult to independently verify, said one Tunisian diplomat involved in the case. Even if the numbers are accurate, political control of Libya is split across four regions and numerous local actors, making it almost impossible to account for a complete number, said the diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous.
The Special Deterrence Forces said it is ready to release the women and children in Maitiga prison, but only with an official commitment from Tunis to address the question of repatriation of its citizens in its entirety.
Tunis, on the other hand, is focusing on repatriating the children, which has delayed any immediate resolution, said Mostafa Abdelkebir, a prominent human rights activist in Tunisia.
“Tunisia wants only the children and Libya wants the whole folder to be dealt with at once,” said Abdelkebir.
Recently, in response to an inquiry made by a parliamentarian, Khaoula bin Aicha, the Tunisian foreign ministry said Libya previously refused to return the children through the Red Cross, seeking to coordinate exclusively with Tunisia instead. The language used in the published correspondence confirmed that Tunisian efforts are concentrated on imprisoned children and avoid specifically addressing female detainees.
The document indicated that proving the children’s parentage will be one of several steps in confirming the Tunisian citizenship of the remaining children – a task that might prove daunting. Tunis shut down both its embassy and consulate in Tripoli, in 2014 and 2015, respectively, after a number of its officials had been kidnapped by Libyan militiamen. It only reopened the offices in April 2016, leaving any child born during those two years likely unregistered with the state.
Yet, for the Tunisian “children first” approach, an even greater hurdle remains: Most of these women refuse to be separated from their children.
“The children are a protection tool for these women,” said Abdelkebir. The women fear that if the children are repatriated, then they will be forgotten, he explained.
They also feel safer with their children with them in prison, he said. “I understand them.”
Official Tunisian statements presumed these women guilty of ISIL affiliation, yet there is no evidence of due process or trial in Tunisia or Libya to determine their alleged status. Some women said they were either held against their will by their husbands, or were unaware of their husbands’ ties to the armed group.
Moncef Abidi, Rabhi’s brother, said his sister only began to see “suspicious behaviour” from her husband in late 2015, but was not able to seek help.
“The moment she felt the danger she became a hostage,” said Abidi. “She used to call her mother crying, saying she wants to come back … But he [Zayani] blackmailed her with her son. He told her that she can go back, but she would have to leave her son.”
Regardless of the nature of their ISIL affiliation, most of the women want to go back to Tunisia and are ready to stand before Tunisian courts, said Ben Salem.
“But they [Tunisian authorities] can’t just take the children and go,” he said.
To date, only one detainee has been successfully repatriated to Tunisia: a three-year-old orphan whose parents were killed in the same US air attack that affected Rabhi and her family. After a year in the Maitiga prison, Tamim Jandoubi was returned to the custody of his maternal grandfather in October last year.
But the case of the women and children has become a “humanitarian” one, said Ben Salem.
Many of these women and children require constant medical and psychological care. When his family was fleeing Sabratha two years ago, young Zayani was caught in the crossfire and hit by multiple bullets in his back and stomach. He was taken to a hospital in Tripoli to undergo surgery while his mother, who was taken to prison, was falsely told that her only son did not survive. A few months later, a video was released showing an emotional reunification of Rabhi and her son. Amid the hysterical cries and weeping of his mother, Zayani, wide-eyed and unsmiling, appeared to be distant and quiet for a child who has not seen a parent for months.
“If Tunis does not repatriate these children from Libya, what are they going to be when they get older? Doctors? Engineers? No, they are going to adopt radical ideas,” said Mohamed Iqbel Ben Rejeb, founder and president of the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad (RATTA), an NGO founded in 2013 to advocate for the safe return of families and children caught in conflicts abroad.
“What will their mothers teach them? To love their country? Their country abandoned them,” said Ben Rejeb.
A Tunisian delegation headed to Libya in April 2017 supposedly to meet the women and children, who had been bussed to an auditorium for the occasion, but failed to show up without an explanation – leaving the Libyans puzzled. Another delegation eventually went to Libya last October, as part of the effort to bring back Jandoubi – the first evidence of a Tunisian endeavour on the ground.
Tunisian authorities have accounted for the government’s lack of prior efforts, citing persistent security concerns. The Tunisian diplomat further attributed the slowness of the process to Libyan red tape and lengthy judicial proceedings.
But some analysts blame the ongoing plight of these detainees on the lack of a clear Tunisian strategy for ISIL returnees, more broadly.
“The issue is more political than it is legal,” said Ahmad Nadhif, a Tunisian journalist and the author of several publications on radicalisation in Tunisia.
Tunisian authorities “use legal justifications as an excuse”, said Nadhif. “There is a staunch rejection from within Tunisian society, [an unwillingness] to admit that Tunisia is one of the leading exporters of jihadists,” he added.
At least 3,000 Tunisians are known to have travelled abroad to join armed groups since 2011. An estimated 800 Tunisians have returned to the country – a number disputed by analysts.
Nadhif said the only Tunisian strategy today is “the same policy [Zine al-Abidine] Ben Ali employed to treat those who returned from Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan: to put them in jail”.
Tunisia enacted a new anti-terrorism law following two ISIL-claimed attacks on the Bardo museum and a Sousse beach resort in 2015, both of which were carried out by Tunisians trained in Libya. In the absence of rehabilitation and reintegration centres, courts are clogged with “terrorism” cases, with most returnees ending up in prison or under house arrest.
The question of how to deal with returning fighters and their families has periodically sparked fierce debates among Tunisians, with some secularist politicians even calling for them to be stripped of their nationality.
“The Tunisian society is experiencing what I like to call ‘severe denial,'” said Monia Arfaoui, a Tunisian journalist who specialises in studying radicalisation of women.
“[They say] terrorism is foreign to us, no, it is not. These people are a product of the same society and culture. They went to the same schools as us.
“This could explain why there has been a widespread rejection of the returnees,” she said, adding returnees will find their way back to the country eventually, whether legally or illegally through the border with Libya.