/ 15 March 2019

Silence surrounds SA doc in Syria

Lost: People evacuated from Syria’s last Isis-held holdout of Baghouz are transported to the Al Hol refugee camp. South African Safiya Ganchi and her children may be among them.
Lost: People evacuated from Syria’s last Isis-held holdout of Baghouz are transported to the Al Hol refugee camp. South African Safiya Ganchi and her children may be among them. (Bulent Kilic/AFP)

It has been several weeks since Fatima Ganchi has heard from her son, Firoze. She usually receives a call from him at least once a month. But there hasn’t been a peep from him since late January. She is worried. Around her, rumours about her son’s disappearance are laden with innuendo. But the whispers, however furious they are, do not fill the void.

She is told he is dead. Or maybe he is not.

The report of Ganchi’s death claims he died a long way away from her flat in Newtown, Johannesburg, where she has sat waiting for news of him. He was killed, supposedly, in an air strike against fighters aligned to the last bastion of the Islamic State in Syria. But the report is tentative. It cannot be verified.

The report was received via a roundabout route: a phone call from an unknown number, informing “a colleague” of his lawyer and friend Yousha Tayobthat Firoze had
been killed near the village of Baghouz in eastern Syria last month. But this snippet of information is all there is.

The silence is indeed heavy. And there are few facts to pierce it.

The first thing the elderly Mrs Ganchi asked Tayob when the two met was whether he could confirm her son’s death. 

“I said: ‘No, Aunty Fatima, I can’t,’” says Tayob.

Tayob also cannot say when exactly Ganchi left South Africa for Syria: “When we got the news he was in Syria, it was news to us,” he said.Rapport reported on Sunday that Ganchi had travelled to Syria three years ago.In all, about 50 South Africans are estimated to have immigrated to Isis-held territory, according to a previous investigation by this reporter.

Some left South Africa with the intention of working towards alleviating the humanitarian emergencies of refugees; others sought to assist Isis in bolstering its administration and emergency service; yet others travelled with the express intention of joining the war.

Jasmine Opperman, a Cape Town-based analyst with the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, told Al Jazeera that most South Africans who travel to Isis-held territory did so in a noncombatant capacity.

At least three South Africans are confirmed to have been killed in combat in Syria.

That number excludes Ganchi, who had travelled to Syria to use his medical training for the good of a cause he believed in, according to Tayob. “He knew his life calling was to be a doctor to whomever he could be a doctor to, and Muslims were very close to his heart,” he says.

This Syrian sojourn, however, would not be the first time Ganchi had courted trouble abroad. He was detained in Pakistan in 2004 when the group with whom he was travelling was apprehended. Security forces there alleged that the group was on its way to join al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Ganchi and his travel companion, a student from Pretoria, were held for more than two months. He was never charged.

A year later, Australian media reported that Ganchi was among a group of four people with suspected al-Qaeda links who were trying to cross into East Timor from Indonesia.

This was never confirmed.

In 2009 he was apprehended in Egypt, when he was travelling with the Gift of the Givers team to Gaza.

He was questioned and then released without charge.

Now, in 2019, he is reported to be dead, as the Islamic State struggles to hold on to the last few metres it still holds in eastern Syria.

Ganchi would be 48 years old this year. Prior to moving to Syria, he was a resident of Upington in the Northern Cape, where he worked as a surgeon at a local hospital. Married to Safiya — a psychiatrist from Durban — the couple have two children aged 12 and 14. The entire family immigrated to Isis-held territory.

Tayob says the message of Ganchi’s death added that his family had left the Baghouz area. Where they are right now is unclear.

In all, the department of international relations and co-operation says there are at least 20 South Africans missing in Syria. Ndivhuwo Mabaya, spokesperson for the department, said it was impossible for South Africa’s mission in Damascus to assist in locating these people, or even Ganchi’s wife specifically, unless Safiya presented herself to the mission.

Baghouz, where Ganchi is said to have died, is some distance, and a few battlegrounds, away from Damascus. It is impossible for regular consular services to be offered here. It is a remote town nestled on a bend of the Euphrates River, close to Syria’s border with Iraq. It has been the scene of intense battles over the past month. The small town, described by some as a hamlet, is all that remains of the so-called Islamic State caliphate following the fall of Mosul and Raqqa in 2017.

For weeks, the battle has raged. Inside Baghouz, the most earnest of Isis supporters remained, whereas many others fled. Herethere is once more a heavy silence, except this silence is interrupted frequently by gunfire, airstrikes and the din of human anguish.

On Wednesday night, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said in a statement to Al Jazeera that the battle against Isis in Baghouz was as good as over. The announcement of the defeat of Isis is imminent.

But there may still be some complications.

The Washington Post reported last month that several thousand people remained inside Baghouz, huddled in tunnels under the village.

Since the beginning of this year, nearly 40 000 people have been recorded by observer teams to have left the Islamic State’s diminishing territory. Many of them have been transported to the nearby Al Hol refugee camp.

The majority of the camp’s residents are Iraqi and Syrian women — many of them partners of Isis combatants — and “third” nationalities are the minority, according to Hedinn Halldorsson, spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Damascus.

Tayob believes Safiya Ganchi and her children may be in this camp, but there’s no way to be sure. They could also be in the tunnels in Baghouz, or dead.

The silence that carries over is laden. — Additional reporting by Simon Allison