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Orphaned By IS: Tajik Grandfather Seeks Return Of 10-Year-Old Survivor

Muhammadrahim Shoev says he is hopeful that he can bring his orphaned granddaughter home from Iraq.

They left Tajikistan as a family of six, but only one would live to tell the tale of how they lived -- and most of them died -- in Iraq after joining the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.

"Ten-year-old Maryam is the only surviving member of my son's family," Muhammadrahim Shoev, a farmer from a village located on the outskirts of the Tajik capital, tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service.

The last time Shoev saw his son Jamoliddin was in 2015, when he returned briefly from abroad and stayed at the family home in Ghairatobod for six months before leaving again along with his wife and children.

Shoev says that his son said he was going to Egypt, where he had studied more than a decade before .

He has no idea how the 37-year-old and his family ended up in Iraq.

Orphaned In Iraq

Now, three months after being told that his granddaughter was the only member of his son's family to survive a 2017 attack on Mosul, Shoev says that "I want to bring her back home from Iraq."

Maryam Shoeva was discovered almost by chance after she appeared on a Russian TV program about Russian-speaking children who had been taken to an Iraqi shelter after the recapture of Mosul from IS militants last year.

While the RT program identified four Tajik siblings who were staying at the shelter, it wasn't until later that Maryam -- who can be seen saying in broken Russian that her parents had been killed in an air strike -- was spotted by a former neighbor.

The Tajik migrant worker living in Russia contacted RFE/RL and provided the child's relatives' address in Dushanbe.

Maryam later appeared in another video in which she pleads with her relatives in Tajikistan to contact her. It is unclear who recorded and posted the video.

After becoming aware that his granddaughter had survived, Shoev says he asked Tajik authorities to help bring the child home, a task the Foreign Ministry says might take some time. "We are working with the Iraqi Embassy in Astana, Kazakhstan, to repatriate the Tajik women and children left there," the press office of the ministry said on February 22.

The government estimates that there are some 200 children among more than 1,000 Tajik nationals who left for Iraq and Syria to join the IS group since 2014. Some were killed in the conflict there.

Tajikistan offered amnesty to all its citizens who were not involved in IS violence and return home voluntarily. Dozens have since come back and reintegrated into normal life, resuming their work and studies.

Long Road Home

Tajik authorities say the return of unaccompanied and undocumented minors is a complex and relatively long procedure that involves identifying the children and issuing provisional travel documents to submit to the Iraqi Embassy before arranging their flights from Baghdad.

Next of kin like Shoev are required to provide documents and photos to prove the children's identities and family ties before claiming custody.

Shoev has sent the necessary documents and photos to the authorities and is now awaiting a response.

His son Jamoliddin initially left Tajikistan in 2004 to study in Egypt's Al-Azhar University.

"He went there legally, with official permission. I have kept all the documents," Shoev says, pointing to several IDs and sealed pages and letters clipped together.

Among them is a letter confirming Jamoliddin Shoev's enrolment in Al-Azhar preparatory courses in 2004. Another document shows his registration with the Tajik Embassy in Cairo, extended through 2012.

He would frequently return to Tajikistan, where he got married and where his four children were born, his father says. Shoev shows photos of Maryam and her two younger sisters and a brother. "The last time he called me was in August 2017. I never heard from him again," Shoev says.

The Interior Ministry has told RFE/RL that Jamoliddin Shoev's name wasn't among the Tajik nationals suspected of joining IS in Iraq and Syria. Shoev says the Tajik authorities have confirmed that most of his son's family is dead.

"Our security services told me that the whole family apart from [Maryam] was killed there," he says.

The ministry didn't provide any time frame for Maryam Shoeva's return to reunite with her grandfather.

Shoev says he is hopeful. So are several other grandparents, aunts, and uncles across Tajikistan who have asked the authorities to help return their young relatives -- the orphans of Tajiks who joined IS and were killed or disappeared in Iraq and Syria.

Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by RFE/RL's Tajik Service correspondent Mumin Ahmadi