‘Scared about this thing I have in me’: Australian Yusuf Zahab fears death in Syrian jail

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun19,2024
A young Australian detained without charge in Syria fears he may be infected with tuberculosis and worries he may die in prison without assistance.
Yusuf Zahab, 21, from Sydney’s Bankstown, has been imprisoned in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria for over five years.
“I had tuberculosis for a while. I don’t know if I still have it now,” he said in .
“Doctors Without Borders helped me before but just for a few months.
“I don’t think I finished off the medicine.

“[I] get pain in the chest sometimes,” he said in the interview, conducted under armed guard at an undisclosed location in northeastern Syria.

A spokesperson for the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which translates to Doctors without Borders, says the organisation has not worked in a detention centre in Syria since 2022.
This means Yusuf could not have been treated for tuberculosis by MSF in the last three years.
“I’m scared I’m going to die here. So many people died in prison,” he said through tears.

“I’m scared about this TB thing that I have in me. And then there’s no medicine. They’re not giving me no medicine.”

‘Scared for him’

The World Health Organization says tuberculosis is curable but if “treatment is not properly completed, the disease can become drug-resistant and can spread”.
When Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, a former UN Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, visited the most “superior quality” prison in Kurdish-held Syria in 2023, she reported “widespread tuberculosis, then involving at least 50 per cent of the prison population including the detained children, with no obvious quarantine or separation procedures in place”.
“The detaining authority confirmed that no tuberculosis treatment program was in place and reported fatalities among prisoners and guards, without providing numbers,” the report added.
Yusuf’s cousin in Australia, Hala Zahab, said Yusuf “shouldn’t have to worry about something that’s treatable”.
“He has every right to feel scared. We’re scared for him,” she said.
to live under the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) group in 2015.
A boy in his early teens wearing a white t-shirt and a bike helmet riding a bike and looking over his left shoulder at the camera

Born in Sydney, Yusuf Zahab was 12 when he went on holiday with his family to Lebanon and Türkiye. He says he knew nothing about the plan to go to Syria to live under the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) group. Source: Supplied

In 2014, the IS group joined the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that had started in 2011 and captured large areas of territory in the country.

It attracted tens of thousands of foreign fighters, including more than 200 from Australia.
As the US-backed Kurdish forces captured the last of the IS-group held territory in Syria, 15-year-old Yusuf was separated from his mother and detained without charge in a men’s prison alongside former IS group fighters.

Yusuf has been imprisoned ever since, while his mother, Aminah, remains in Syria’s al-Roj detention camp.

Declared dead

Yusuf says for the first 18 months he was imprisoned as an unaccompanied minor in squalid conditions alongside adult men who were suspected IS group fighters.
Then in January 2022, aged 17, he was injured in the head and arm during an attempted breakout by IS group fighters attacking his prison in the city of al-Hasakah.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said over 500 people were killed in the 10-day battle for the prison.
Yusuf was either in or just after the attack.
It wasn’t until in Syria that his survival could be confirmed.
He said that after the battle, the surviving prisoners were held in a burnt-out room. It was here that MSF doctors saw to his head injury and Save The Children gave him food, he says.
The MSF spokesperson confirmed the organisation provided primary healthcare services to the adolescent detainees, “including treatment of injuries where possible”.
But during this time, “MSF was not able to provide secondary health care”, which includes TB treatment.
Yusuf has a scar on his head and arm from the injuries he suffered during the prison siege.

“[I] get headaches sometimes from my injury on the head,” Yusuf said in the interview.

A young man in a red fleece looks at the camera with a serious expression on his face

Yusuf Zahab has a scar on his head and arm from the injuries he suffered during a prison siege in early 2022. Source: SBS News / Colin Cosier

In a cursory medical assessment by Dateline’s accompanying medic, Yusuf said he sometimes experiences dizziness and feels sick, and has twice experienced blackouts.

“Last time [was] two, three months ago, I think.

“I got up from bed and I was walking towards the toilet, and I just blacked out,” he said.

‘You just feel absolutely helpless’

Hala, who is Yusuf’s responsible family member in Australia, said “he needs to be medically assessed”.
“The Australian government has an obligation to help this boy. It’s so disappointing,” she said.
“You just feel helpless, honestly. You just feel absolutely helpless.”

When contacted in March by Dateline with specific questions about Yusuf, a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) spokesperson provided a generic reply, stating that consular assistance to Australians in Syria is severely limited due to the “extremely dangerous security situation”.

However, foreign government delegations are regularly reported to visit the region and numerous international NGOs operate in northeastern Syria.
A SDF spokesperson said: “We are doing our best to provide medical support to prisoners.”
Asked what contact Hala has had with DFAT since the Dateline story aired on SBS, she said:
“I had to reach out to DFAT and ask if they had heard anything new, if they had watched the program.
“And their reaction was disappointing: It was more of the same message about [Australia] not having consular assistance on the ground in Syria. And that was it.
“I’m extremely disappointed,” she said.
Watch Dateline’s Finding Yusuf series
Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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One thought on “‘Scared about this thing I have in me’: Australian Yusuf Zahab fears death in Syrian jail”
  1. I’m so worried for Yusuf Zahab. It’s heartbreaking to hear about his struggles with tuberculosis and the lack of medicine in prison. He should have access to proper healthcare and treatment. It’s a dire situation, and he deserves better care and support.

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