Karen Nettleton is desperate to get her orphaned Australian grandchildren out of the ISIS hellhole they're trapped in.
Two TV shows are going to air tonight that describe and depict scenes of unbridled brutality. One, of course, is FOXTEL’s Game of Thrones and it is – mercifully - fiction. The other is ABC’s Four Corners, which tonight tells the story of Sydney grandmother Karen Nettleton, and the daily misery she endures knowing that her grandchildren are trapped in the real-life hellhole that is the Islamic State .
It’s difficult to imagine anything worse.
Karen’s five grandchildren, Abdullah, Zarqawi, Zaynab, Hoda and Humzeh were trafficked to Syria by their fanatical jihadi parents , Karen’s daughter Tara and her ISIS husband Khaled Sharrouf, in 2014 to live and fight with the Islamic State. The eldest, Abdullah, was just eight years old. Humzeh, the youngest, was not even three.
Back, L-R: Hoda, Zaynab. Front, L-R: Zarqawi, Humzeh and Abdullah.
Since then, Karen has watched powerlessly as her grandchildren were forced to become radicalised into their parents’ warped world view. She’s seen photos of her tiny grandsons struggling under the weight of enormous automatic machine guns. She’s sat by helplessly as her eldest granddaughter, Zaynab was married off at 13 to not one but two ISIS terrorists, giving birth to two children before she even turned 16. She’s currently pregnant with her third, and is riddled with dysentery and anaemia.
Zaynab (pink), Abdullah (deceased), Hoda (purple) and Humzeh (front centre). Source:Supplied
One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen was when ABC reporter Dylan Welch asked Karen to describe how she felt when she saw images of her then-nine-year-old grandson Abdullah wobbling under the strain of holding the severed head of a Syrian official in 2015. It was a picture that went all over the world, after his monstrous father posted it on Twitter with the caption, “That’s my boy”.
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Nettleton’s face crumpled with utter despair as she recalled the horror of discovering that her grandson, who she knew only as an ordinary, loving, happy little Australian kid, had been forced to do something so brutal. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” she said as tears streamed down her face.
Khaled and Tara have both since died in Syria, as have the eldest boys, Abdullah and Zaraqui. But Karen Nettleton’s determination to rescue her surviving grandchildren has not.
Tonight’s episode of Four Corners (ABC 8:30PM) follows Karen Nettleton as she travels to Syria to try to bring her three grandchildren Zaynab, now 17, Hoda, 16 and Humzeh, 8, as well as the two great-grandchildren who have already been born to pregnant Zaynab, home safely to Australia. Her grief is raw but her determination hasn’t wavered as she cries out their names in a dirty, makeshift refugee camp in northern Syria where the orphans have recently managed to flee. “They’re just kids,” she pleads. “They’re Australian children. They’re orphan children. They’re my children. And they’re not going to be a risk to anyone.”
You can agree or disagree with this assessment, although at this stage no one really knows for sure. Certainly the Australian government is in two minds. There’s no confirmation at this stage whether Scott Morrison will allow the children back to Australia, although he seems to have softened his stance in recent days, indicating that wheels are turning to help bring the children home. “Where there are Australians who are caught up in this situation particularly as innocent children, we will do what I think Australians would expect us to do on their behalf," he has said. If the kids do come home, they will need to undergo intensive deprogramming and be given extraordinary support to help them reintegrate into Australian society and leave the murderous chaos of the Islamic caliphate behind them.
Turn the TV off when you can and turn the conversation on where possible. And remember; loving them is easy, it’s rearing them that’s hard but it does get easier with practise.
Khaled Sharrouf with his three sons, Zarqawi, Abdullah and Humzeh (youngest). Source:Supplied
But what is certain is that as a loving but almost entirely helpless grandmother, Karen Nettleton has endured a desperate misery that couldn’t be matched by many other circumstances, and she deserves the chance to be reunited with the kids who were taken from her so cruelly.
Grieving for children who are alive but imperilled and unable to be reached or protected is a special kind of hell. It must be similar to the sort of pain endured by Sally Faulkner, another woman whose heart howls every day for her children Lahela and Noah who were snatched by their father and kidnapped to Lebanon in 2016 when they were just seven and five. Faulkner knows her babies are there. She sees occasional glimpses of them on social media when their father posts a photo. But her heart will never be whole again while they are forcibly kept from her.
At least Karen Nettleton has been able to speak to her grandchildren. In tonight’s episode we see her making secret phone calls to each other. “I just want to get out of here,” Zaynab tells her. “We’ve been wanting to come home for a very long time but we were just scared. We weren’t the ones who chose to come here in the first place. We were brought here by our parents.”
Khaled Sharrouf has since been killed, but his remaining three children want to escape the nightmare he forced them into. Image: ABC
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Knowing that they were enduring horrors beyond her help – even aside from the killings it’s believed their father Khaled enslaved and raped Yazidi women – would be an unthinkable trauma.
Tonight, Australia will be glued to the delicious brutality of Game of Thrones, as it kicks off its eighth and final season. But my thoughts will be with Karen Netteton’s real life nightmare, as I watch in hope that her surviving grandchildren will soon be able to live under her love and protection again.