How It Ends: The Search : Embedded In 2015, Bashir Shikder returned from an overseas trip to an empty house. His wife had taken his two young children to live in the Islamic State. For the past four years he's done everything he can to try to get them back. And now that ISIS has lost all his territory, he wants to know... Where are they?

How It Ends: The Search

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Hey, I'm Kelly McEvers, and this is EMBEDDED. USA Today recently ran an editorial with this headline, "Celebrate The Fall Of The Isis Caliphate." The editorial started, quote, "the last malignant cells of a terror caliphate that once sprawled from Syria to the gates of Baghdad have been vanquished." And it went on to credit the American military with a, quote, "victory for civilization over barbarity." But on the same day this editorial was published, back in late March, we actually talked to a man - an American man - who was not celebrating...

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MCEVERS: ...Because for him, ISIS has not ended. His name is Bashirul Shikder. He goes by Bashir. And he says for him, ISIS won't end until he gets his kids back. Four years ago, Bashir's 4-year-old son, Yusuf, and 9-month-old daughter, Zahra, were kidnapped by their mother and taken to live in the Islamic State. His wife actually snuck away while he was out of the country on his first pilgrimage to Mecca. He got home and found his house empty, his wife and kids just gone. After that, the only way for Bashir to see them was pictures or videos his wife sent to his phone.

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RASHIDA SUMAIYA: Yusuf, look, look, look. Yusuf...

YUSUF: (Yelling).

SUMAIYA: No, go on this side. Go on that side. I can't see you.

MCEVERS: That's Yusuf splashing at the edge of a river, smiling and waving at the camera - a river in ISIS territory.

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BASHIRUL SHIKDER: (Foreign language spoken). How is your health?

MCEVERS: And Bashir would record his own messages and send them back.

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SHIKDER: My Abu, take care of yourself. (Foreign language spoken) Zahra. I love you all. I love you. May (foreign language spoken) help you all.

MCEVERS: For four years, Bashir has tried everything he can think of to get his kids back. He's gone to the FBI. He's worked with an international human rights lawyer. He's flown to the Middle East. He's even tracked down sources who say they were in ISIS. So far, none of this has worked. And now ISIS has been driven out of its territory by a military force led by the United States. And Bashir has no way to know if his kids survived. And he wonders, even though he's done everything his government has asked him to, why they aren't helping him more. That's our story today after this break.

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MCEVERS: OK, we're back. Ruth Sherlock covers Syria for NPR, and she brought us the story of Bashir Shikder, the man who came home to find that his wife, Rashida, had taken his children to live in the Islamic State. We don't know exactly why she did that. We do know what happened next. Here's Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: About a month after he learned that his wife had taken their children to Syria, Bashir was driving on the highway when his phone rang. He pulled over to answer. It was a man who said he was from Syria, from the Islamic State, and he had a question for Bashir.

SHIKDER: Are you the father of Yusuf, Zahra? Yes. Desperately, I started to say, how is my Yusuf? How is Zahra? Where are they? Can I talk to them?

SHERLOCK: They're in a safe place, the man told Bashir.

SHIKDER: Safer than the land of Kuffar.

SHERLOCK: The land of Kuffar, of the infidels, America. Bashir was born in Bangladesh, but he's an American citizen now. And he'd been building his own version of the American dream, a house, a job, a wife he loved.

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SHERLOCK: Bashir still has memories of when he and Rashida were happy, the days when they went fishing and had barbecues in the park and went swimming with their children. But Rashida and his kids were in the Islamic State now, along with his wife's sister, who traveled to Syria with them. And the man on the phone was saying that Bashir was expected to join them.

SHIKDER: He's saying that, I'm giving you one month deadline time. If you don't make it, you'll lose your wife. You'll lose your children.

SHERLOCK: Oh, my gosh.

SHIKDER: And I started to shake because ISIS called me. I mean, in what situation I'm standing now?

SHERLOCK: A couple of weeks later, his wife reached out too. He says he was afraid to ask too many questions in case ISIS was monitoring their calls. He listened as she asked him to join the family in Syria.

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SUMAIYA: Come here, Ba (ph).

YUSUF: What?

ZAHRA: Come here (babbling) Ba.

SUMAIYA: Come here to my home.

ZAHRA: Come here, home.

SUMAIYA: OK, salamu alaykum.

ZAHRA: (Babbling).

SHERLOCK: When the man from ISIS called back, wanting to know when Bashir was coming, Bashir said everything he could to buy more time.

SHIKDER: All adjectives I was using - my dear brother, my Islamic brother, my very sick mother is at home. He's still saying, we are giving you one month, my brother.

SHERLOCK: It was an impossible position. To be with his son and daughter again, he'd have to join a terrorist group, be forced to fight, risk ending up in prison. Or he could stay in Florida and risk never seeing his kids again.

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SHERLOCK: At this point, Bashir and his lawyers say, he was already in touch with the FBI. He told them almost immediately what Rashida had done. And now he was telling them what he heard from her, sending them photos and messages. Bashir says they told him to share this information, and they would try to help track down his children.

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SHERLOCK: The deadline set by the ISIS caller passed. And despite the initial threat, Bashir continued to get messages and videos from his wife. One day, after she'd been gone about a year, she asked him to send money. The way Bashir tells it, she said as long as they were still married, she couldn't marry someone else. So she needed him to support her. She needed money for the kids. This was tricky for Bashir. Of course he wanted to support his children, but sending money, in the eyes of the U.S. government, would be providing material support to terrorists. He could not do that.

Not long after that, Bashir received a photo from his wife, a single piece of white paper with Arabic writing on it. It was an official document from the Sharia court in Raqqa, ISIS's capital. Quote, "the wife claimed that her husband resides in the house of Kuffar, America. Because of the husband's absence and unwillingness to migrate and because he has not sent the wife any payment, the wife demands the annulment of their marriage. As of the date of the verdict, the wife is no longer married to the husband." In other words, in the eyes of ISIS, he was now divorced.

Around late 2016, Bashir was talking to Yusuf. And the boy let slip that his mother had remarried. When he saw that Bashir was upset, Yusuf tried to say it was a joke. But it was true. Rashida had remarried. After that, Bashir started hearing from his wife less and less. But in December 2018, after the U.S.-led coalition started bombing Raqqa, Rashida wrote to Bashir to say there'd been an explosion near their house. You need to be careful, Bashir says he wrote back. You're the only one looking out for the children.

Then, this past January, he got a message from Rashida's sister, the one who'd gone with her to Syria. I have to deliver some heavy, heartbreaking news, it said. Rashida was killed a few nights ago by bombs, and all the children have been badly burned on their faces. Bashir begged for more information. Where are the babies? How can I reach them? Which city are they in? Please tell me, he wrote. A few hours later, she replied, they are recovering, thank God - but nothing more.

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MCEVERS: More after this break.

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MCEVERS: OK, we are back. And the last thing Bashir heard was that his wife had died and his children were injured but alive. And then, a few weeks later, he gets a call from a human rights lawyer named Clive Stafford Smith. Clive is well-known for helping people he believes were wrongfully detained at Guantanamo. And now he works in Syria and Iraq. He recently helped rescue two kids who were taken to Syria by their ISIS father. And Clive had heard about Bashir's situation and thought maybe he could help. So he told Bashir to come to Iraq. That's where he met up with Ruth Sherlock and her producer, Lama Al-Arian. Here's Ruth again.

SHERLOCK: Clive, the lawyer, hopes that the children may be in a displacement camp, one that holds thousands of people who are fleeing the fight against ISIS. And so he gets to work to see if there's any substantial confirmation.

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: And they're saying they don't know anything about it.

SHERLOCK: He calls aid groups to get help with the search.

SMITH: I hope you're right.

SHERLOCK: And he calls U.S. officials to get guarantees that if the children are found, the government would help get them out of Syria.

SMITH: Let me do that. Can you tell me the number, and I'll call? Yeah, thanks. Great.

SHERLOCK: While Clive does that, Bashir shows me and my producer, Lama, photos and videos of his children.

LAMA AL-ARIAN, BYLINE: These are incredible videos. It seems like you guys were so happy.

SHIKDER: Very happy - until the end.

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SHIKDER: Thank you. Yusuf, thank you.

YUSUF: Thank you.

SHIKDER: (Imitating child's voice) Thank you.

SHERLOCK: Right as Bashir is in the middle of explaining one of these videos, we can hear Clive on the phone.

AL-ARIAN: Clive is on the phone.

SMITH: OK, that's fantastic. Great news. Thank you. OK, they've got them.

SHIKDER: Oh. (Laughter, crying).

SHERLOCK: A few hours later, Bashir thinks about what he's going to say to his children. And he talks to us about his fear that they'll be mad at him, that they'll think that all this time he just forgot about them. But then, when Bashir gets back to his hotel room, Clive comes to see him. He sits Bashir down on a chair near the window and breaks the news.

SMITH: What happened was that I got this call saying that they confirmed the children were there. And then they start saying, well, we're not absolutely sure they're the same children.

SHIKDER: Huh?

SMITH: Yeah, I'm really concerned about this. Are you all right?

SHIKDER: No, I'm not feeling good. I was so happy all this evening.

SMITH: Yeah.

SHERLOCK: Bashir looks broken. And Clive feels awful too. His face is ashen. Bashir says he needs some time alone. He goes to a mosque to pray. He didn't bring any relatives or friends with him to Iraq. And honestly, we're all worried about him. We stay up late to keep him company. And I wake the next morning to find that he's been up all night, sending me videos of his kids. Four days later, Bashir flies home to Miami. He's basically right back where he started, without his kids, unsure of where they are.

Bashir was starting to feel like he was running out of options. He says he was still not hearing much from the U.S. government, and the trip to Iraq did not go as he'd hoped. But the trip did have one payoff. He now had a network of new contacts, people close to the ground. He'd even gotten phone numbers of a few ISIS women. And while he was on the plane home from Iraq, one of these women sent him a voice memo. For privacy considerations, we're using a reenactor.

UNIDENTIFIED REENACTOR: (As unidentified ISIS woman) I have information now. The kids are alive. A family is taking care of them. And they are happy with them. And their burns are healing.

SHERLOCK: Bashir has no way of knowing for sure if the message is accurate or if he can trust it. But it's all he has. And if true, it's promising news, the first he's heard since his wife died that his kids are still alive and that someone is looking after them. The ISIS woman also says his children are in the Syrian town of Baghouz. It's the last Syrian territory held by ISIS. And for Bashir, this is not good news. ISIS has been cornered to a small area of the town just a few hundred meters wide. And the Kurdish-U.S. coalition are pounding it with airstrikes and artillery.

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SHERLOCK: Bahir's kids aren't the only ones trapped inside Baghouz. There are many civilians there - so many that at some point, the military makes the decision to actually pause the bombing for days to let people flee. For Bashir, this is the moment he's been waiting for, a chance for the family who's supposedly taking care of his children to finally get them to safety. Only, this is not what happens because that family does not want to leave Baghouz. According to Bashir's sources, they would rather his kids die under the bombs than go back to infidel America. In a last-ditch effort, Bashir records an appeal to the people holding his children and asks his ISIS sources to pass it on.

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SHIKDER: This is me, father of Yusuf and Zahra. I'm dying to see them, hug them. Today my contact to you, in a very unavoidable (ph) situations - that if you just help them, these innocent children, to be saved from there - it's very severe, air attack and bombardment, everything is going on. If you help someone, Allah will be helping you. As a helpless father - as a helpless father, I'm begging to you.

SHERLOCK: Bashir calls the U.S. Consulate in Iraq to ask for help. Clive, the human rights lawyer, asks the U.S. military. I reach out to them too. I ask them, are American children trapped in this area, the area the U.S. is bombing, enough of a reason to pause the military campaign? We're told that Bashir's case is being dealt with at, quote, "the highest levels." But whatever may have happened behind the scenes, the shelling of Baghouz resumes. And then Bashir gets another voice memo.

UNIDENTIFIED REENACTOR: (As unidentified ISIS woman) A woman was going to take your kids out with her, but she couldn't track them down. She said they were bombing like crazy. She doesn't know if the children are still alive. I'm sorry. That's all I know right now. I'm going to keep looking for more information. For now we have to wait.

SHERLOCK: And so he waits. Then, on March 23...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: In Syria today, U.S.-backed fighters declared victory over the Islamic State, saying the terrorist group no longer holds land in the country.

SHERLOCK: ...Al-Baghouz falls to the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: It is an unbelievable sight, an apocalyptic wasteland. This is where IS made its last stand. It's a junk yard.

SHERLOCK: It's the moment the U.S. and its partners have all been working towards for years, the moment ISIS is pushed out of all of its territory, which once spanned across large parts of Syria and Iraq. But Bashir still doesn't know what's happened to his children.

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SHERLOCK: A few days later, our producer, Eric, goes to Florida to talk to Bashir.

SHIKDER: I'm really sorry. (Unintelligible).

ERIC MENNEL, BYLINE: No, it's totally fine. Do you want to sit down?

SHIKDER: This is how every day it goes, actually.

SHERLOCK: It's clear he's exhausted and frustrated. For years, he says, he'd been honest and forthcoming with the government - and for what? - to watch helplessly as the world celebrated the bombing of Baghouz. He can't help but ask...

SHIKDER: You know, instead of my kids, if they were the kids of President Trump, Donald Trump, my question is, will Americans be able to drop even one single bomb to that ground? Would that be possible - use any heavy weapon to there, that ground, if they had any kind of clue that children might be possibly be there, alive in that place? But they do not care.

SHERLOCK: With ISIS forced from Baghouz, Bashir's only hope now is that his Yusuf and Zahra are in the camp for the women and children who fled from there. Aid groups we spoke to said they are looking for them. But the camp has 73,000 people in it. It's a sprawling mass of refugees living in terrible conditions. Bashir's children could be anywhere. And if they're still with a family that wants to hide them, to keep them from returning to their father, it would be easy to do. And the harsh reality is that Bashir's kids are only two among hundreds of cases of children reported missing.

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SHERLOCK: We've been calling this series, How It Ends, the idea being that ISIS has been defeated, driven out of its territory but that tens of thousands of people, including Bashir's kids, have been left behind. Last week, Bashir told us, your story will not be finished next week. Until we find Yusuf and Zahra, your story is not finished. And he's right.

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MCEVERS: Before we go, we should say we reached out to the government agencies Bashir says are not helping him enough. And we talked to one of his lawyers, Charles Swift. He has a lot of experience with cases like this. He says when Bashir's wife, Rashida, was believed to be alive, the FBI was very interested in this case because she could potentially have been charged with a crime or could have provided information on other potential crimes. But then, after she died, Swift says the FBI ended their investigation. He says that's because it's not the FBI's job to rescue people. It's their job to investigate people for later prosecution.

We reached out to the FBI, but they declined to comment. So now, if Bashir's kids are alive and if they are in this camp for all the people who fled Baghouz and other ISIS territory, Swift and others say they are the State Department's responsibility. When we asked the State Department about the case, we were told, quote, "the U.S. Department of State has no greater responsibility than the protection of U.S. citizens overseas and places the highest priority on the welfare of children. Due to privacy considerations, we are not going to get into any specifics."

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MCEVERS: This story was reported by Ruth Sherlock and Lama Al-Arian. It was produced by Chris Benderev, Eric Mennel and Tom Dreisbach and edited by Eric Mennel and Lisa Pollak with help from Neal Carruth, Larry Kaplow and Mark Memmott. Special thanks to Clive Stafford Smith, Hassan Shibly (ph), Charles Swift, Seamus Hughes (ph), Dina Temple-Raston, Alexandra Bane (ph), Joana Cook (ph), Sonia Khush and Toma Aranar (ph) and to Katie Lamborn and Martin Chulov of The Guardian. Martin was also on that trip to Iraq with Bashir, where The Guardian filmed much of the story. We will have a link to that film on our website, npr.org/embedded.

Our theme song is by Colin Wambsgans, other music by Blue Dot Sessions. Our lawyer is Ashley Messenger. That is all for this series, How It Ends. We'll be back soon with more episodes. Until then, leave us a review and subscribe if you haven't already. Thanks.

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