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Middle East

When Dimitri Bontinck’s son ran away from home to become a jihadist in Syria, he went to try to find him – in Aleppo

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson meets Dimitri Bontinck, father of Jejoen

There was only one fleeting moment when Dimitri Bontinck questioned whether his life was worth sacrificing to save his son. Hooded and beaten by the Islamist fighters who were holding him hostage in Syria, the Belgian former soldier felt his will ebbing away as the blows landed on his body.

“I struggled to breathe. That time I was thinking: ‘Is it all worth this, that I came here to look for my son?’ I was almost dead myself,” he said. “Then another side in my body said: ‘I believe in my son, there is love for my son, if there is any god, they will release me and believe me.’ And they did.”

Mr Bontinck has spent much of the last month trying to convince Syrians to believe him: to believe that he is father to a young Muslim who travelled to Syria to fight with the rebels, to believe that he is not a spy, and to believe that they should trust him and help him bring his son Jejoen home.

Back in Antwerp on Monday, his face reddened from the Middle Eastern sun and his eyes nervously darting around, Mr Bontinck pulled out Jejoen’s passport, which he took from one opposition group to another, begging for help. “Everywhere I went I needed to prove that this is my son,” he said

The last time Mr Bontinck saw Jejoen – an 18-year-old convert to Islam – was in late March. Jejoen told his father he was off to study in Egypt, and while Mr Bontinck did not share his son’s religious beliefs, he was keen to support him. But then he heard about another young Belgian who had gone to Syria to fight with the rebels, and the alarm bells went off.

“I just knew for sure, my son is in Syria,” Mr Bontinck said on Monday. “So I started to look every day at thousands of pictures of soldiers [in Syria], of people who are wounded. And one day I recognised my own son.”

The EU estimates that at least 500 young men from Europe are fighting alongside the Syrian rebel forces, many of them recruited by extremist Islamist groups who now form a large faction of the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.

While authorities scramble to try to prevent the youngsters from leaving, there is little they can do to repatriate those who have gone of their own free will. So Mr Bontinck – who is separated from Jejoen’s Nigerian-born mother – called a press conference and announced that he was going to Syria to find his son himself.

Just over a month later, Mr Bontinck was again in front of the media, which has been following his Syrian odyssey. But Jejoen was not by his side. He knows where his son is, he claims, but was unable to reach him.

Mr Bontinck’s Facebook page gives a glimpse into his transition from proud parent to despairing father. Back in December 2009, there are photographs titled “my kids”, with the teenage Jejoen smiling shyly at the camera, striking a pose in a tight T-shirt and an ear stud.

Like most Western teenage boys, Jejoen was into music and girls. Then, around the age of 15, he fell for a young Muslim girl and converted. That is Mr Bontinck’s narrative, although there have been hints in the Belgian media about possible problems at home.

Whatever the catalyst, Jejoen’s parents were not too concerned. But a year ago, the teenager started associating with Sharia4Belgium, an Islamist group that the Belgian government has tried to disband because of feared connections to extremism.

“He totally changed, he started to grow a beard, he started praying,” said Mr Bontinck.

It is the link between European Muslims in Syria and the extremist groups which worries the authorities. Governments are desperate to stem the flow of young men heading to take up arms in a conflict that has killed an estimated 70,000 people since it began just over two years ago.

The Belgian authorities have shut down soup kitchens after reports that extremists were recruiting vulnerable young men there. The Netherlands has raised its terror alert, citing the concern that returning fighters could pose a domestic threat. Security officials in the UK think up to 100 British Muslims have gone to fight in Syria.

Mr Bontinck said he saw many fighters from across the world when he was in Syria. He spent his first two weeks with a Belgian media crew who documented his search, before they decided he was taking too many risks. He then relied on a Syrian group called the Free Lawyers of Aleppo, who helped him navigate the different factions of the opposition.

He went from group to group, and claims to have been held against his will twice, when he was beaten and had a gun forced in his mouth. But many opposition fighters from the moderate groups welcomed and supported him, and Mr Bontinck was clearly moved by what he saw in Syria. His Facebook timeline is full of harrowing photographs of dead Syrian children and tortured fighters.

“I met so many mothers, families. You can’t imagine how many families are innocent victims of the regime,” he said.

But other Facebook pictures of a grinning Mr Bontinck flanked by heavily-armed rebels as he flashes the victory sign prompted some Belgian journalists to ask whether he was perhaps also seeking adventure in Syria. Mr Bontinck, who is in his late 30s, simply said his previous experience in the armed forces helped him deal with his fear.

“I have experience, I am a war veteran,” he said. “I started my career at the same age as my son... I think maybe if I didn’t have this experience from the past I might not have done this.”

Talking about his son, Mr Bontinck appeared at times agitated and rambling, perhaps scarred from what he saw in Syria or from the frustration he that he got so close to Jejoen – he believes he was at one point in a villa where his son had stayed – but had to return alone.

His lawyer, Kris Luyckx, says they are now cooperating with the authorities, but cannot say much more for security reasons.

Mr Bontinck is determined to return to Syria and bring Jejoen home. He claims that his son is not there of his own free will, but was coerced into travelling there and is being forced to stay. He points to the fact that Jejoen somehow managed to leave Belgium and enter Syria without his passport, although it is not clear how he was able travel without his documents.

But having spent a month moving from one rebel camp to another and seeing the scale of the suffering, Mr Bontinck at least has a greater understanding of what drives young Europeans to head to Syria to take up arms.

“I have seen so many cruel, evil things that the regime is doing to innocent people, so I can understand why people fight there, because they fight for freedom,” he said. “But I have a problem that my son has been radicalised, that his future has been destroyed, to end in a jihad in Syria, in a country that does not belong to him – it’s not his revolution.”