Episode 4: “She’s like my mother”



SAM SALLY: My story, oh yeah absolutely, it is very difficult to believe, it is very hard to believe.


MATTHEW: We live in a small city called Raqqa…   


JUAN SERVANTES: When he was walking around and all the rubble and everything it’s still just disbelief and anger and a lot of anger towards Sam. I just felt like it was a script. 


LORI SALLY: I just wish I was there. I just want to give them all a hug. I just hope my sister knows how much I love her. 


SAM: I’m not a bad person. I’m not a monster. 


JOSH BAKER: I’m Josh Baker. From BBC Panorama and Frontline PBS, this is “I’m Not A Monster.”


Episode 4: “She’s like my mother”


BAKER: Is this him?


FIXER: Yeah it’s him.


BAKER: Hello.


AYHAM: Hello. [laughs]


BAKER: Oh we do the fist bump as well. So hold on… bshhh


BAKER: I’m in Northern Iraq, about an hour’s drive from the Syrian border. I’ve just arrived in a small village, I’m here to meet someone who knows Sam.


BAKER: What’s Your name? 


AYHAM: My name is Ayham.


BAKER: Your English is amazing!


AYHAM: My English more for you.


BAKER: Where did you learn your English? 


AYHAM: Next to one family American.


BAKER: American family?


AYHAM: Yeah.


BAKER: That’s Ayham. He’s eight years old and tells me he learnt English from Sam and her children. He lived with them in Syria for more than a year. As we chat, he chews gum and plays with this bright pink camera.


AYHAM: I have camera, just there’s no battery in it.


BAKER: It doesn’t work but it's his favorite toy. 


BAKER: Do you want to see my camera?


AYHAM: Yeah. Your camera is bigger from mine. Mine is really small. 


BAKER: Try this… Got it?


AYHAM: Yeah. [laughs] 


BAKER: I’ve seen Ayham before. First in the ISIS propaganda film with Matthew, then in the video I’d found on Twitter while standing on a ladder at my dad’s salon. It showed him escaping ISIS with Sam and her children. 


BAKER: Is this your uncle? 


AYHAM: Yeah that’s my uncle.


BAKER: An Iraqi friend of mine had managed to find Ayham. He’s back living with his uncle who gave me permission to record. 


BAKER: Hello. 


AYHAM: [whispers] One banana two banana, three banana four, four banana, six banana, more… You can listen? 


BAKER: Where did you learn this song?


AYHAM: From this family American. 


BAKER: From the American family?


AYHAM: Yeah. They learn me this song.


BAKER: Ayham’s part of a religious minority in Iraq, the Yazidis. Earlier in the war, the Islamic State group killed thouands of them in what the U.N. has called a genocide.  


NEWSREEL: Stranded on a barren mountaintop, thousands of Yazidis have spent 10 days looking death in the face…. Those that have made it to safety tell harrowing stories of men being slaughtered and young women taken away by the militants. 


BAKER: Other Yazidis were kidnapped and enslaved and sold between ISIS fighters. Ayham was one of those slaves. His mother is still missing.


AYHAM: Come, come.


BAKER: Where are you taking me? Is this your home?


AYHAM: Yeah. Come. 


BAKER: Shall I take my shoes off?




BAKER: Ayham and his uncle live in a half-built breeze block house. Rugs are hung over the windows and doors to keep the draft out, but it's still freezing cold. 


BAKER: Shall we go and sit here in front of the light?


AYHAM: Mhm. And then come to sit here.


BAKER: What is this place? This is your living room? 


AYHAM: Mhm.   


BAKER: Ayham, I wanted to ask you. 




BAKER: Can I show you a picture?


AYHAM: Yeah… Yeah, that’s her.


BAKER: You’re smiling. 


BAKER: This big toothy grin appears on his face as I show him a picture of Sam. 


BAKER: That’s her?


AYHAM: Yeah, I want to go next to her.


BAKER: You want to go next to her?


AYHAM: Yeah.


BAKER: Do you remember the name of the American woman? 


AYHAM: Um Yusef.


BAKER: No, the woman. 


AYHAM: Yeah, Um Yusef.


BAKER: Um Yusef is the name Sam went by under ISIS. He tells me Matthew was Yusef, and Sam, Um Yusef, which means ‘mother of Yusef.’ ISIS forced Ayham to become Abdullah. So, Yusef, Um Yusef, Abdullah.


AYHAM: I am next to one and then they came and he got me next to family American. 


BAKER: So ISIS sold you to the American family?


AYHAM: Yeah.


BAKER: When he was just six years old, Ayham was bought by Sam and her husband Moussa.


BAKER: Can you tell me a story of what it was like living with them? 


AYHAM: It was good.


BAKER: It was good?


AYHAM: Yeah. She’s like my mother.


BAKER: ‘She’s like my mother.’  It’s hard to know what to make of this. Here’s an eight-year-old boy who was snatched from his family in Iraq, forced into slavery and taken by ISIS to live in Syria. And now he thinks of Sam, an American woman who traveled to the group, as ‘like his mom.’ 


BAKER: Can you tell me about Yusef?


AYHAM: What happened to him?


BAKER: Yeah.


AYHAM: I don’t know what happened to him.


BAKER: Is he your friend?


AYHAM: He’s like my brother.


BAKER: What did you two do together in Raqqa?


AYHAM: We’re playing all the time. All the time… 


BAKER: I ask Ayham about the ISIS propaganda film. He suddenly jumps up, runs across the room, pushes aside a rug that’s hung over a doorway and disappears upstairs. He comes back with a phone, and points to the screen.


AYHAM: That's a video of me and Yusef.


BAKER: A video with you and Yusef?


AYHAM: Yeah.


MATTHEW: I didn’t know much about Islam execpt the name. When me and mom came to the Islamic State…  


AYHAM: That’s Yusef.


BAKER: That’s Yusef?


AYHAM: Yeah.


BAKER: The video shows Matthew and Ayham walking through streets that have been obliterated by fighting. Then there's a shot of Ayham on Matthew's shoulders, the two of them are playing inside. 


MATTHEW: I’d met many friends. My best friend is Abuddlah from Sinjar…  


BAKER: Is it strange to watch this? 


AYHAM: For ISIS were saying to me my name is Abdullah from Sinjar. That’s not my name, it’s Ayham not Abdullah… 


BAKER: Ayham says ISIS told him to say, ‘my name is Abdullah,’ but he tells me, that’s not his name. 


BAKER: Is that you?


AYHAM: Yeah. They said to me to say it like that. They said you have to say it like that. 


BAKER: He wants me to see this, he’s excited to show me. I feel uneasy. But as a journalist, I've been trained to let people who’ve gone through trauma tell their stories however they want. 


MATTHEW: We live in a small city called Raqqa. This city has scared the whole world because the Muslims who live in it have learnt the meaning of jihad and have established the rule of Allah. Because of this, all the nations of the world who are led by American…. 


AYHAM: That is not all, there is more from that. 


BAKER: With his uncle looking on from the corner of the room, I ask if Sam was involved in making the film. 


AYHAM: This woman American she didn’t want they make a video… She said no… 


BAKER: I know it’s a little hard to understand Ayham — it's much easier face to face — he tells me Sam didn’t want him and Matthew to be in the video. But he says that ISIS gave her no choice. 


BAKER So they forced her? 


AYHAM: Yeah.


BAKER: Was it frightening making the video?


AYHAM: Yes. When we made the video there was bombing… 


BAKER: He tells me that when they were filming, bombs were being dropped on the Raqqa and that it was a ‘hard day.’ Then he pauses for a moment, and points to his head. 


AYHAM: They put a gun, a gun on here. If we don’t talk he’s going to kill us. 


BAKER: So when they were making the video, they pointed a gun at you?


AYHAM: Yeah, one he was making a video, one he’s putting the gun on me, on me and Yusef. If we don’t talk they are going to kill us.


BAKER: The last time he saw Sam and Matthew was in a military base in Syria, but he can’t remember where it was. Then he starts asking me about Sam — he wants to know where she is now. 


I mention that I’m in touch with her sister Lori. He asks to speak to her straight away. I’d already told Lori about him. So I make a call.


BAKER: Let’s see if she answers. 


[phone ringing]


LORI: Hello?


BAKER: Lori?  


LORI: Yes.


AYHAM: Hello!


BAKER: I’m with… say your name. Introduce yourself.


AYHAM: My name is Ayham.


LORI: Hello Ayham.


AYHAM: Hello.


LORI: It’s so nice to meet you.


AYHAM: And you don’t know where is Sam? 


LORI: Um, unfortunately I do not know where Sam is at the moment, I hope that we can try to bring her and the children home. 


BAKER: I’m sitting here on a stone floor in a makeshift house in Northern Iraq — listening to a young Yazidi boy talk to a woman he’s never met, in America. All because her sister owned him.  


LORI: You are my sunshine, my only sunshine... 


BAKER: And then Lori starts to sing — a song her parents had sung to her and Sam when they were growing up. 


LORI: You make me happy when skies are grey. You’ll never know dear how much I love you. 


AYHAM: All the time she’s saying this! 


LORI: Please don’t take my sunshine away. 


AYHAM: All the time she’s saying this! All the time she sang the song in English. 


LORI: Did she sing to you before going to sleep at night? 


AYHAM: How you know that? You sound like Sam. You are Sam! I know.


BAKER: Ayham tells me Sam used to sing this song to him when they were being bombed, it was a way to calm him and her other kids. The singing is so similar that for a moment, Ayham thinks Lori is actually Sam. 


AYHAM: I’m thinking you are Sam!


LORI: I know we sound a lot alike.


AYHAM: All the time you have to come here so I can, so I can talk with Lori sister of Sam. 


BAKER: A few hours, and several games of indoor football later, I have to leave.


BAKER: Thank you for talking to me.


AYHAM: Ok! [high five sound]


BAKER: As I drive away, it strikes me how clearly Ayham feels bound to Sam, and how sad and complicated it is the only mother figure he remembers is the woman who owned him. I’d expected to come away with a clearer idea of who Sam is, instead I'm more confused than ever. 


BAKER: Let me point this route to you… 


BAKER: It’s two weeks before Christmas 2017, and I'm in Erbil, in Northern Iraq. By this point it's been almost a year since I first heard about Sam and her family. I’m in my room with my colleague Mau finalizing our plan to cross into neighbouring Syria to try to find them.


BAKER: We have two sources essentially saying to us that the family are in a place called Al Hasakah and that they are with Kurdish intelligence which is great in one sense because they are no longer with ISIS, they’re safe, but the chance that Kurdish intelligence will let us see them is, is probably minimal.  


MAU GRIS: There’s also quite a lot of black looking on that map. 


BAKER: Mau is ex-military and knows Syria really well. The black on the map we are looking at are the areas still controlled by ISIS.


BAKER: What’s this? 


MAU: A list of the kind of things that we can possibly get killed by basically.


BAKER: Death here. Death also here. They’re almost defeated but they are not defeated completely. But also we have the Assad regime forces here and here so there is a lot to navigate in terms of safety so we don’t find ourselves getting kidnapped or running into ISIS or Assad regime troops who probably don’t want us there either.


MAU: I think when you kind of stack it up like that, you start to think to yourself, ‘Oh God.’


BAKER: Yeah.


BAKER: The Syrian war has been raging for almost seven years by this point and has left the country devastated and divided with areas controlled by a number of different groups — not just ISIS or the army of President Assad. Navigating it all is delicate. 


We think Sam and the family are being held by a U.S. backed Kurdish militia, but there’s no formal procedure for gaining access to people they have detained who have been with ISIS — so it’s not going to be easy. 


Someone on the team had jokingly said before we left, ‘You’ve got about a 9% chance of finding them. But give it a go.’


The next day Mau and I are on a homemade boat — it looks like a shipping container that’s been cut in half, and then had a small engine hastily bolted onto the back. 


BAKER: God, that is a serious current...


BAKER: It feels like a real achievement that the thing floats, let alone that it’s successfully battling the Tigris River, which separates Iraq and Syria. After a trip of maybe only 50 meters, the driver revs the engine and slides the boat up a pebbly bank.


BAKER: Finally made it into Syria then. 


NAVEEN: Hello, good morning.


BAKER: There waiting for us is a local journalist, Naveen. 


BAKER: Naveen, so in terms of finding Sam?


NAVEEN: Now you want to talk? We have the whole way... 


BAKER: I know but I’m so excited to talk about it. 


NAVEEN: I will tell you what I got. 


BAKER: Naveen is taking us to the Syrian town of Al Hasakah — where we think Sam is being held. I’d sent her a picture of Matthew to show one of her contacts. 


NAVEEN: He said that, ‘Yeah I recognise him but he’s older.’


BAKER: Oh, really?


NAVEEN: He’s older now.


BAKER: So he looks older now.


NAVEEN: Yeah. And he told me that he was translating for his mother.


BAKER: Oh really? What — translating in Arabic?


NAVEEN: In Arabic to English. 


BAKER: This is really interesting. 


BAKER: She tells me Matthew has learnt Arabic and is translating for his mom. And that other foreigners have also been visiting Sam — not journalists though.


NAVEEN: Yeah they said that the foreigners came and met them.


BAKER: So maybe American intelligence?


NAVEEN: Maybe yeah.


BAKER: It makes sense that American intelligence might have been visiting Sam. She’s an American citizen, and the Kurdish militia she’s being detained by work closely with the U.S. military.  


NAVEEN: Hide the camera. 


BAKER: We pull up to a military base in Al Hasakah — Naveen warns me to keep our equipment out of sight.


BAKER: So this might be the compound where Sam was kept? 


NAVEEN: We’ll see.


BAKER: We drive round a roadblock and past coils of razor wire. 


BAKER: I’ve got a medkit, I’ve got a phone. Do you want to take one of the radios so we communicate with the drivers? 


BAKER: There are a couple of watch towers and a guy with a mustache and an AK47. He’s guarding the entrance. 


NAVEEN: Ok, right here.


BAKER: They don’t tend to have random foreigners turning up to see ISIS prisoners, but Naveen asks if we can see the person in charge. We’re told the base commander’s not here, but that we can wait inside.  


BAKER: It’s over there, isn’t it?


NAVEEN: Hello… 


BAKER: We’re shown into a room, where we end up spending a couple of hours chatting to a unit of all female fighters. At one point, someone comes to get me — I figure this is the moment that I’ll get to meet the commander. I’m shown down a hallway and then up some stairs, and into a corridor. In front of me is a wall of cages — it’s the commander's bird collection. 


[Birds chirping]


I’m taken back to the room and given copious amounts of sweet tea. Next, we have a long random chat about how great oil heaters are at keeping the cold away. And then… 


[Woman screaming]


A woman runs towards us terrified and screaming.


BAKER: What was that? Was that a monkey? 


BAKER: She’s just seen a monkey — and it's chasing her. The fighters burst out laughing and it helps break the ice. I take the opportunity to ask about Western prisoners, they admit there are some on the base. So I show them a picture of Sam and Matthew. Suddenly they stop smiling. They look at each other, then at me, one of them nods and they ask us to leave. 


As I’m walking back to the car, one of the women pulls me aside and whispers to me. Sam and the kids were here. 


BAKER: So basically, they were there and then they’ve been moved and one of the girls recognized them. 


NAVEEN: Yeah, yeah. Some of them saw Matthew. 




NAVEEN: They recognized him.




MAU: Oh man that’s frustrating. 


BAKER: But there we go. 


BAKER: We’ve just missed Sam and her children. They’ve been moved. And we don’t know where to. The next few days follow a similar pattern. More bases, more chatting, more tea… And more dead ends. We look everywhere we can — but with no luck. People either have no idea who Sam is or they don’t want to talk to us. 


But then we get close. Really close.


I walk into yet another base, this time Mau waits outside with the cars.


[radio bleep]


BAKER: Josh to Mau?


MAU: Yep


BAKER: I’m in an office with a man who has pictures of Sam and the kids on his phone. He’s trying to work out if they’re still here. But it’s possible that they may be with the Americans and we might’ve just missed them. But they also might be in town — we’re just trying to work it out. I’m going to be in here for a little bit longer.


[radio bleep] 


BAKER: The man explains that he’s just transferred Sam and the children to another unit about an hour and a half away. But it’s getting dark and we have a rule about not being on the roads at night. You see, it’s easier for groups like ISIS to move around after sunset. So we head back to our hotel.  


NAVEEN: So we finished? 


[Door knock]


BAKER: It’s quite late, we’ve actually just jumped out of bed. 


BAKER: It’s the middle of the night and Mau has just come to my room. 


BAKER: We’ve just had the phone go off. And they’ve just started messaging me right now.


BAKER: Through total luck, someone we know in England, has just got in touch. They’ve been talking to a friend of theirs — someone they say is a ‘powerful’ Syrian man, who’s heard about an English journalist — me — turning up to bases looking for an American — Sam. 


This powerful Syrian man wants to know what we’re up to because he might help us. 


BAKER: One of the things that this person is saying to us is that the American authorities are quite concerned about the safety of Sam and they’re certainly involved and they’re trying to block anyone seeing them — particularly us. But this person sort of holds the keys it looks like and has just messaged me as I’ve been speaking saying, ‘Can you send me your address?’ 


BAKER: This makes me nervous, I don’t know who I’m dealing with — meeting this man could be dangerous. We are in Syria, there’s a risk of kidnap, and up until now, people haven't really wanted us to meet Sam.


BAKER: But they seem to know an awful lot about Sam and Matthew, an awful lot about the American intelligence involvement in this case and where they are.


BAKER: We call Naveen and she talks to the man directly.


NAVEEN: He asked for the hotel.


BAKER: Don't give him the address of the hotel. We don’t know who this man is, it could be security problems. So we need to meet him somewhere that’s nearby, that’s safe and then maybe we can come to the hotel or go somewhere else with him but we need to meet him somewhere else first. 


NAVEEN: I told him that… 


BAKER: After a long back and forth, lasting hours, we agree to meet him the next morning at yet another military base. 


BAKER: We all set? … Now we wait.


BAKER: So to sum up, we’re parked round the corner from a military base none of us have heard of, waiting to meet someone we don’t know, to talk about a family that’s proving nearly impossible to find.


Then Naveen gets a call. 


NAVEEN: He’s asking where are we?


BAKER: We can be there in ten minutes tell him.


BAKER: We drive into the base, past blast walls and more razor wire and then we’re told to wait in our car. 


NAVEEN: He’s here.


BAKER: Eventually a man comes to get us. We follow him up some stairs, past one armed guard, then another, and another, and another. There’s one on every floor, in every corridor. I’m told this is the protection team for the man I’m meeting. 


Guards search me, I hand over my radio, knife, satellite phone, all my electronic items. And my electronic items. Then I am shown into a room and told to wait.


The powerful Syrian man walks in — I can’t tell you anything about who he is. But he shakes my hand, offers me tea and then grills me. Who am I? What am I doing? Why do I want to see Sam? And he warns me that if I lie to him — he’ll throw me in jail.


He tells me Kurdish intelligence has investigated Sam, and in his view, she’s ‘innocent, a good woman.’ Then he stares at me for a moment, hands me a pen and a piece of scrap paper and asks me to write down my name, and a message for Sam. 


Sam, he says, is in the next room. 



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