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'She sounded unrepentant': When I interviewed Shamima Begum

Sky News logo Sky News 18/02/2019 John Sparks, Sky correspondent in Syria
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Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

We had just about given up in the al-Hawl displacement camp in northeastern Syria.

It is not an easy place to get to but we had made the trip in the hope of speaking to the British teenager Shamima Begum.

She arrived at the camp two weeks ago after fleeing the village of Baghouz where IS is making its last stand.

a man standing in front of a building: Shamima Begum agreed to a interview with Sky News just hours after giving birth © Getty Shamima Begum agreed to a interview with Sky News just hours after giving birth

We spoke to the facility's manager and drank a cup of tea - and another one.

He said they were looking for her in the camp, which now houses 40,000 people, but they were having trouble finding her.

It was the work of The Times reporter Anthony Loyd that had brought us there.

The 19-year-old has given birth to a baby boy © Sky News Screen Grab The 19-year-old has given birth to a baby boy

In his interview with the 19-year-old, conducted last week, she had sounded largely unrepentant.

Life under IS had been "normal", she said. The sight of a severed head in a dustbin, "didn't faze me at all".

Critically, the teenager said she wanted to come back to Britain.

She was pregnant and wanted to bring up the child there.

a man in a dark room: Sky correspondent John Sparkes tracked Begum down to a hospital in Syria © Sky News Screen Grab Sky correspondent John Sparkes tracked Begum down to a hospital in Syria

Her comments generated a furious debate in the UK.

Some say Shamima Begum should be banned for treason - others argue she deserves a second chance.

Top politicians have also weighed in with Home Secretary Sajid Javid promising that he "will not hesitate" to keep people like the 19-year-old out of the country.

I had my own list of questions for her.

a man and a woman standing in front of a window: Shamima begum and her new baby in the refugee camp © Other Shamima begum and her new baby in the refugee camp

Was the former Bethnal Green schoolgirl aware of the national debate now centring on her future?

Would she choose a more apologetic approach when explaining her involvement in IS?

Most importantly perhaps, did she think she could be rehabilitated?

a man wearing a black hat: Shamima Begum says people should feel 'sympathy' towards her © Sky News Screen Grab Shamima Begum says people should feel 'sympathy' towards her

After three hours or so at the camp office I did not think I would get a chance to ask her those questions, but we heard a whisper from a camp worker that she might have been taken to a local hospital for treatment.

We walked over the place where the ambulances are parked and my colleague poked his head in a portacabin.

Shamima Begum was there, sitting on a table, a few hours after giving birth to a baby boy.

"Would you like do an interview?" asked my colleague.

"We are from Sky News."

"No way. Really?" came the response in an earthy London accent.

We spoke to the teenager for about 15 minutes and she answered my questions clearly and confidently.

FILE - This is a Monday Feb. 23, 2015 file handout image  of a three image combo of stills taken from CCTV issued by the Metropolitan Police  Kadiza Sultana,  left, Shamima Begum, centre and and  Amira Abase going through security at Gatwick airport, before they caught their flight to Turkey. A lawyer said one of three London schoolgirls who traveled to Islamic State-controlled area of Syria to become "jihadi brides" is believed to have been killed in an air strike. Tasnime Akunjee told the BBC Friday Aug. 12, 2016 that Kadiza Sultana's family had been told that she died in the IS stronghold of Raqqa several weeks ago. (Metropolitan Police via AP) © ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE - This is a Monday Feb. 23, 2015 file handout image of a three image combo of stills taken from CCTV issued by the Metropolitan Police Kadiza Sultana, left, Shamima Begum, centre and and Amira Abase going through security at Gatwick airport, before they caught their flight to Turkey. A lawyer said one of three London schoolgirls who traveled to Islamic State-controlled area of Syria to become "jihadi brides" is believed to have been killed in an air strike. Tasnime Akunjee told the BBC Friday Aug. 12, 2016 that Kadiza Sultana's family had been told that she died in the IS stronghold of Raqqa several weeks ago. (Metropolitan Police via AP)

For someone who had fled a war zone and just given birth, she struck me as stoic and composed - but she seemed utterly unaware of the implications of her decisions since leaving London in 2015.

In our interview she described life in IS like this: "It was nice. It was like how they showed it in the videos - come make a family together."

She also felt that people in Britain would welcome her back. She said: "A lot of people should have sympathy towards me for everything I've been through. I didn't know what I was getting into when I left and I was hoping that for the sake of me and my child, they could let me come back."

What struck me, more than anything perhaps, was her honesty.

I have interviewed former IS soldiers and family members on previous assignments and they tend to skate over their personal actions - and disown the organisation as a whole.

But Shamima Begum does not. She embraced life in IS. She was happy.

She says she married a wonderful man in IS (27-year old Dutchman called Yago Reidijk, now being held in a Kurdish prison).

For parliamentarians and ministers and the public-at-large, this poses a huge challenge.

Renu Begum, sister of teenage British girl Shamima Begum, holds a photo of her sister as she makes an appeal for her to return home at Scotland Yard, in London  February 22, 2015. Shamima Begum is one of three friends, two aged 15 and one 16, who left their east London homes on Tuesday and travelled to Gatwick airport where they caught a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul without telling their families. Police said they were working with Turkish authorities to try to find the girls and bring them home. REUTERS/Pool/Laura Lean (BRITAIN - Tags: CRIME LAW POLITICS SOCIETY) © Thomson Reuters Renu Begum, sister of teenage British girl Shamima Begum, holds a photo of her sister as she makes an appeal for her to return home at Scotland Yard, in London February 22, 2015. Shamima Begum is one of three friends, two aged 15 and one 16, who left their east London homes on Tuesday and travelled to Gatwick airport where they caught a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul without telling their families. Police said they were working with Turkish authorities to try to find the girls and bring them home. REUTERS/Pool/Laura Lean (BRITAIN - Tags: CRIME LAW POLITICS SOCIETY)

What are our obligations to Shamima Begum - a young woman and British citizen - who is not ready to apologise?

But if we do not take her, who will?

The Kurds in northern Syria are absolutely overwhelmed.

One this is certain. The rehabilitation of this 19-year-old will not be easy - something that she freely admits.

She said: "It would be really hard because of everything I've been through now.

"I'm still kind of in the mentality of planes over my head and (having) an emergency backpack.

"I think it would be a big shock to go back to the UK and start life again."

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