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A father in Florida is frantically trying to find his small children in Syria. His wife abducted them years ago and took them to Syria when she joined the Islamic State. The kids are now thought to be in the last ISIS stronghold, and it's under attack from U.S.-backed forces. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports.
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RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Artillery strikes hit Baghouz, the last ISIS enclave in Syria. Videos posted online overnight show the relentless explosions on this small piece of land just a few hundred yards wide. Bashirul Shikder, an American father, has been up all night tracking this from his home in Florida in horror. He believes his children are trapped inside. He sent me this message.
BASHIRUL SHIKDER: I got news from reporter who is in front line now that they started attacking the place again. And I'm just letting you know these kids are my life. They are my life. I need help.
SHERLOCK: Shikder has been trying to get help for the safe return of his children to the U.S. for over four years. In late March 2015, his wife kidnapped their children, Yusuf, then aged 5, and Zahra, who was just over a year old. She took them to Syria, where she went to join ISIS. He'd left them with her while on a visit to Mecca and remembers kissing them goodbye.
SHIKDER: And that was the day I was - last time I was kissing my Yusuf and Zahra - hugging them, picking them. And that was the last.
SHERLOCK: After years of fruitless appeals to the FBI and other government officials to help and efforts to coax his wife to bring the children home, he learned last month that she'd been killed in an explosion and his children injured with burns to their faces.
We met Shikder in Iraq, where he came to ask officials to help find his children, who, along with a new half-sister just 2 years old, he feared were alone somewhere in Syria. But with no new information, Shikder was forced to return to Florida without his family. Then, days later, he heard news that sickened him.
SHIKDER: I received information that my children, Yusuf and Zahra, are on hold with ISIS family in Baghouz.
SHERLOCK: The children are being held in the ISIS enclave by a woman who doesn't want to leave, the source said. Other sources also told him and NPR the same. This woman has gathered several orphans and won't let them go. He found himself recording an appeal for the release of his children.
SHIKDER: I'm dying to see them, hug them. And it has been many years. Actually, today, my contact with you, in a very inevitable situation - that my heart prayer will go with you if you just help them, these innocent children, to be saved from there.
SHERLOCK: As U.S.-backed forces stepped up attacks on the area, he called again for help from U.S. officials. But while they say they're tracking his case, they say they need confirmation of the children's presence before they can take action, like stopping the offensive. Shikder says if they know there's a chance his children - all U.S. citizens - are there, that should be enough. Meanwhile, he's desperate. After so many years of searching, he thinks he finally knows where his children are and that they could be killed at any moment. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.
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