Heather Saul, The Independent
A father who says he risked his own life to rescue his son from militants in Syria has been returning to the region in a bid to help other families track down European youngsters.
Former Belgian soldier Dimitri Bontinck claims he undertook a dangerous ten-month journey to find his teenage son Jejoen Bontinck in Syria.
The 19-year-old was a talented breakdancer who appeared in a music video before his political and religious views became increasingly radical after he converted from Catholicism to Islam, his father told Sky News.
Mr Bontinck says he expressed fears his son was becoming radicalised to police and Belgium agencies, who he claims failed to act.
Jejoen then allegedly travelled to join fighters in Syria. Mr Bontinck claims Belgian authorities told him they would not be able to assist in the search for his son, leading him to travel to the region three times to try and find him.
This perilous journey saw Mr Bontinck come into contact with both local people and militants – who at one point allegedly held him captive over suspicions he was spying.
The war veteran told Sky: “They put a cap over my head and handcuffed me. They were beating me on the head and I was thinking: ‘Is it all worth it?'”
Mr Bontinck says he was reunited with his son on his third trip to Syria in 2013, who is now back in Antwerp and facing trial for alleged membership of a banned organisation.
Jejoen denied being a member of a banned organisation in 2013, telling the BBC he was working to deliver medical supplies and help the injured.
Mr Bontinck blasted the Belgian government’s “wrong attitude and stigmatisation” in its decision to prosecute his son, claiming it is creating “more violence against the West”.
He says he now feels obligated to help other parents track down their children.
“I have no other choice than to help those going through the same kind of trauma and nightmare I experienced,” he said.
“I thought I would never return to Syria, but when mothers are calling me and crying on the phone because nobody’s helping them … when they ask to meet me, I’m not going to say no.
“It’s so sad that parents like me and so many thousands of parents worldwide are standing alone, that nobody’s helping them. It’s disgusting really, it’s selfish.”
Mr Bontinck has completed eight journeys to Syria and says he plans to return again in the coming weeks.