Podcast News·Q&A

'Bloodlines' podcast brings stories of Syria's forgotten children to the world

Journalists Poonam Taneja and Jewan Abdi reflect on the making of new podcast Bloodlines, which chronicles their trip to Syria investigating the disappearance of a young child — and the thousands of children like him.

Poonam Taneja and Jewan Abdi speak about the perilous process behind their new investigative podcast

A composite showing the Bloodlines podcast art on the left and a candid shot of Poonam Taneja & Jewan Abdi in the field (Syria) recording the podcast
Poonam Taneja and Jewan Abdi travelled to northeast Syria to investigate a missing child who was lost during the war against ISIS. (Podcast artwork by Chloe Cushman; Image submitted by Jewan Abdi)

What began as an investigation into a missing boy in Syria quickly became something much bigger for journalists Poonam Taneja and Jewan Abdi.

The BBC reporters travelled to northeast Syria in 2022 to search for Salmaan, a young boy who went missing four years prior during the bombardment in the war against ISIS. 

During their investigation, Taneja and Abdi met a woman in a prison camp who claimed to have known Salmaan and his mother, offering insight on where to continue their search. The journalists soon learned that this woman (called DA in the podcast before her real name, Dure Ahmed, was made public) was hiding a big piece of her identity from them. Ahmed is the ex-wife of notorious ISIS fighter El Shafee Elsheikh, who was part of a group known as 'The IS Beatles' — responsible for the death of American journalist James Foley and other hostages.

What became of this revelatory trip is the podcast series Bloodlines, which delves into the harrowing aftermath of ISIS's defeat and the fate of thousands of children, like Salmaan, who have roots in countries around the world but are stuck in Syrian prison camps without a way home.

In this exclusive Q&A, Taneja and Abdi talk about the experiences and challenges of bringing Bloodlines to life.

How does it feel to have this story finally out in the world? 

Poonam Taneja: I would describe it as a bittersweet moment. Producing this is a tremendous  honour and I'm so grateful to CBC Podcasts, BBC Sounds and the BBC Asian Network who commissioned Bloodlines. Together we have exposed the suffering of thousands of children languishing in desert camps and detention centres in northeast Syria. As a journalistic endeavor, I've worked on this day and night for almost five years and it's taken me around the world and into some strange situations and so it's wonderful to be able to share this body of work with the world. On the flip side, knowing that some of the children we spoke to for this podcast remain in northeast Syria, in conditions no child should have to endure... is tough.

Also a massive shout out to the super-talented CBC Bloodlines team: senior story editor Daemon Fairless, contributing producer Michelle Shephard and the dynamic duo, producer Ilina Ghosh and sound designer Julia Wittmann, who in my humble opinion are peerless in their fields — truly a privilege to work with them.

Jewan Abdi: I do believe the greatest victims of the entire war of IS were and are the children. Baby Salmaan is one of thousands of children who lack access to education, healthcare, proper childhood, and who are atrisk of being radicalized… I feel beatitude mixed with sorrow for the children who are alive but in those camps. But such an enormous work and project being out there on two of the world's largest media platforms, brings considerable hope…

An image of Al Hol prison camp in Syria; women and small children are seen walking about against a background lined with tents and beige sand.
Al Hol is a prison camp in Syria, one of the camps Taneja and Abdi visited in their search for Salmaan. It's a sprawling tent city, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed soldiers. (BBC)

The global spotlight is on conflict in the middle east right now, especially as it relates to the wellbeing of children (which is a central theme in Bloodlines). How has it felt to release the series in this context?

PT:  Releasing it at this time, in this context, is another stark, poignant reminder that in any war against a brutal regime or group, children are so often the innocent victims caught in the crossfire and suffer the most. There's one Bloodlines episode, The Forgotten Children, which enunciates this ever so powerfully. It's rare to hear from children, of all ages, in these camps and detention centres. All these children have lived through unimaginable horrors, yet all spoke with courage and dignity. Meeting them, speaking to them, bearing witness to their plight, has, at times, been heartbreaking. To this day, I receive messages from some of them through their mothers. The most extraordinary part is they never speak about their own troubles or worries. In fact, one kid, on hearing that I had a cold, recorded me a voice note: "How are you homie? Heard you're sick — get well soon."

As you say in the podcast, you've covered ISIS for many years — including Salmaan's story. How did making the Bloodlines podcast differ in terms of investigating and telling that story?

PT: My day job is an investigative reporter for BBC News and I work across radio, TV and online. The biggest difference in making the Bloodlines podcast is having the luxury of time to tell this complex story with nuance. Much of the series is based in northeast Syria during quite a tumultuous, unpredictable time and I love that listeners get to share and even re-live those experiences, as they unfold, with us, in an authentic and immersive way. Many of the "characters" in this series  are complicated and it's wonderful to have the opportunity to present them as such.

JA: The work on Bloodlines did require some intense investigations in a very short time, it was not easy. I have covered almost every single battle against IS in both Syria and Iraq, actually I lived in Iraq during the war. It was another sad story to tell for me, but the space we had for information, facts and investigations to tell in this podcast was great. It was not a short news piece in which delivering the whole details of the story is nearly impossible. Bloodlines gave us the chance to tell the story of baby Salmaan properly.

A headshot of Poonam Taneja, against a backdrop of a Syria landscape and a golden sunset.
Poonam Taneja is an investigative journalist with BBC News in London, specializing in race, security, human rights and global affairs. (Submitted by Poonam Taneja)

In Episode 2 we learn that the area you're meant to be visiting in Syria is being actively bombed. How did you manage the emotional and logistical challenges of working under this type of threat? How did this experience shape your storytelling?

PT: I call it going into "reporter mode": a state of mind where my complete focus is on the story, the job at hand. Emotionally, the situation becomes normalised incredibly quickly, where as a team we're constantly assessing the threats and working around risks. In terms of storytelling, the priority is for those challenges to be reflected while not allowing them to overshadow the story we are there to tell. To that end, there are some moments which are not included in the series. For example, the day before we traveled to Baghuz (in Episode 5: The Crater) I was awoken by an explosion, an attack 100 metres from our hotel. Three people were killed. Any loss of life is a terrible tragedy but the reality on the ground is that you have no choice but to move on and quickly. Emotionally, your team is key, not only on the ground but back at base.  We had a Bloodlines group chat with our wonderful CBC Podcasts team; so good to have that support.

JA: If I'm totally honest, it was another trip home. I'm originally from Rojava, Syria and I have covered the region for more than a decade now. It's never been easy. The day I arrived, Turkish jets and drones started to bomb a few kilometres near where I was staying. That day they killed nine people. All meetings have been cancelled, Turkey is bombing, it is very stressful, very intense, and we have to make quick decisions. But the real risk is still to come, the journey to Baghuz, eight hours each way, in an area which is very active with IS fighters.

I always tried to not show that nervousness, stress, being worried about an IS attack to the other members of the team, to keep the spirits high a bit… I know that area very well, and I know how dangerous it could be.

Can you describe the moment you first heard the tip about DA's secret? How do you decide the best path forward in situations like that?

PT: Incredulity at first! Unpacking a rumour like that in a conflict zone with ropey internet is tricky. In many ways it's a straightforward journalistic path, start with what you know and follow through with what you need to know. Jewan and I tapped into our extensive global network of contacts and sources for information in addition to scanning through open source material. Jewan obtained some confidential documents and other sources confirmed that this was more than a rumour! At the time, we needed to be confident enough to be able to confront DA directly about our suspicions. The biggest problem for us was time — we had to do this in 24 hours.  

JA: Oh lord, this was a golden tip. I met the IS Beatles two times and interviewed them, I followed their story very closely, and for me the first thing I thought about was, I need to confirm this now. I spoke to some exclusive contracts with the Kurdush intelligence, I spoke to a friend who was an IS prisoner and held in a prison controlled by DA's ex-husband, talked to some other contacts and sources and I got the confirmation who exactly she is and I ran to Poonam's room, I think it was late at night too… and told her about it. What a moment. 

An image of Jewan Abdi wearing glasses, smiling at the camera.
Jewan Abdi is a double Emmy-winning investigative producer with BBC News who specializes in Middle East affairs. He has covered the rise and fall of ISIS across the globe. (Submitted by Jewan Abdi)

Your friendship with each other and teamwork feels like a key part of this podcast. What's the importance of a host-producer relationship while doing such high stakes journalism?

PT:  It's everything! I truly believe the host-producer relationship is the key to the success of any journalistic endeavour or production. It's got to be a strong partnership. I trust Jewan, we complement each other without competing with each other (rivalry within a team/partnership is a totally toxic dynamic and never ends well). Jewan is always straight and direct with me, so no mind games — what you see is what you get.  Also, we manage to have some light-hearted moments and plenty of banter. In a place like Syria, that keeps you going.  

JA: Oh Poonam, I think some Canadian colleagues called us a husband and a wife relationship (haha). I have worked on many investigative stories and news, with many reporters and correspondents, especially in the Middle East. When I met Poonam for the first time, I was so impressed by her knowledge of the region, her experience, her personality and the way she tells the stories… it is an endless list! I knew Poonam was a journalist I would love to work with, and enjoy the work too. I think Poonam put it together just perfectly.

Finally — what do you hope listeners will take away from this series?

PT: I suspect most people are not aware of these children and the conditions they live in. I hope it shines a light on their plight. They are the innocent victims of war, yet are paying a terrible price for their parents' decisions.

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