TORONTO – If Tina Martino couldn’t receive a call from her son this mother’s day, word that his body was finally being returned home for a proper burial was the next best thing.
Martino learned on Sunday that the remains of Nazzareno Tassone, 24, had finally been recovered at a site in the northern Syrian city where he died secretly fighting against Islamic State militants last year.
Martino said news that his body would soon be headed back to her home in Niagara Falls, Ont., felt like a respite after five months of emotional turmoil.
“I don’t know if it’s the proper words or not, but it’s a relief,” Martino said.
“I’m at ease in knowing that he’s coming home.”
Tassone was killed on Dec. 21 in the city of Raqqa while fighting militants associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIS or ISIL.
Months before, Tassone had told his family that he was going to Iraq to teach English, but he secretly slipped into Syria to join forces with a U.S.-backed Kurdish group known as the YPG.
Martino and her three other children learned of Tassone’s death on Jan. 3 when they received a letter from the YPG, which said that his body had been seized by ISIL fighters.
The Toronto-based Kurdish Community Centre stepped in to act as a liaison between the YPG and Tassone’s family and offered assurances that the group was working to recover the bodies of those who died in the December skirmish that killed Tassone.
In February, the group succeeded in retrieving the body of a British volunteer who was fighting alongside Tassone when he died, prompting questions from Martino as to why her son could not be found.
That changed on the weekend when ISIL fighters abandoned the site where his body was being kept, according to community centre co-president Isahn Kaya.
“I don’t have more details, but ISIS … ran away,” leaving Tassone’s body behind, he said.
Fighting in and around Raqqa has escalated in recent days as forces target the city widely viewed as the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria.
VIDEO: Ontario-born man killed while fighting ISIS in Syria
YPG officials were able to retrieve the body and are now preparing to send it home, he said.
The news was bittersweet for Martino, she said, noting the coincidence of receiving the word on Mother’s Day.
“It was really hard. The heaviness in my chest came back. The emotion of Jan. 3 was sitting in my lap one more time,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that it was actually true.”
Global Affairs Canada could not say if it would be involved in efforts to repatriate Tassone.
“Due to the unpredictable security situation, the Government of Canada’s ability to provide consular assistance in all parts of Iraq and Syria is severely limited,” spokeswoman Kristine Racicot said in an email. “That being said, we are doing our best to assist the family through this difficult time.”
Martino said she had delayed organizing a funeral for her son in hopes of being able to hold a proper burial for him. As the recovery effort languished, she said she finally acquiesced to the family’s request for closure and had planned a memorial service to take place this weekend.
But now that his body is set to be flown home in the next two to three weeks, she said, funeral plans are back on.
His burial will hopefully close a painful chapter in her life, she said.
“The 48 hours that people have to bury somebody, I’ve had five months,” she said. “It’s just been an emotional roller-coaster of questions on ‘how? what? Where? Who do you talk to? What do you do?”‘
Martino said YPG members plan to hold their own service for Tassone before releasing his body, adding they view him as a hero and have been sending regular condolences and support to his family in Canada.