Wives and children of Isis: Unwanted back home, warehoused in Syria

Over 2,000 foreign women and children are being held in camps, trapped in a legal limbo

Sarah Ibrahim (31) walks through a secure camp for the families of Islamic State members, in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria, on June 23rd. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/The New York Times

Sarah Ibrahim (31) walks through a secure camp for the families of Islamic State members, in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria, on June 23rd. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/The New York Times

 

When her husband uprooted their family from Morocco to live under Islamic State in Syria, Sarah Ibrahim had little choice but to go along. After he disappeared – she believes he was killed in an air strike on a prison – she fled with her two sons.

They were captured last year and have been held ever since in this dusty, sweltering detention camp in northeastern Syria. They are among the more than 2,000 foreign women and children being held in such camps, trapped in a legal and political limbo with no foreseeable way out.

Their home countries do not want them back, fearing they could spread radical Islamist ideology. The Kurdish authorities that administer this stateless war zone do not want them either, and say it is not their job to indefinitely detain citizens of other countries.

“You told us to leave Isis and we left, but we are still considered Isis ,” said Ibrahim (31), her frustration dissolving into tears. “So who is responsible for us? Who will determine our fate?”

The caliphate of Islamic State, which once stretched across large swathes of Syria and Iraq, drew tens of thousands of partisans from around the world who came to fight or to live in what was billed as a pure Islamic society. Among them were many women, some who were brought by their husbands or fathers. Others came alone and married, or were forced to marry, after they arrived.

But as the caliphate collapsed under a military campaign by Kurdish militias backed by a US-led military coalition, many of the men were killed or captured. The wives and children who survived ended up in camps like this, unwanted by anyone.

“We are working responsibly, but the international community is trying to flee from its responsibilities,” said Abdul-Karim Omar, an official in the local administration charged with persuading governments to take their citizens back, an effort he acknowledges has not been very successful.

“This is a ball of fire that everyone is trying to get rid of and threw to us,” he said.

Swift trials

The absence of any plan to deal with the detainees is part of the wider disorder in the lands liberated from the jihadis. In Iraq, many of the women who once lived among them face swift trials and death sentences on charges of supporting Islamic State.

In Syria, they are effectively prisoners in dingy camps in an area under the control of no internationally recognised authority that might be able to press their home countries to take them back.

An Egyptian woman and two daughters in their tent, at Roj Camp for the families of Islamic State members in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/The New York Times
An Egyptian woman and two daughters in their tent, at Roj Camp for the families of Islamic State members in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/The New York Times

On a rare visit to the largest of these camps, known as Roj, Kurdish officials allowed us to interview Arab women held there but refused to let us interview or photograph western women for fear it would complicate negotiations with their governments about their return home.

But during a walk through the camp, we spoke informally with women from France, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and a number of Arab counties. Kurdish officials did not let us ask the western women their names. Some said their husbands had forced them to go to Syria. Others said the trip had been a mistake that their children were unjustly paying the price for.

Near a bank of latrines, three women – two French and one German – dragged their toddlers down a rocky lane in plastic crates on wheels. “Of course we made mistakes, but anyone can make a mistake,” said the German woman, a dark blue head scarf around her pale face.

She was 24, had come to Syria with her German husband and had three children, she said. Like many women in the camp, she acknowledged she had come voluntarily, but said that life under the jihadis had been worse than she expected and that once there it was impossible to flee.

“There was no way to go,” she said. “Either you go to prison or they would kill you.”

One of the Frenchwomen, a 28-year-old mother of three, called her Syria adventure an enormous mistake. “Don’t we deserve, what do you call it, redemption?” she asked.

Thorny issue

Foreign governments, including the United States, provide some aid to the local administration, but it is a pittance compared with what they spent on the military campaign. And the issue of detainees is particularly thorny, given the security risks of holding seasoned jihadis and the women and children who lived with them in a war zone.

The local administration has imprisoned more than 400 foreign fighters, said Omar, the local official, and the United States is helping finance their detention to prevent prison breaks. But the administration has received little help in dealing with the women and children who are now held in three camps.

It has established ad hoc courts to try Syrians for crimes committed under Islamic State, but it does not try foreigners. And the women and children in the camps have not been accused of crimes. The roughly 1,400 foreigners at Roj Camp are from about 40 countries, including Turkey, Tunisia, Russia and the United States, said Rasheed Omar, a camp supervisor.

Youths play on swings at Roj Camp for the families of Islamic State members in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/The New York Times
Youths play on swings at Roj Camp for the families of Islamic State members in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/The New York Times

The women are generally well behaved, he said, although it is hard to determine what roles they may have performed under the jihadis and how much of the ideology they still endorse.

“There are some of them who are still following the ideology, and there are some who came because they thought they were coming to heaven and found out it was hell,” he said.

Ibrahim, for instance, said she was horrified by the jihadis’ public executions, their dictates about women’s dress and their ban on listening to music, even in her own home.

The biggest concern, however, is the children, many of them toddlers, who did not choose to join the jihadis. There are more than 900 children at Roj Camp, many with health problems, who have been out of school for years and lack any kind of official citizenship.

Standing trial

Most of the Europeans want to go home, even if that means standing trial, but few of the Arabs do, fearing that they will be tortured or executed.

Nadim Houry, director of the terrorism and counterterrorism programme for Human Rights Watch, said the women and children were stuck in a “legal void”. While international law would require their countries to take them in if they made their way home, it does not oblige their governments to actively repatriate them.

Meanwhile, they were not awaiting trial for crimes they may have committed, nor were they free to leave. Houry dismissed as excuses the reasons governments have given for not taking their people back, such as a lack of consular facilities or security concerns, saying it was really a lack of political will. If the women were accused of crimes, they could be tried at home and imprisoned if needed, he said.

“Some of them may have committed crimes, but most of them were probably housewives, so you can’t just lump them together with people who committed beheadings,” he said. “What is troubling is that lots of them are children, and young children at that.”

Repatriations

So far, few countries have taken back their citizens. Russia repatriated about 35 women and children, and Indonesia took back a family of about 15 people, said Omar, the local official. He said he was talking to Canada and Denmark about their citizens, but no returns had been finalised. Many other countries just ignored his overtures.

Dua Mohammed (44) said she had come from Egypt to Syria with her husband, who had been attracted to the idea of Islamic State. “But what we saw there in reality was not what we expected,” she said. “What we lived there was not what we had come for.”

Last year, her family managed to flee and was detained by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led militia that is working with a US-led coalition to fight the jihadis. She ended up in the camp with her four children, ages 6 to 15, and her husband was thrown in prison, she said. She hasn’t heard from him since.

“We made a mistake, but everyone in the world makes mistakes,” she said. “How long can we pay the price for a mistake? For our whole lives?” – New York Times

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