April 20, 2019

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Stuck in a Syria Tent Camp, the Women and Children of ISIS Wait

Stuck in a Syria Tent Camp, the Women and Children of ISIS Wait
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AL HOL CAMP, Syria — She left the Netherlands to join the Islamic State in Syria, and married a fighter here. He was killed, so she married another, who got her pregnant before he was killed, too.

Then this month, as the Islamic State collapsed, she surrendered with her son to United States-backed forces battling the jihadists and landed in the sprawling Al Hol tent camp, which has swollen to the breaking point with the human remnants of the so-called caliphate.

“I just want to go back to a normal life,” said Jeanetta Yahani, 34, as her son Ahmed, 3, clung to her leg and shook with a violent cough.

The announcement a week ago that the Islamic State had lost its final patch of territory in Syria was a milestone in the battle against the world’s most fearsome terrorist network. But it also raised urgent questions about the tens of thousands of people who flocked to join the jihadists from around the world and now have nowhere else to go.

Untold numbers of the more than 12 million people who lived under the Islamic State’s control in Iraq and Syria were killed by the militants or in the battle against them. Camps holding some who survived dot Iraq, Libya and Syria, where the Kurdish-led administration in the country’s northeast runs three.

Along with tens of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis, the Syria camps hold 12,000 foreign women and children, according to Redur Xelil, a senior official with the Syrian Democratic Forces, the United States-backed militia that fought the jihadists. The force also holds more than 8,000 fighters, including 1,000 foreigners, in its prisons.

A handful of places, including France, Russia and Chechnya have taken back tiny numbers of their citizens, mostly women, children and orphans. But most home countries do not want the caliphate’s former residents back, so they are stuck here, in a stateless, unstable territory.

The local administration lacks the resources to deal with them and worries that the paucity of international support could help the Islamic State reconstitute itself.

“There is little support, little response,” said Mohammed Bashir, a camp administrator.

This week, local officials called for the creation of an international court to try foreign fighters, but the idea has garnered little international support and the Syrian government would probably block it.

While determining the exact backgrounds of the women and children in the camps is difficult since many lack identification and use fake names, they are generally considered less dangerous than the men. But some were also combatants. And some still endorse the extremists’ ideology, making local officials reluctant to let them leave.

Al Hol is the largest of the camps, a sprawling, isolated conglomeration of tents on rocky soil and surrounded by chain-link fencing and armed guards. It held about 9,000 people as of December, but as the Islamic State’s final territories fell, tens of thousands of people streamed out of those areas. Most were brought to Al Hol, swelling its population to more than 72,000 today.

As the population rose, camp workers scrambled to put up enough tents to house them, crowding families together to protect them from an unseasonably cold and rainy winter. But many young children have fallen ill and some have died. This week, camp residents revolted, shattering windows in the administration building before guards fired into the air to subdue them.

More than 9,000 of Al Hol’s residents are foreigners who are kept in a special section, to which The New York Times was granted rare access on Thursday.

Although defeated, women in the camp still follow the rules of the Islamic State, wearing black gowns and face veils with slits for their eyes. Their clothes were dirty, the hems and shoes caked with mud. Many toted toddlers with hacking coughs and runny noses. Other children sold cookies and soda their relatives had managed to bring in or stood in long lines for food, drinking water and gas for generators.

Like the destroyed caliphate, the camp is international. Groups of women chatted in English, Russian, French, Dutch and Chinese. Blond- and black-haired children played together in the mud.

“Are you from the Swedish Red Crescent?” a Swedish woman asked, trotting away after receiving a negative response.

“I am from a country that no one knows about, so I will never get out of here,” said a woman from the Seychelles.

Spotting strangers in the camp, Lisa Smith, a former member of the Irish Defense Forces, said hello but declined to be interviewed.

Some women still clung to the jihadists’ ideology.

A 22-year-old Chechen woman who identified herself only as Um Aisha described life in the caliphate as “all very good.”

“There were brothers who believed in Shariah, an Islamic state, and it was not like this,” she said, pointing disapprovingly at two female aid workers wearing pants.

The woman’s husband was killed in an airstrike on the Islamic State’s final pocket this month, she said, but she did not think the jihadists’ project was over.

“Our brothers are everywhere, in Germany, in Russia, in America — we believe that al-Dawla al-Islamia will come back,” she said, using the group’s Arabic name.

A German woman said she had come to Syria with her husband, a doctor. Now she had no idea where he was, and she was stuck in the camp with a baby in her arms and a curly-haired toddler gripping her leg.

But she did not want to return to Germany, considering it an infidel country.

“I don’t want to raise my kids in a society that’s totally corrupt, where every sin is promoted,” she said, declining to give her name.

It was better to tough it out in Syria, she said. “This is temporary. The afterlife is forever.”

Others expressed regrets.

Galion Su, from Trinidad, stood near the camp’s gate with her face uncovered, hoping to get out and look for her teenage son, who had been arrested by Kurdish forces in January.

Her husband brought them to Syria in 2014 and the couple divorced soon after, leaving her struggling to care for her son.

“I was like a whore in the Dawla,” said Ms. Su, 45. She had married four different men, she said, each on the condition that they let her keep her son.

When the jihadists tried to force him to fight, she dressed him as a woman and fled, but Kurdish forces arrested him when they discovered the ruse, she said. Now, she had no idea where he is.

“I just want to be normal and go back to a normal society, sleep in a nice bed, eat nice food, watch TV and laugh,” she said.

Children make up about two-thirds of Al Hol’s residents. Some are orphans. Many described in detail and with little emotion how their fathers had been killed. All had witnessed violence, and some had been taught to practice it.

Camp officials say they are too busy scrambling to provide tents and food to offer schooling or other activities, much less to deal with people’s psychological problems or to re-educate children trained by the jihadists. The challenge is intensified because some parents still endorse the jihadists’ ideology.

“The mentality is the same. Nothing has changed,” said Mr. Bashir, the camp administrator. “The children are innocent, but when they end up in the camp, they will learn what their parents teach.”

As the sun set after a rare sunny day over the camp’s white tents and muddy, trash-strewn lanes, a group of Turkish boys played a rowdy game of soccer while children from Iraq, Egypt, Russia and elsewhere pelted one another with fistfuls of gravel.

Standing atop a latrine, an Iraqi boy with a toy rifle shouted, “The Islamic State has invaded!” Training his sight on another child, he threatened, “I’m a sniper. I’ll shoot you in the head right away.”

Nearby, two toddlers got into a fight and fell to the ground punching each other while a 10-year-old boy who was missing his right leg looked on. He declined to give his name or say where he was from, and responded to questions with short answers.

How did you lose your leg?

“A plane. Shrapnel.”

What do you want to do now?

“Get a tent and stay in it. Or maybe a house.”

Where?

“I don’t know.”



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