Scorned and state­less: the or­phan chil­dren of dead Isis fight­ers have nowhere to go

Herded into camps, un­wanted by the lands of their for­eign husbands and fa­thers, the fam­i­lies of ji­hadis killed in bat­tle are a grow­ing prob­lem, re­ports Martin Chulovulov in Raqqa

The Observer - - NEWS WORLD - Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by Na­dia al-Faour and Mo­hammed Ra­sool

In a cor­ner of a teem­ing refugee camp, 40 miles north of Raqqa, a small group of women and chil­dren are kept alone. They mill to­gether at the back of a blue build­ing; blond and brown haired chil­dren dart­ing in be­tween blan­kets that their moth­ers have hung as doors across small, dank rooms. Oth­ers in the Ain Issa camp call them “the Daeshis”, mean­ing Is­lamic State fam­i­lies. No one wants to know them.

The women are wi­d­ows of dead Isis fight­ers. All are for­eign­ers, with fu­tures more bleak than the 12,000 or so newly dis­placed of Syria and Iraq in the camp, or the many mil­lions more vic­tims of war and in­sur­gency now liv­ing in tents across the Mid­dle East.

They ar­rived with hordes that fled Raqqa from early May. Their faces, and those of their chil­dren, were dis­tinc­tive from the lo­cal peo­ple, who soon gave them up to the Kur­dish of­fi­cials who run the camp. Fam­i­lies of van­quished ji­hadis who were thought to be of in­tel­li­gence value were taken else­where. The bro­ken fam­i­lies left be­hind are deemed to be of much less use.

As Isis withers, the most vul­ner­a­ble among its ranks are be­com­ing ever more ex­posed. In north­ern Syria, where Kur­dish forces have pushed deep into Raqqa, and in Iraq, where its mil­i­tary, sup­ple­mented by state-backed Shia mili­tias, have now ousted the group from ev­ery ur­ban cen­tre, the women and chil­dren of the ter­ror group have nowhere to hide.

In­ter­na­tional aid agen­cies and gov­ern­ments are scram­bling to as­sess the num­bers of wi­d­ows and or­phans now thought to be at ex­treme risk, both within their so­ci­eties and at the hands of lo­cal of­fi­cials. “No one will deal with them, or even touch them,” said Ahmed al- Raqqawi, a 25-year- old anti- Isis fighter in the cen­tre of Raqqa. “When they were here, they used to think they were kings. Even the women.”

By some es­ti­mates as many as 5,000 women have given birth to chil­dren of for­eign­ers in the past four years in coun­tries that – even in nor­mal times – would of­fer lim­ited civic pro­tec­tions. Stig­ma­tised, trau­ma­tised and state­less, some fam­ily mem­bers are plead­ing with the coun­tries of their dead husbands’ birth to take them in. So far, the re­sponse has been largely muted, with Bri­tain, France, Aus­tralia and much of Europe ac­knowl­edg­ing that they are yet to de­cide on what to do about Isis chil­dren in par­tic­u­lar. “The women who chose to leave the UK and go there need to be re­spon­si­ble for what they did. They will not be com­ing home,” said a Bri­tish of­fi­cial. “The chil­dren, though, de­serve com­pas­sion.”

On Fri­day, France ap­peared to flag an advance in its po­si­tion, with the de­fence min­is­ter, Florence Parly, an­nounc­ing on French ra­dio that the chil­dren of its dead na­tion­als may be taken in, but not their moth­ers.

“Chil­dren who are in lo­cal cus­tody can, de­pend­ing on their par­ents’ pref­er­ence, ei­ther stay with them while their par­ents get tried lo­cally, or be repa­tri­ated to France, where they will be cared for by so­cial ser­vices. They are usu­ally very young, but they can have been rad­i­calised and need to be watched. The chal­lenge for us is to turn them into ci­ti­zens again,” said Parly.

Over the past three months, the United Na­tions has been lob­by­ing coun­tries whose na­tion­als had fa­thered chil­dren in Isis ter­ri­tory to come up with a so­lu­tion. “UNHCR is very con­cerned about the fate of the chil­dren and the risk of state­less­ness they face,” said Rula Amin, spokesper­son for the Mid­dle East and North Africa. “UNHCR has a man­date to sup­port gov­ern­ments to pre­vent state­less­ness and pro­tect state­less peo­ple.

“We, there­fore, strongly ad­vo­cate for the gov­ern­ments of the rel­e­vant coun­tries to reg­is­ter the births of these chil­dren and en­sure that they have a na­tion­al­ity. This is vi­tal to en­abling these in­no­cent, young vic­tims of war, who have al­ready en­dured and wit­nessed so much suf­fer­ing, to re­side legally in a coun­try with their fam­i­lies, grow up with a sense of iden­tity and be­long­ing to a so­ci­ety, go to school, ful­fil their po­ten­tial and have the hope of peace­ful and con­struc­tive fu­tures.”

In the Ain Issa camp, tents are re­served for fam­i­lies that have come from Isis ar­eas but don’t nec­es­sar­ily be­long to the or­gan­i­sa­tion. Some are rel­a­tives of lead­ing fig­ures. Some made their ac­com­mo­da­tions when Isis came to town three years ago, and oth­ers, like Abu Jassem from Fal­luja in Iraq, have an af­fil­i­a­tion that dates back a decade. Sur­rounded by deeply sus­pi­cious men, he said he had moved in the past three years from Fal­luja to Buka­mal on the Iraqi bor­der, then Deir Az­zour: “Ev­ery­where we go the airstrikes have fol­lowed us.”

The men said they knew noth­ing of the Isis wi­d­ows housed a few hun­dred yards away. One man wheeled out from be­hind the cur­tain a se­verely dis­abled 12-year-old girl, who could nei­ther move nor talk. She was born af­ter the sec­ond Fal­luja war. Ever since that bat­tle, the num­ber of birth de­fects in the city has been far higher than na­tional av­er­ages. No one has yet de­ter­mined why. “We have more to worry about than they do,” said Abu Suhail. “They chose their fate.”

Across the Iraqi bor­der, south of Mo­sul, which was re­cap­tured by Iraqi forces in July, Abdul Wa­hab al-Saadi, the deputy com­man­der of an anti-ter­ror­ism di­vi­sion, con­fessed to be­ing puz­zled. His forces are guard­ing some 1,800 women and chil­dren in derelict build­ings. Nearly all are for­eign­ers.

“There is lots of talk of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion – which in my per­sonal view is the hu­mane way to go about this,” he said. “Based on Iraqi law, you can­not hold rel­a­tives of a crim­i­nal ac­count­able for his ac­tions and pros­e­cute them. But this is what we’re do­ing. The thing is our com­mu­nity, Iraqi tra­di­tions and val­ues won’t al­low for the easy for­give­ness of these fam­i­lies. The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity must get in­volved, Iraqi civil so­ci­ety along with lo­cal au­thor­i­ties should work on more re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­grammes so that we can re­in­state these peo­ple back into our so­ci­ety.”

The lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties seem un­likely to do that. A flyer dis­trib­uted to Isis fam­i­lies read: “Your sons of Isis have mis­treated and harmed the good and peace­ful peo­ple of this town. You must leave, you have no place here and our pa­tience has worn thin. Do not be in the way of our bul­lets that are meant for your dis­graced sons. You have noth­ing but shame and dis­grace; our mar­tyrs eter­nity and glory.”

Sukainah Mo­hamad Younes has been asked by of­fi­cials in Mo­sul to find a so­lu­tion for the des­per­ate chil­dren in her area: “There are more than 1,500 Isis fam­i­lies of lo­cals di­vided be­tween camps Ha­mam Al Alil, Jadaa and Qay­yara. You have Syr­i­ans and Rus­sians and Chechens and other na­tion­al­i­ties. I’ve re­cently sent 13 chil­dren of Isis fight­ers to an or­phan­age.

“I’ve man­aged to send a few or­phans to school de­spite them be­ing state­less and with no iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cards; how­ever, some don’t even have shoes on their feet … These Isis kids are vic­tims.

“The lo­cals are sep­a­rated from the for­eign­ers. We do not know what will be­come of ei­ther the lo­cals or the for­eign­ers. There are no strate­gic plans. Re­cently four Chechen kids were picked up by a Chechen leader. A Rus­sian girl was picked up by a Rus­sian del­e­ga­tion. The lo­cals have it much harder, who is go­ing to take them in? … No one is will­ing to, and I can’t see them re­turn­ing to their home towns, they are not wel­comed there. But how is this a child’s fault? Let me tell you some­thing, if we do not take care of these kids – lo­cals or for­eign­ers – they will grow up to be worse than Isis.”

Lor­ries with Syria’s new­est refugees ar­rive each day in Ain Issa. In Raqqa a few strag­glers from Isis districts make their way to the Kur­dish side each week. “We don’t bother them, we send them to the se­cu­rity forces,” said Elyas, who leads a front­line team. “They stay with them for about a month, and then many of them are free.”

Not so the for­eign­ers holed up in the camp. On the wall of one room, a woman had writ­ten in Ara­bic: “Oh God, let it rain on my heart, so it can drown out all my sor­row.”

‘You can­not hold rel­a­tives of a crim­i­nal ac­count­able for his ac­tions, but this is what we are do­ing’ Abdul Wa­hab al-Saadi, Iraqi

Pho­to­graph by Eric de Cas­tro/Reuters

Refugees ar­rive at the Ain Issa camp that holds peo­ple flee­ing fight­ing be­tween Isis and the Kur­dish/Arab Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces.

Abu Jassem, left, fled from Fal­luja and now lives at the Ain Issa camp, north of Raqqa.

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