ISIS women im­pose bru­tal rule in Syria

The Prince George Citizen - - News - Louisa LOVELUCK and Souad MEKHENNET

The woman told aid workers it was an ac­ci­dent. Her 14-year-old daugh­ter had slipped and fallen, she said. There was noth­ing they could have done.

But the body told a dif­fer­ent story. The girl’s neck had been bro­ken in three places, doc­tors said, and she died with eyes open, bit­ing her lips and strug­gling to breathe. Pho­tos and med­i­cal records sug­gested she had been beaten about the torso, then stran­gled. It was mur­der, not a mis­step.

The teen, an Azer­bai­jani girl who had lived un­til ear­lier this year with her mother un­der the Is­lamic State’s caliphate, had run afoul of the die-hard ISIS ad­her­ents who have come in the past few months to dom­i­nate parts of the al-Hol dis­place­ment camp here in north­east­ern Syria, ac­cord­ing to camp residents. They said she had sug­gested dis­pens­ing with her black niqab, the face cov­er­ing worn by ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive Mus­lim women.

Half a year af­ter the ter­ri­to­rial de­feat of the Is­lamic State, the vast sprawl of tents at the al-Hol camp is be­com­ing a caul­dron of rad­i­cal­iza­tion. About 20,000 women and 50,000 chil­dren who had lived un­der the caliphate are held in dire con­di­tions at the camp, which is op­er­ated and guarded by 400 U.S.-sup­ported Kur­dish troops. With the men of ISIS im­pris­oned else­where, the women in­side the fences of al-Hol are reim­pos­ing the mil­i­tant group’s stric­tures, en­forc­ing them upon those deemed im­pi­ous with beat­ings and other bru­tal­ity, and ex­tend­ing what residents and camp au­thor­i­ties call a reign of fear.

Sev­eral guards have been stabbed by women who con­ceal kitchen knives in the folds of their robes. Women are threat­ened for be­ing in con­tact with lawyers who might get them out of the camp or for speak­ing with other out­siders. A preg­nant In­done­sian woman was mur­dered, med­i­cal of­fi­cials say, ap­par­ently af­ter speak­ing to a west­ern me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tion. Im­ages of her body sug­gest she might have been whipped.

“It’s hap­pen­ing at night, and it’s hap­pen­ing in the shad­ows, but no one in­forms on who did it,” said a se­nior mem­ber of the camp’s in­tel­li­gence de­part­ment. “They’re afraid of each other here.”

Four­teen peo­ple with di­rect knowl­edge of camp con­di­tions de­scribed in in­ter­views the mount­ing anger, vi­o­lence and fa­nati­cism grow­ing amid the squalor. These peo­ple, in­clud­ing camp residents, aid workers and Kur­dish of­fi­cials, spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of se­cu­rity con­cerns.

Kur­dish se­cu­rity of­fi­cials, af­fil­i­ated withe U.S.-al­lied Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, say they have the troops to guard the fa­cil­ity but do lit­tle else. “We can con­tain the women, but we can’t con­trol their ide­ol­ogy,” said the in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial. “There are many types of peo­ple here, but some of them were princesses among ISIS. There are spa­ces in­side the camp that are like an academy for them now.”

In a re­port last month, the U.S. De­fense De­part­ment’s in­spec­tor gen­eral, cit­ing in­for­ma­tion from the U.S.-led coali­tion fight­ing ISIS, warned that the SDF’s in­abil­ity to pro­vide more than ‘min­i­mal se­cu­rity’ at the camp has al­lowed for the ‘un­con­tested’ spread of ISIS ide­ol­ogy there.

In some places, chil­dren, in­clud­ing an es­ti­mated 20,000 born in the caliphate, are lit­er­ally a cap­tive au­di­ence.

Near one gate of the camp, guards have col­lected home­made toy guns and Is­lamic State para­pher­na­lia that chil­dren have made to pass the time. Replica weapons are made from wa­ter pipes and bound tightly with duct tape. Flags have been colored in painstak­ing de­tail, the hand neat but un­mis­tak­ably child­ish.

“The chil­dren need help here, you can see it,” said the in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial, fix­ing the pile with a tired stare. “How do we stop them be­com­ing their par­ents?”

Con­di­tions are des­per­ate in the camp, erected on a bar­ren hill­side. Sewage has leaked into tents, and residents are drinking wa­ter from tanks containing worms. Many women have yet to learn what happened to hus­bands or teenage sons when they were carted off by the SDF that de­feated the caliphate and now mans var­i­ous camps and pris­ons.

Since the start of the year, when the camp ac­com­mo­dated fewer than 10,000 peo­ple, al-Hol has swelled dra­mat­i­cally. Many of the women and chil­dren were trans­ferred to the camp af­ter the last ISIS strong­hold in the Syr­ian vil­lage of Baghouz was over­run by the SDF, with U.S. mil­i­tary back­ing.

The residents are now seg­re­gated by na­tion­al­ity. Most sec­tions house Syr­i­ans and Iraqis, while more than 9,000 oth­ers - among them the camp’s most rad­i­cal in­hab­i­tants - are penned be­hind chain-linked fences in a sun­bleached and closely guarded patch known as the “An­nexe.” It is home to Arabs, Asians, Africans and Euro­peans, among oth­ers.

The guards en­ter this zone war­ily. An am­bush late last month left one with bro­ken bones.

“They can do any­thing to you here,” said one Eu­ro­pean woman in her 20s, her blue eyes dart­ing around the camp as she spoke.

Three camp residents said that they had been stopped by women who first cor­rected their at­tire and then threat­ened that re­peat be­hav­iour would be pun­ished.

The rel­a­tive of a Eu­ro­pean woman con­fined in the An­nexe with three chil­dren de­scribed her as more fear­ful than ever be­fore. The woman had changed tents sev­eral times af­ter a group of Tu­nisian and In­done­sian women be­gan threat­en­ing her upon learn­ing that the fam­ily’s lawyer was try­ing to bring her home, ac­cord­ing to the rel­a­tive.

“They threaten other women who ei­ther gave in­ter­views and de­clared they were no longer sup­port­ing ISIS, or who are try­ing to re­turn to their coun­tries,” the rel­a­tive said.

In the nearby city of Has­sakeh, two doc­tors said that patients from the camp were re­fus­ing to come for fol­low-up ap­point­ments in fa­cil­i­ties run by Kur­dish au­thor­i­ties or in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions. “They tell us ‘we can­not come,’ “said one. “They say, ‘If we come to you, [hard-lin­ers] beat us, or worse.’ “

Nor is this grow­ing men­ace con­fined to al-Hol. Aid workers from the smaller al-Roj camp, an hour’s drive away, de­scribe fre­quent dis­putes be­tween Iraqi and other for­eign residents. In one in­stance, an Iraqi woman was barred from com­mu­ni­cat­ing with her neigh­bours af­ter she re­moved her veil. In an­other, the chil­dren of al­leged Is­lamic State fighters tried to bury a young Iraqi boy alive.

As con­di­tions de­te­ri­o­rate, the in­hab­i­tants re­main in limbo. Some of the women want to re­turn to their home coun­tries, but few for­eign gov­ern­ments are ea­ger to take them back, fear­ing in part the risk that un­re­pen­tant ISIS ad­her­ents might pose and that the ev­i­dence against them might not hold up in court. The SDF says it can­not be counted on to hold the camp residents in­def­i­nitely. But nei­ther the United States – which ul­ti­mately holds sway in this cor­ner of Syria – nor Eu­ro­pean and Arab al­lies have ad­vanced a work­able so­lu­tion.

“Given that ISIS had women’s units and also taught them how they should still spread the idea and ideals of the caliphate once they are back in their coun­tries of ori­gins, they are a se­ri­ous risk to the so­ci­ety, so their chil­dren could be also,” said an Arab in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial.

Iraq has yet to repa­tri­ate tens of thou­sands of its cit­i­zens, and other gov­ern­ments are evac­u­at­ing their na­tion­als at a trickle.

Eight Amer­i­can cit­i­zens were repa­tri­ated from the camp to the United States in June. Pres­i­dent Trump has urged Eu­ro­pean coun­tries to “take back” and pros­e­cute their cit­i­zens.

One Eu­ro­pean in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial said the ap­proach had to be “prag­matic” and “case by case,” adding, “We will have to study: Who was this woman mar­ried to? What role did [she] play in­side ISIS? Is [she] re­ally ready to give up the ide­ol­ogy?”

But aid agen­cies in­sist that the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity does not have the lux­ury of time and cite the dan­gers that al-Hol now poses to the chil­dren trapped in­side it.

Aid workers from Save the Chil­dren, one of the largest or­ga­ni­za­tions work­ing with chil­dren in the camps of north­east­ern Syria, say they of­ten show signs of deep trauma.

Boys, in par­tic­u­lar, can be ag­gres­sive.

Girls have faced early mar­riage or sex­ual vi­o­lence.

“The chil­dren who have been trau­ma­tized by liv­ing through all of this need a lot more than we can re­ally of­fer in a camp,” said So­nia Khush, the Syria coun­try di­rec­tor for Save the Chil­dren.

“It’s not only the miss­ing out of school, it’s the vi­o­lence that women and chil­dren were ex­posed to. Peo­ple talk about see­ing the be­head­ings in the town square, see­ing the heads roll around,” she said.

Some of the women in­ter­viewed said they are no longer true be­liev­ers, and some said they never were but had been co­erced by rad­i­cal­ized hus­bands to go to the Is­lamic State.

Oth­ers, how­ever, said they re­mained proud to have joined a group that tries to foster what it de­scribes as an Is­lamic par­adise.

In a video posted on­line in July, sev­eral women, fully veiled and hold­ing the Is­lamic State’s blackand-white ban­ner, said they were de­liv­er­ing a mes­sage from al-Hol. “Broth­ers,” one urges, “light the fire of ji­had and free us from these pris­ons.’

And then, ad­dress­ing the “en­e­mies of God,” she says, “To you we say, women of the mu­jahideen: You think you have us im­pris­oned in your rot­ten camp. But we are a tick­ing bomb. Just you wait and see.”


Above, a woman walks through the al-Hol camp in north­east Syria. Right, a mem­ber of the Kur­dish se­cu­rity forces runs to­ward a group of women who forced open a gate dur­ing a brief dust storm at the for­eign­ers’ sec­tion of the al-Hol camp. Bot­tom right, women and chil­dren stand by the gate.

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