How Ukrainian woman disappeared into Islamic State and came back
Fatima Boyko, 69, carries a thick binder with her at all times.
Inside, there are letters from the Red Cross and Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, statements by the Security Service of Ukraine and blurred photos of children in tents, all accompanied by the most important item — the list of Ukrainians stuck in prison-like refugee camps in Syria, waiting to come home.
Nine Ukrainian women and 23 children are languishing in the al-Hawl and Roj refugee camps in northeastern Syria. The camps mostly house women who were married to the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), once the world’s deadliest terrorist group, along with their children.
Until recently, Boyko’s own niece Amina, who goes under this name for security reasons, was on the list. For four years, Amina and her children lived under ISIS rule, before finally fleeing to al-Hawl in 2019 and seeking repatriation.
Boyko, who coordinates Ukrainian families searching for relatives in Syria, did all she could to bring her niece back. With the help of the Ukrainian government, she succeeded. Amina’s family was safely returned to Ukraine on June 16, 2021.
But many continue to live in life-threatening conditions, pleading the Ukrainian government for help.
Here is how one Ukrainian woman and her children spent six years in ISIS and Syrian refugee camps before coming home.
Amina left Crimea for Turkey in 2014, months before the peninsula was occupied and illegally annexed by Russia.
She and her husband, both Crimean Tatars, were offered construction jobs in Turkey by friends. Boyko said Amina couldn’t find a job on the peninsula and had to find ways to financially support her four small children.
“There wasn’t even a hint that they would go to Syria,” said Boyko.
The couple first left Crimea without the kids. Months later, Amina returned to take them with her; the family was ready to settle down in Turkey, she said. At the time, she was pregnant with her fifth child.
“Amina came back gloomy, wearing only dark colors,” Boyko told the Kyiv Post. “And then, overnight, they just disappeared without saying goodbye.”
No one could get a hold of Amina or her husband for months. But then, Boyko started receiving text messages from international phone numbers.
“It’s me. I’m here. I’m in Syria,” one message read.
After Amina and her husband got to Turkey, he moved on to live in Syria. Amina had told a journalist from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that she eventually decided to follow him.
She never explained what her husband was doing there, only that she loved him and wanted to reunite. After she got to northern Syria, much of which was controlled by ISIS at the time, she realized she had made a mistake.
“We were lied to,” Amina texted Boyko. “We need to get out of here but we don’t know how to. We were trapped.”
Boyko advised them to look for the Red Cross, a humanitarian non-governmental organization that assists victims of war and violence. Amina said she hasn’t seen anyone from the Red Cross but would try to find a town that wasn’t under heavy airstrikes.
Soon, she dropped out of contact, only reaching out to her aunt once every 4–5 months.
“Once, I thought that they probably died,” Boyko said. “I’ve been following the news and had a clear understanding that there is a war in Syria.”
The Syrian civil war, which killed 400,000 and displaced millions, began in 2011 after the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad violently suppressed pro-democratic protests around the country.
Ever since, Syria has been torn apart by warring factions, including the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Assad’s state military, countless radical factions and Iranian, Russian and Turkish forces, proxies and mercenaries.
ISIS took advantage of the chaos to claim large parts of the country. Amina and her family ended up in ISIS-controlled territory, unable to leave.
At one point, Amina told Boyko that her husband tried to help her and the kids escape the country.
“You will be able to leave tomorrow,” Amina’s husband told her. But after that, he left home and never came back.
Later, Amina was told that he died.
Life in Caliphate
Amina and her children spent around four years living under the brutal rule of the terrorists who had seized large parts of Iraq and Syria. Their highest goal is the establishment of a global caliphate, an Islamic state with a Muslim leader, which they used to attract recruits from around the world.
“They go there to build a bright future, having watched videos of cities being destroyed and had been told that Muslims must help each other,” Boyko said. “It’s a one-way mousetrap”.
Every aspect of life under ISIS was governed by a strict interpretation of Sharia, the Islamic religious law.
All men and women were fed a constant stream of indoctrination. Disbelievers and people seen as violating any religious tenets were routinely tortured, crucified and executed, often by beheading. Executions or other physical punishments were often done in public — Amina’s small children have witnessed them many times.
Appearance is crucial — men must have beards, while women are required to fully cover their bodies, including their eyes. Listening to music is prohibited, along with smoking and drinking.
Under ISIS rule, men often work in construction or are trained to be fighters. Women are entirely dependent on their husbands and take care of the children and the household. They can’t leave the house unescorted, without a husband or a male relative.
“A woman just can’t live there alone,” Boyko said.
When Amina’s first husband was killed, she was placed into a commune for widows, where men aren’t allowed.
She remarried twice, first to a man from Azerbaijan and then to a Crimean Tatar, both of whom were killed. Both got Amina pregnant and she bore two more children.
Amina’s last husband was an ISIS militant, she told RFE/RL reporters.
“He was very cruel, he beat my children, I wanted to leave him. ‘I know why you are like that, because you are not with (ISIS). And I will take you to the Sharia court, your children will be taken away, and you will be executed.’ That’s what my husband told me,” Amina said.
“Years have passed with us rarely communicating,” Boyko told the Kyiv Post, realizing that she had to look for help among politicians, journalists, and defenders of human rights to rescue her niece.
She sent numerous letters to Refat Chubarov, the chairman of the Mejlis, the highest representative body of Crimean Tatars in Ukraine, and the Office of the President of Ukraine. She also sent emails to the Red Cross in Damascus, the capital of Syria.
Boyko wasn’t receiving any concrete answers from the government.
Meanwhile, her niece tried to escape the Islamic State.
Fleeing from ISIS, Amina and her children ended up in Baghuz — the last Syrian town that the terrorists controlled.
In 2019, the U.S.-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched an offensive into the town, finally driving ISIS out and regaining control over all territories that the Islamic State once held in the country. ISIS had also been pushed out of its conquered territory in Iraq.
Before the battle of Baghuz, the U.S. and its allies created a green corridor for refugees to escape. Amina and her children joined the thousands of people who ran from the town.
“They’d have to walk 10–15 kilometers a day not even knowing where to go,” Boyko recalled.
Trudging through villages, cities and deserts, Amina and other refugees went without food for days. They ate grass and drank water from puddles.
Some children died and were buried along the way. Amina’s family survived.
Eventually, the group stumbled onto the SDF. Hundreds of women surrendered, including Amina.
They were told that they would be taken to a refugee camp, where they could be safe and protected.
“We didn’t realize we would be trapped again,” Amina told Boyko after she and the kids arrived at al-Hawl — a refugee camp in northeastern Syria, controlled by the SDF.
The camp houses people who were displaced after the Islamic State lost all its territory. Most are wives of ISIS members, many of whom still claim allegiance to the caliphate.
Even though the camp was built for 11,000 people, at least 65,000 refugees, including over 25,000 children, now live in the area of less than four square kilometers that is al-Hawl.
The living conditions are dire — sanitation is poor; access to food,
water and healthcare is limited. Most people sleep on mats or the ground in tents and are not allowed to use phones or other means of communication.
The camp is encircled by soldiers and barbed wire, making escape impossible.
Violence is pervasive, as tensions run high between the guards and detainees, many of whom continue following ISIS ideology and try to impose it on others.
Trying to contain the mayhem, SDF enforces strict rules to prevent outbreaks of violence.
Under the burning Syrian sun, some repent and beg their home countries for evacuation. Others keep their loyalty to the Islamic State.
After Amina arrived at al-Hawl, Boyko created a Facebook group called “Children: Syria-Iraq,” in which she coordinated a community of Ukrainians whose relatives have disappeared in Syria.
“We have repeatedly appealed to the President of Ukraine, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Security Service of Ukraine, and the Commissioner for Human Rights to help our relatives and bring them home,” read the first statement published by the group last year in November.
“However, government agencies have long responded in the same way: ‘We are working on it’.”
Boyko, along with other group members, started appearing at press conferences and publishing statements. The cause began to receive media attention.
On the night of Dec. 31, 2020, two women and seven children were finally returned to Ukraine from Syria.
But Amina wasn’t among them. Despite a plan to repatriate 49 people, only nine were brought back. Ukrainian officials said that the situation in Syria continues to be “very difficult,” and they need more time.
At the beginning of their second year in al-Hawl, Amina and her children were suddenly moved to Roj, another refugee camp, some two kilometers away.
It is much smaller, housing fewer than 3,000 people, most of whom are also ISIS brides and their children. Though conditions in the camp are better, the rules are stricter. To prevent the spread of ISIS propaganda, anything black — the color of the group’s symbols — is prohibited.
Nevertheless, arbitrary raids and violence are widespread.
“We’d be tortured, beaten, stun gunned, and thrown into prisons for every misstep, with children being left alone in tents,” Amina told Boyko.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government continued working to repatriate all other Ukrainians from al-Hawl and Roj.
In mid-June, Amina and her seven children finally received the news — they were going home.
The family was transported to Erbil, a city in northern Iraq, where they were put on a special flight to Kyiv.
“It’s hard for her to remember all this… the deaths, the hunger,” Boyko told the Kyiv Post, asking reporters to have patience and respect Amina’s privacy.
After arrival, the family was placed in a hospital in Kyiv to go through checkups.
Doctors didn’t diagnose Amina or her children with anything that required hospitalization and they were moved into a resort, where they spent a little under two weeks.
She is now in Kherson Oblast in southern Ukraine, adjusting to her new life.
“Everyone makes mistakes and each one of us is looking for a beautiful life,” Amina told reporters. “I just made an unlucky choice.”