When her husband uprooted their family from Morocco to live under the Islamic State in Syria, Sarah Ibrahim had little choice but to go along. After he disappeared — she believes he was killed in an airstrike 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, The New York Times reports.
“You told us to leave ISIS and we left, but we are still considered ISIS,” said Ms. Ibrahim, 31, her frustration dissolving into tears. “So who is responsible for us? Who will determine our fate?”
The so-called caliphate of the Islamic State 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 United States-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. This is a ball of fire that everyone is trying to get rid of and threw to us,” 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.
In Iraq, many of the women who once lived among them face swift trials and death sentences on charges of supporting the Islamic State. In Syria, they are effectively prisoners in dingy camps in an area under the control of no internationally recognized authority that might be able to press their home countries to take them back.
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, IOL continues the story. But during a walk through the camp, we spoke informally with women from France, Germany, Denmark, Holland and a number of Arab counties. 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.”
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. 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.
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.
Nadim Houry, director of the terrorism and counterterrorism program 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.”