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Isis women languish in dire conditions with nowhere else to go

Bethan McKernan, Middle East correspondent
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Tessa Fox/AAP</span>
Photograph: Tessa Fox/AAP

When 20-year-old Shamima Begum, heavily pregnant and alone, managed to escape the US-led coalition bombing of Islamic State’s last stronghold two years ago, she left behind a scene resembling hell and entered limbo instead.

Begum was among an astonishing 64,000 women and children who poured out of Baghuz, a tiny oasis town on the Euphrates river, deep in the Syrian desert. Many of their husbands and fathers died defending the last sliver of the so-called caliphate.

Whether by accident or design, there was no plan in place for what to do with these families. Al-Hawl camp, where Begum surfaced, quickly became the focal point of a new humanitarian crisis starring unsympathetic protagonists. Set up in 2016 to house around 10,000 ordinary Syrians and Iraqis who had fled the group, suddenly it had a huge influx of new, and in some cases dangerous, arrivals.

The camp was already a dire place, with little healthcare provision and no educational facilities. The overcrowding meant conditions deteriorated fast: overwhelmed guards from the local Kurdish-led forces have struggled to keep order as the women of Isis have set about recreating the strict rules of the caliphate in their new home.

A total of 12,000 women who were not Syrian or Iraqi and their 27,000 children were separated from the rest of the camp in a gated annex in order to cool some of the pre-existing tensions between the local and foreign Isis women.

Inside the foreign section, a core of Tunisian, Somali and central Asian women began to issue orders to the others. Knives were stolen from kitchen kits handed out by charities and used to stab and kill guards, as well as any women suspected of spying for the guards. Stories such as that of an Azerbaijani woman who smothered her 14-year-old granddaughter to death for refusing to wear the niqab outside her tent have become commonplace.

Begum, who received clamorous media attention after telling the Times she wanted to return home to the UK, was quickly denounced by the hardcore foreign women as a traitor. After her three-week-old baby died of pneumonia – a fate that has befallen hundreds of infants in the camp – she was moved to another camp called Roj for her own safety.

Roj camp, near the Iraqi border, and Ain Issa camp, closer to Raqqa, are also home to women and children with links to the jihadists, although their numbers are much smaller than at al-Hawl. The situation in all three, however, has deteriorated since US-led forces declared victory over Isis in spring 2019. Almost nobody has been able to return home.

In al-Hawl, violence is also rife in the main section where Syrians and Iraqis live. Local researchers reported 20 murders in the last month alone as anger at the badly managed conditions continues to grow.

Cash, mobile phones and guns are smuggled in; occasionally, people are smuggled out. The same problems exist, to a lesser extent, in Roj and Ain Issa.

Hot in summer, freezing in winter and unsanitary the year round, the use of the Kurdish-run camps to detain women with links to Isis has become a rallying cry worldwide for supporters across the jihadists’ networks.

Officials from north-east Syria’s Kurdish administration and international analysts often describe the camps as a timebomb. Every day children spend in al-Hawl is another day of their childhood gone, making it harder to break the twin cycles of radicalisation and deprivation.

Related: Shamima Begum ruling sets dangerous precedent, say legal experts

A handful of countries have taken back their citizens for investigation, trial or rehabilitation at home, but according to Save the Children just 685 minors were repatriated in 2019, and 200 last year.

Every so often, Kurdish officials announce new plans to break up the camps into more manageable sizes and send Syrian and Iraqi inhabitants home under an amnesty, but little progress has been made so far. For foreigners like Begum there is nowhere else to go.