Ex-ISIS family faces neighbor animosity to return home

RAQQA, Syria (AP) — Marwa Ahmad rarely leaves her dilapidated house in the Syrian city of Raqqa. The single mother of four said people looked at her suspiciously and denied her a job, while her children were bullied and beaten at school.

She said she and her children are paying the price because she belonged to the Islamic State group, which took over large swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014 and enforced years of aggressive, brutal rule.

Ahmad is one of tens of thousands of widows and wives of Islamic State militants held in a harrowing and desolate prison in northeastern Syria after the U.S.-led coalition and Syrian Kurdish forces cleared the Islamic State from the region in 2019. Lawless al-Hol camp.

She and a growing family were allowed to leave after Kurdish authorities overseeing the camp determined they were no longer affiliated with militant groups and posed no threat to society. But the difficulties they have faced trying to reintegrate in Syria and Iraq suggest deep, bitter resentments remain after the atrocities committed by IS and the devastation of the long war to bring down the militants.

Fears remain that IS sleeper cells will continue to carry out attacks. Islamic State militants attacked and killed six members of the Kurdish-led security forces known as the Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa on Monday. The attack came after a surge in attacks by the Self-Defense Forces and the United States against Islamic State militants in eastern Syria.

Near Ahmed’s home, IS’s slogan, “The Islamic caliphate has come, Allah be with us,” was graffitied on the wall of a dilapidated building.

It was an ideology Ahmad once embraced. She said she and her sister joined IS after their brother, an IS member, was killed in a US airstrike in 2014. She married a member of the group, although she said he was a nurse, not a fighter. He has been detained since 2019.

Ahmed said she now rejects ISIS. Her community isn’t convinced, though, and she claims it’s because she wears a conservative niqab that covers most of her face.

“Now, I have to face people, many people in this society have been hurt by (ISIS),” Ahmed said. “Of course, it’s not just groups that do this. We, the people living in Syria, have been hurt by the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian regime, and ISIS, right? But they don’t say that.”

She said a nearby bakery sometimes refused to give her bread. Even her own father disapproved of her joining the extremist group and threatened the shop owner who employed her that he would accuse him of IS ties if he did not fire her.

After the Islamic State captured Raqqa, much of northern and eastern Syria and western Iraq in 2014, the group declared a so-called Islamic caliphate in the region. Thousands of people from all over the world joined. Raqqa became the de facto capital of the “caliphate”.

The U.S.-backed Kurdish-led authorities have been fighting for years to push back ISIS. Finally, in March 2019, they captured the last IS-held territory in Syria, the small village of Bahgouz. Ahmed’s husband was captured by the SDF in Bahgouz, and Ahmed and her children were sent to the al-Hol camp.

What to do with the women and children of al-Hol has been a conundrum for the Kurdish-led authorities ever since. Most of the women are the wives and widows of IS fighters. Thousands of Syrians and Iraqis, as well as some foreigners, were released and sent home.

Some 50,000 Syrians and Iraqis, half of them children, still huddle in tents in fenced-in camps in the barren desert. Thousands of foreigners from dozens of countries also stayed.

Condition is poor. Kurdish-led authorities and activists have blamed IS sleeper cells for the surge in violence inside the camp, including the November beheading of two Egyptian girls, aged 11 and 13. Ahmed said life in al-Hol was similar to life under IS rule, “except you’re surrounded.”

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch quoted camp authorities as saying that armed militants affiliated with the Islamic State still control much of the camp.

U.S. Central Command said it carried out 313 attacks against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq over the past year, detaining 215 militants and killing 466 in Syria, most of them with in cooperation with the Self-Defense Forces.

Citing a surge in IS attacks, Kurdish-led forces announced Thursday that they had launched a new military operation against the extremist group, dubbed Operation Al Jazeera Strike, targeting areas near al-Hol and Tal Hamis. latent cells.

Still, Ahlam Abdulla, another woman released from al-Hol, said life in the camp was better than in her native Raqqa.

“By and large, everyone was against us. We fought everywhere we went,” she said. She said her husband joined the Islamic State and worked in the militant group’s office while she looked after the house.

With the support of tribal elders, the mother of five returned to Raqqa in 2020, accompanied by her husband, who had been missing for four years. She said local authorities watched their every move suspiciously and demanded their personal information.

“We were terrified,” she said. “If anyone asks, I’ll just say my husband died on the Turkish border.” She didn’t tell anyone she was in al-Hol.

Saeed al-Borsan, elder of the al-Walda tribe, said reintegrating women and children from al-Hol has been a huge challenge, both because of a lack of job opportunities and because residents have difficulty accepting them. Tribal elders like al-Borsan have been working to help women find housing and livelihoods.

“For five years, children in particular have faced hardship, lack of education and disconnection from society,” he explained, sitting in a room with other tribal members, holding a rosary in one hand. “They are victims.”

Local charities and civil society groups have worked to help children reintegrate into school and help their mothers upskill for better jobs.

“They’ve been under IS’ rule and many of them are still relatively influenced by it,” Helen Mohammad of Women for Peace, a civil society organization that supports women and children, told The Associated Press. “They’re an extremist ideology. victims.”

But she believes that with the right services and support, these women can be successfully reintegrated into society.

Abdullah said she has attended some workshops but feels her job prospects have not improved. At the same time, she earns a small income by cleaning carpets and houses and selling traditional canned pickled or dried seasonal food, known locally as ‘mouneh’.

Meanwhile, Ahmed was turned down by yet another job. She said she was not given a clear reason, but believed it was because her husband was with IS.

“In this society, we have to live with the IS label,” Ahmed said, as the children came out of the dimly lit house to play. “No matter how hard we try to be part of this community, to hug people and treat them well, they still see us the same way.”

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Chehayeb reported from Beirut.

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