The motley crew of foreign jihadist wives held at the Al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria are united by at least one thing: the fear of being separated from their children. Penned in a special section of the camp and huddled in rudimentary tents, most of them are tight-lipped about the lives they led in the Islamic State group’s “caliphate”.
Kenza, from Morocco, is one of the few who agreed to talk, as a swarm of children of various origins ran around her tent to collect water for their mothers. She slipped out of Baghouz two weeks earlier, as Kurdish-led forces closed in on the riverside hamlet where holdout IS fighters are making their very last stand.
The humanitarian burden is huge on the Kurdish administration, which is calling for stepped up efforts from the international aid community.
The 38-year-old, fully veiled in black like nearly all other women in the camp, sums up her four years under IS rule in a few laconic words. Her husband brought her to Syria, he never worked for IS “because he brought his own money” and then he died in a bombardment.
When asked why she and her three children followed him all the way to the hell of Baghouz, she says: “The jihadists prevented us from fleeing.” She is now sheltered in a large UN tent which she shares with dozens of other families. Kenza, who would not give her full name, says she hopes Morocco will take her and her children back and sees no reason why she should be detained.
In the camp’s dusty alleys, a black child who says he is American stops every adult he sees and asks them in a soft, plaintive voice: “Hey, my father is dead. Do you know how much longer we’re going to stay here?” Nobody answers him because nobody knows.
Kenza, from Morocco, is one of the few who agreed to talk, as a swarm of children of various origins ran around her tent to collect water for their mothers.
Some of the foreign suspects held at Al-Hol have been there, in the custody of the Kurdish forces administering the area, for two years. Their countries of origin are not in a hurry to repatriate radicalised citizens and claim the legal framework for any returns is too weak.
A few yards away, two young French women are wondering if France will allow them to return with their children. France, which has one of the largest Western contingents among jihadist ranks in Syria, has hinted it may take back children but without their parents.
“Being separated from our children is not an option. They are all we have left,” says one of them, who would not give her name. Most women in the camp have the same reaction but relations between the dozens of nationalities represented in the foreign women’s section are not always easy.
Tension in the camp
Besides those who hail from Syria and Iraq, the two countries the “caliphate” once straddled, the largest groups are from Russia, the former Soviet republics, Turkey and Tunisia. One British woman says she would rather not talk to reporters for fear of retaliation from her more radical “sisters” from central Asia.
Kenza, who would not give her full name, says she hopes Morocco will take her and her children back and sees no reason why she should be detained.
“The situation is bad here. There are quarrels between sisters,” says one woman from Trinidad and Tobago. Tension is also rife between the foreigners and the Syrian and Iraqi families who were displaced by the conflict and resent the jihadists.
“There have been attacks against foreign women” at the camp’s main market, camp manager Nabil Hassan tells AFP. Al-Hol is now home to 50,000 people, including 30,000 who arrived over the past two months.
The humanitarian burden is huge on the Kurdish administration, which is calling for stepped up efforts from the international aid community. Baghouz has been under intense bombardment for months, health conditions inside the besieged IS pocket are dire and many of the families who arrive in Al-Hol need medical assistance.
At least 78 people, mostly children, have died on the way to the camp or shortly after arriving in recent weeks, according to the International Rescue Committee.
© Agence France-Presse