'We Pray For The Caliphate To Return': ISIS Families Crowd Into Syrian Camps | Connecticut Public Radio
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'We Pray For The Caliphate To Return': ISIS Families Crowd Into Syrian Camps

Apr 19, 2019
Originally published on April 24, 2019 10:07 pm

The women huddle for shelter from the rain under a corrugated iron roof, their long black cloaks dragging in the mud as they wait in line for food and pray for the return of the ISIS caliphate.

The squalid al-Hol camp, in the Kurdish-majority region of Syria known as Rojava, is filled with more than 72,000 people — most of them women and children who came out of the last piece of ISIS-held territory in Baghouz.

They include thousands of Iraqis and Syrians who believe they will usher in a new caliphate. And they pose a risk to the Iraqi government, seeking to repatriate the Iraqis, and to Syrian Kurdish authorities, having nowhere to send the Syrians.

"This is injustice — we pray for the caliphate to return," says one of the women, who says this is the third day they have been turned away from promised cartons of food. Everything is in short supply here.

"If it weren't for the airstrikes on our tents and camps killing our children," she says, "we would not have left the caliphate." All refuse to give their names.

All of the women are completely covered in long black cloaks, with only a slit for their eyes. A few have covered even their eyes.

"Convert, convert!" a group of women and girls shout at me, urging me to recite the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith: "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger."

"If you became Muslim and cover like us and became a member of our religion, you would not be killed" in the ISIS caliphate, one woman tells me.

To the world, to the governments it threatened and the hundreds of thousands it killed in Iraq and Syria, ISIS was one of the most brutal organizations known.

To its followers — who number in the tens of thousands and escaped the fall of the last ISIS territory in Syria with their beliefs intact — ISIS could do no wrong.

In their caliphate, they say there was justice. There was no bribery or corruption or wasta — the influence-peddling at the heart of most countries in the region.

"Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and any shepherd were on the same level," says an Iraqi boy, referring to the ISIS leader now believed to be in hiding.

They say when there was food in the caliphate, it was distributed. Here at the camp, they say they come every day to be humiliated and told there's nothing for them.

Malnourished infants have died due to lack of shelter and medical care in the camp in this breakaway region of Syria, according to the World Health Organization and other aid groups. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, the Rojava region now faces an uncertain future.

The women in the camp believe its harsh conditions are deliberate — part of what they believe to be a continuing war against Muslims around the world.

They say everything under ISIS was what God wanted.

"Of course there were beheadings — why should I lie?" says a Syrian woman. "It's based on the Quran and the rules of God."

Asked about the Yazidi minority, which ISIS targeted with a campaign of genocide, the women shout: "Devil worshippers!"

Misconceptions about the ancient Yazidi religion have led to dozens of massacres over the centuries. When ISIS took over a third of Iraq in 2014, thousands of Yazidis were killed or captured as sex slaves.

Women and children wait for distribution of food at the al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria. Most are family members of ISIS fighters, viewed by the region's Kurdish Syrian leadership as a potential danger. Iraq says it wants to bring back 30,000 of its citizens to place in Iraqi camps, but few are willing to return.
Jane Arraf / NPR

"If they don't convert to Islam and they don't become Muslim like us and worship God, then they deserve it," an Iraqi woman says.

This camp, they complain, is full of infidels. There is music. Male and female guards wear tight clothing and smoke cigarettes. They say the men harass women.

They insist that everything was better in what they call al-dawla — the state.

"There, a woman would walk with her head held high and a man would lower his eyes," a Syrian woman says. "Here, it's the opposite."

The region's Kurdish Syrian leadership views the large numbers of radicalized women and children as a continued danger.

"The women and children who have been raised on the mentality of ISIS and terrorism need to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into their communities," says Abdulkarim Omar, a foreign relations official in the Kurdish region of northeast Syria. "Otherwise, they will be the foundations of future terrorism."

But there is little money or political will for reintegrating ISIS families in either Iraq or Syria.

At a smaller camp run by the Kurdish Syrian forces, ISIS wives from Western countries are exposed to lectures about how ISIS is not Islam and what ISIS did to Yazidis and other women.

But there are no similar programs at al-Hol camp for Syrian and Iraqi ISIS families — and there are very few in Iraq.

"Any official who goes for an hour and speaks to them can't change anything — are you a prophet that they would believe in you?" says Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi counterterrorism expert in Baghdad.

"We have proposed [deradicalization] programs in the past, but no one has implemented them," says Ali Abbas Jahaker, a deputy director at Iraq's Ministry of Migration. Jahaker says the Iraqi government plans to repatriate 30,000 Iraqi women and children over three months but will not force the families to return against their will.

In Syria, camp officials say so far, fewer than 1,000 Iraqis have indicated they want to go home.

The women at al-Hol say they are there because ISIS leader Baghdadi told them to escape to save their children.

"This is the next generation of the caliphate," one of the women says. "If you talk to them, they have the true creed implanted in their minds. The true creed will remain."

And in fact, it's a girl from the Iraqi city of Tikrit who is among the most fervent in the group. She appears to be 11 or 12.

On judgment day, the girl tells us, God will pour molten metal in the ears of those who listen to music.

"The ones who are not covered, now I ask God in the next life to light the fires of hell with their hair!" she declares.

She says she went to school under ISIS — what she calls a proper school, with boys and girls segregated — and vows she won't go to school again until the caliphate returns.

They all believe it's just a matter of time.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

To Syria now, where even though ISIS has lost its territory, you can still hear some voices calling for it to rise again. And they come from some of the women and children in giant detention camps - the wives and children of ISIS fighters. The situation poses a huge problem for the world - what to do with these thousands of people.

NPR's Jane Arraf reports their beliefs might just be getting stronger as they remain in limbo.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: This is the al-Hol camp. It's a combustible mass of more than 70,000 people, many of them hungry, sick and, for these women who have lined up for three days for food, furious.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: There's a large group of women waiting here who say it was never like this in what they call al-dawla - the state. They say they lived there happily for five years despite the brutality it was notorious for.

They tell me everything was better under ISIS. They say there were rules there - no bribery, no theft. No one was better than anyone else. When there was food, it was distributed. Here, they come every day to be told there's nothing for them, to be humiliated, they say.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Many of them are among the 30,000 Iraqis in this camp. Most came out of the last sliver of ISIS territory in Syria in March. They won't give their names.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) If it weren't for their airstrikes on our tents and camps killing our children, we would not leave the caliphate. This is injustice. We pray for ISIS to come back.

ARRAF: All of the women are covered head-to-toe in black cloaks that trail in the mud. A few have covered even their eyes in a black, gauzy veil. They wear long black gloves.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Theirs is a vengeful God. One tells me God will punish them for waiting in line for food instead of praying.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Another tells me God decrees that even having a finger showing is as immoral as having sex outside of marriage.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: They tell me I need to cover like them, that I'm an infidel.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: "Convert, convert" they tell me. We mentioned the part of the Quran that says Christians and others are people of the book who actually should be respected rather than killed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Through interpreter) If she became Muslim and covered like us and became a member of our religion, she would not be killed, no.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: We ask about the Yazidis, the religious minority in Iraq who were the victims of ISIS genocide, thousands of them killed and taken into sexual slavery.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: "Devil worshippers," they shout, a mischaracterization of their ancient religion that has led to dozens of massacres over the centuries.

SANGAR KHALEEL, BYLINE: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: My colleague Sangar Khaleel says to them, you're Iraqi, and I'm Iraqi. Did the Yazidis deserve what happened to them? One of the women answers...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Through interpreter) If they don't convert to Islam and they don't become Muslim like us and worship God, then they deserve it.

ARRAF: Is there anything that the dawla did wrong? Or was the dawla perfect?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: The women say everything - everything there was what God wanted. In the dawla, they say there was no blasphemy. There was no music, no wearing tight clothing or men smoking those cigarettes and even tweezing their eyebrows, no men looking at women.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: These Iraqi and Syrian women don't understand why their husbands have been taken away to prison. They ask why the men can't join them. The Iraqi government says it plans to repatriate their women and children, to put them in camps in Iraq. But the Kurds who are holding them in this underfunded camp say they won't send anyone back who doesn't want to go. So for now, they're not going anywhere.

Foreign ISIS families at a smaller camp were given lectures on how ISIS is not Islam. Some even hear from former Yazidi slaves about what ISIS did to them. There are no similar programs here for Syrian and Iraqi ISIS families, and there are very few in Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: These women and girls say they're here because ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi told them to escape, to safeguard the next generation of ISIS.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: (Through interpreter) We came here because of the hunger, so the children wouldn't die, so you wouldn't kill us.

ARRAF: In fact it's a girl from the Iraqi city of Tikrit, one of the ones who was telling me to cover, who sounds the most fervent. She's probably 10 or 11.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: (Through interpreter) The ones who are not covered now, I ask God in the next life to light the fires of hell with their hair.

ARRAF: Another girl tells us on Judgment Day, God will pour molten metal in the ears of those who listen to music.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: The girls say they went to school under ISIS, but they won't go to school again until the caliphate returns. They all believe it's just a matter of time. Jane Arraf, NPR News, in the al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.