The water in al-Hawl, the bleak camp in north-eastern Syria where the British children of Islamic State detainees now live, swims with parasites. The winter chill seeps into tents, and there is nothing to play with but plastic medical gloves and flaps of cardboard. There is no school, no trauma care and virtually no medical care, and there are cases of sexual abuse. There are stabbings and shootouts between militant Isis women and camp guards – members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led group that helped the US coalition defeat Isis. The children have watched more women and babies die in recent months than a soldier might witness over the course of a military career.
There are also British women and children at another camp, called al-Roj, close to the Iraqi border. Kimberly and Maryam, a Canadian and a German, feel themselves lucky to be held at al-Roj rather than al-Hawl. When I met them on a research trip to the area in June, the first thing they asked me was whether I was a British journalist.
Kimberly shares a tent with Shamima Begum, the teenager from Bethnal Green, east London. Begum was recruited by Isis and stumbled out of the militants’ final battle early this year, then spoke to British reporters, and swiftly lost her UK citizenship – a move by the then home secretary Sajid Javid that was pure political theatre. For the women in the camp, a British journalist is now a presence to be feared, someone who can get you tried by the media before you have a chance to set foot in a courtroom. “You can understand,” says Kimberly, “that we all feel very protective of her.” I explained that I was a researcher with an organisation that works on conflict prevention, that I would write about them, but with the aim of finding a responsible solution to their fate.
On the outside, Kimberly and Maryam do not look like Isis women any more. In al-Hawl, where militant women police communal spaces, everyone still wears the obligatory black niqab and robes. But in al-Roj, Kimberly wears a burgundy cloak and a cream hat; Maryam is dressed in what looks like pastel “athleisure”, with chunky sunglasses perched on her head. They both reject Isis, beg the forgiveness of their home countries, and are keen for the chance to be returned, prosecuted and given a second chance at life. They point to their stories as evidence that “Isis women” should be judged individually. “We are all tarred by the same terrible black brush,” says Kimberly.
Kimberly, now 47, was a convert to Islam living in Toronto; she spent hours online reading about the Syrian war. “I wanted to come help the Syrians who were being killed by Assad,” she says. She met a man online who proposed marriage and persuaded her that by travelling to Syria she could work as a trainee nurse, helping the injured. She arrived in Isis territory in 2015, at a time when the group scarcely hid its genocidal intentions and enslavement of minorities, but says she had little awareness, because she did not trust the western media’s reporting on the Middle East. She knows she must face justice for this egregious mistake. But she believes that women who were not combatants, and often, like her, imprisoned by Isis for trying to escape, should be entitled to a fair hearing.
Maryam is younger, more soft-spoken, and visibly less confident in her right to ask for anything, even her rights. She is of Moroccan origin. Her husband travelled to join a jihadist rebel group in 2012 and eventually persuaded her to bring their children for a short visit. He was kidnapped and then killed by an opposing rebel group. Maryam was stuck. With little money or ability to extricate herself, and pregnant with her third child, she sheltered with another couple for a time. After Isis rose to power, she was pushed to marry a fighter, but escaped at the first opportunity in late 2017, as the group rapidly lost its territory. She has been living in the camp ever since. I ask her if she still feels like a German citizen, given her government’s refusal to offer stranded women like her any assistance. “I don’t any more, but I pretend to, for their sake,” she says, nodding at her toddler son, whose hand is deep into a bowl of sweets on the table in the camp management office where we are talking.
Across Europe, governments are wrestling with how to deal with women like Maryam and their children. It is a problem of extraordinary complexity, spanning everything from evidential requirements for terrorism prosecutions to the relationships states have with Turkey and successful court appeals launched by women’s families. In almost every European country it is a challenge that is refracted through domestic politics, as evidenced most recently in the UK, where the delay in bringing home a group of British orphans has been blamed on the home secretary, Priti Patel, even though other factors – such as Turkey’s invasion of north-east Syria – have played an important part.
What stands out now is that the UK, after having repatriated those orphans, is looking to bring home around 60 more children. It is not believed there are any further orphans left in Syria, though there may yet be a small number of unaccompanied minors (children whose parents may be alive, but who are separated from them). The vast majority of British children reside in camps with their mothers, and how the government intends to deal with this is unclear: child separation is illegal without the mother’s agreement and the SDF is adamantly against it, aware that by releasing children it will be saddled with their mothers, perhaps for ever.
But the fact is that nearly a year into this dilemma, European governments, including the UK’s, do have the ability to deal with this situation: they are already coping with a sizeable number of independent returns, with security services, police and social care mobilised. Each country has intimate knowledge of its cohort of women. They also know, with a fair measure of confidence, who poses the greater risk upon return. They know who energetically chose, who stumbled, and who was coerced into travelling to the caliphate.
Although a court injunction here forbids detailed reporting on the recent repatriation of orphans, sources in Syria spread the news, and the lack of outcry in Britain has been striking. It suggests politicians have more room to manoeuvre around repatriation than they might have thought. They can point to the realities in the camps – that there are regretful women who run pizza collectives and hold French and English classes, preparing their children for school life back home, and militant women who burn down tents and stab others to death for apostasy. They can explain it is wrong and inhumane to keep these women all mixed in together and, most of all, to expose children to such depravity. And they can ensure that the rule of law prevails, with adults facing justice for any crimes they may have committed. The prospect of scoring political points need not trump considerations of humanity and fairness.
For many women who thought surviving Isis was the hardest part, this interminable detention has become overwhelming. Maryam says her eldest daughter, now eight, cries most days and is only just learning the alphabet. “When I came out, I thought I had a future. After a year and a half, I never thought this would happen to me.”