The Women Caught Between Their Protectors And ISIS
July. 13, 2020
The operation began without warning: aid groups were barred from the Syrian displacement camp, internet connectivity disappeared and soldiers fanned out along the chain-link fences as a scorching sun rose high in the sky.
Inside, the women grew distressed. Some cried, some shouted abuse, and all were wary. They had once lived inside the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate. Now they were guarded by the force that defeated it, and tensions between the two were running high.
The operation this month to count and register the inhabitants of the al-Hol camp annexe was described by aid workers, officials, researchers and families in touch with the women affected.
On 10 June, the US-backed Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria said it had begun registering the foreign inhabitants of what it called “the most dangerous camp in the world”, almost a year and a half after they first arrived.
The Islamic State’s once vast territory in Iraq and Syria is no more. But the question of what will happen to tens of thousands of foreigners who left for the caliphate and never returned home still lingers, with no clear answers.
Abandoned by their governments and under the care of a Kurdish-led force that does not want them, the women and children inside the annexe are among nearly 14,000 foreigners from more than 60 countries being held in northeastern Syria due to suspected Islamic State links.
About 30,000 Iraqis live in a separate, larger, section of the camp. Inside the annexe, some women still fly the Islamic State flag and impose its disciplinary measures.
Their futures were initially seen as a test of how their home nations would balance human rights responsibilities with security concerns. But as the months have worn on, their cases have slipped from the global political agenda.
This month’s registration attempt, analysts say, appeared to be in part an attempt to streamline the camp’s administration by creating a comprehensive accounting of who actually lives there.
It could also be used to increase pressure on home governments to act.
The Kurdish-led authority in northern Syria says it cannot manage the task alone, and it repeatedly has appealed for action from foreign governments, citing a rising tide of attacks from Islamic State sleeper cells across the region.
Some countries, including the United States, have begun the repatriation process. But much of Western Europe has delayed, as officials cite security concerns or domestic politics as obstacles.
Inside al-Hol, one of six displacement and refugee camps in northeastern Syria for families from Islamic State-controlled areas, the women’s tents are pitched on cracked earth that turns to mud when it rains. Latrines overflow, sewage leaks into tents and wild dogs prowl the perimeter for food.
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