AL-HOL, Syria — Like a flock of ravens, the women hover around the food supplies, their black burqas fluttering in the breeze. But even through the narrowest of eye slits, their origins can be distinguished. Africans, Asians, Europeans and Arabs, they span the continents. The ethnic constellation of children around them might offer further clues, but these are the wives and widows of Islamic State fighters now sheltering at the al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria. Some have borne offspring from multiple husbands from multiple countries, and now they are on their own.
"My identity card was stolen by the other women. My children will starve. We don't have a tent,” quavers a slight female with slanted dark eyes. “Please help me explain my situation to the camp authorities, I don’t know how to communicate with them,” she begs as a little girl with thick brown lashes and cherry lips clings to her side. She is 30-year-old Mahina Muradaleva from the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan. Muradaleva was married to two Islamic State fighters. “The first was killed in an airstrike. The second one disappeared,” she told Al-Monitor through a Russian interpreter. Both men were Tajiks.
As the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces press their final ground offensive against the jihadis making their last stand in Baghuz, a steady stream of so-called Islamic State “brides” and their children continue to arrive at the sprawling desert camp close to the Iraqi border. “There is enormous pressure on us, we can barely cope,” Nabil Hassan, a spokesman for al-Hol, told Al Monitor in an interview on March 12. “75 Syrians, 13 Iraqis, 14 foreigners came today,” Hassan said.
As of this week, the total population has ballooned to 67,000, most of them women and children. The camp was built in April 2016 for Iraqis fleeing the Islamic State and was designed to accommodate no more than 10,000. Now it has five separate blocks for Syrians and Iraqis, and a special “transit wing” for the foreign IS families, Hassan explained.
Hypothermia and dysentery are among the biggest health hazards affecting newly arrived children. Severe malnutrition is common among mothers and children alike, many of them having been forced to subsist on boiled weeds in Baghuz since its besiegement by the SDF.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as of March 14, 120 deaths had been recorded at the camp. Children under five years of age accounted for 80% of the fatalities. They had died either en route or after arrival.
The World Health Organization has airlifted 65 tons of medical supplies into the camp so far and supports several mobile medical units that provide an average 1,300 consultations per day. OCHA noted in a recent update that despite the “massive relief effort” underway, “the most pressing needs remain shelter, health, protection … — particularly sanitation and waste management — and education." There are around 25,000 school-age children at the camp.
Still Hassan bemoans the lack of international support, saying, “They are doing very little.” He added, “Our greatest problem is feeding these people.”
Hassan’s complaints are echoed throughout the Kurdish-dominated administration in northeastern Syria, where the swelling number of captive jihadis and their families rejected by their own countries is a growing headache in both financial and security terms.
“The international community is not lifting a finger for us. How are we supposed to manage this burden on our own?” asked Fawza Yusuf, a senior administration official, in an interview with Al-Monitor. “First we defeated IS, and now we are expected to feed and clothe them,” she fumed.
The camp has been off limits to the Western media for unspecified security reasons since March 12. But Syrian Kurdish sources familiar with the camp’s operations say the decision may have been sparked in part by the furor surrounding the case of Shamima Begum, the UK citizen of Bangladeshi origin who was stripped of her citizenship by the British authorities and lost her three-week-old infant soon after. Begum was transferred from al-Hol to the Roj camp in Derik, which is also no longer open to the media.
Another reason may be the violence unleashed by some of the more radical women internees against those who dare to openly criticize the Islamic State during interviews. Several journalists were also allegedly harassed by the women as well.
A local fixer speaking on condition of anonymity aired little sympathy for the press. “Few of the Western journalists seem interested in the Filipinos, Indonesians and Africans here. They only care about people from their own countries and writing sensationalist stories,” the fixer groused to Al-Monitor. Some can also sound like self-appointed prosecutors in their interviews, with the guilt of the subject predetermined.
Hassan declined to respond when asked whether any of the Islamic State women here had engaged in violence or held an official role in the “caliphate.”
At the gates of the camp proper, armed women guards brandishing thin black plastic sticks pat down women and children as they re-enter. A small boy rushes around with a toy pistol, firing randomly and shouting “pkooh, pkooh.” A group of toddlers frolic in a pile of sand. Their laughter ought to be uplifting, but it's not.
Boys of various ages push metal carts laden with water and assorted supplies with an air of purpose. They are the men now guarding over the women. But they don’t labor solely for their own families. They earn money doing it for others, part of the burgeoning informal economy that has sprung up in al-Hol.
Tents reportedly sell for $100 a piece. Iraqis, who prefer to live in larger tents with extended family, do brisk business selling their own smaller allocated ones to newcomers.
Muradaleva ekes out a meager income making Russian-style buns or piroshkis for fellow post-Soviet citizens. She feeds her own children only rice for the moment because she doesn’t trust the food being distributed at the camp.
Kibar Bayed is an ethnic Kurd from Turkey’s southeastern province of Bingol who has sheltered at al-Hol with her five children for the past four months. One of her sons, Ahmed, a wan five-year-old with anxious eyes, was present at the interview. One wonders what horrors he may have witnessed. Beheadings? Coalition airstrikes?
Speaking in thickly accented Turkish, Bayed said she was moved here from a prison where she was held by Syrian Kurdish authorities since April 2016, when she and her husband, an Islamic State militant — he never fought but was merely trained to, she claimed — turned themselves in.
She said she had moved to the caliphate in early 2016 “because in Turkey I couldn’t wear my burqa freely. Women would pull it off me.” It's an odd claim, given that Turkey's Islamist Justice and Development Party, which lifted all formal bans on veiling, had been in power for nearly 14 years.
Her story is riddled with contradictions. Life in Mayadeen, where she and her husband moved, “was very pleasant.” If so, why did they decide to leave within three months of getting there? She said only, “It didn’t prove to be as we imagined.”
Bayed said that the some $4,100 she was carrying in cash had been confiscated by the SDF so she washes other families’ laundry to make ends meet. She gets paid 500 Syrian pounds (about $0.50) per load. “I don’t know why they won’t give back my money. If they would, I wouldn’t have to wash other people’s dirty clothes,” she said. Were there other Turks in the camp? "Many, many” from across the country, she replied.
Hassan, the camp spokesman, confirmed that there are many Turkish families at the camp, though he was unable to provide a precise figure.
Khadija Bouznif, a 30-year-old Berber from Tunisia’s Djerba, said there are “many” Tunisians as well. Clutching a frail baby to her bosom, she raised her head to the sky. “Oh God, what will happen to us here? I want to go back to my village, my sheep, my garden,” she wailed. Her husband is in jail.
Another woman slipped out of the camp through a breach in the chain link fence. She had a baby in her arms. It's ill, she said, and in urgent need of help. A guard whisked her away, promising help will arrive. A pair of twin African boys walk past. Are they Bouznif’s? “No, we are Moroccan,” one pipes up.
The Russian translator relayed Muradaleva's plight and a female camp official promised to deal with it the next day. "I am so tired, so very tired,” the Tajik said in a flat voice. All she wants now is “to go back home and to melt into my mother’s arms.” The translator, who had come to al-Hol insisting all the Islamic State women “deserved to be punished,” left with wet eyes.