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ALM Feature

Life after al-Hol: Iraqi women’s uneasy return from ranks of ISIS

Iraq has repatriated thousands of women with suspected ties to ISIS, but reintegration is difficult as many face legal discrimination and social stigma.
The Kurdish-run al-Hol camp in Syria holds relatives of suspected Islamic State (ISIS) fighters and others, Hasakeh governorate, Aug. 26, 2022.

ERBIL, Iraq — Five years after the territorial defeat and expulsion of the Islamic State (ISIS) from its last stronghold in Syria, 40,000 internally displaced persons are still stranded in al-Hol, the camp in Hasakeh governorate, in northern Syria, housing those who survived life under ISIS as well as people with direct ties to the extremist group.

Al-Hol — recently described by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as the “worst camp that exists in today’s world” — is essentially an open-air prison of barbed wire fencing and checkpoints. The health and sanitary conditions are dire, and ISIS operatives have free rein over entire sections of the camp that remain outside the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led troops in charge of guarding the camp's occupants.

Hundreds of members of ISIS cells active in the camp have been arrested by in security operations, with some held responsible for multiple murders. Sexual violence is reportedly widespread. Meanwhile, humanitarian actors have warned about the negative effects on camp residents of poorly implemented counterterrorism measures — such as search operations, separation of male minors from their mothers and arbitrary arrests — and abuse by the security forces charged with protecting them.

Dozens of nationalities coexist side-by-said in the camp, reflecting the broad diversity of people who from roughly 2014 to 2019 joined ISIS before and during the establishment of its self-styled caliphate and also during the war to subdue the group. Most camp residents are Syrians, while Iraqis constitute the largest national minority by far. They include former members and their relatives along with survivors of ISIS and others caught up in the group’s march to Syria in 2017 to regroup after being forced out of Iraq by a US-led military coalition. Together, they make up roughly half of al-Hol’s population.

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