Syrian detention camp rocked by dozens of killings of Islamic State women
AL-HOL CAMP, Syria – The killings have taken on a creeping sense of inevitability, guards say. No one admits to having heard them, let alone knowing who is responsible.
Recently, officials inside the al-Hol detention camp said it was still too dangerous to try to retrieve the last pair of corpses found overnight. “We’re still investigating,” said an exhausted camp guard, slumped in his desk chair, crumpled shirt and messy ponytail after a sleepless night.
Since January, officials report, more than 70 people have been killed in al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, home to 62,000 family members of Islamic State fighters and others. held during the collapse of his self-proclaimed caliphate more than two years ago.
Al-Hol has become an increasingly dangerous and desperate place. Religious activism is on the rise, putting at risk those who are not so fanatical. The murders are often blamed on tough women who take advantage of fragile security to enforce their restrictions and settle scores. Security sweeps to confiscate handguns, knives and other weapons have made little difference, according to officials at the camp, which is run by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Tensions between captives and kidnappers are boiling over.
Mohamed Bashir, a supervisor of some of the guards, frowned at the recent attacks on his fingers: Ambushes against the troops. Stones thrown at aid workers. A gold store, just outside his office on the edge of the municipal market, was ransacked in July. Women in the camp often need money to buy provisions and sometimes to pay smugglers to take them out.
“They took gold; they took dollars, ”Bashir said, wearily resting a hand on his temple.
Hours later, another person was killed at the edge of the same market, local media reported, without providing further details.
In the swirling dust, not much remains of the dreams once entertained by many of these detainees – Syrians, Iraqis and other foreigners from dozens of countries around the world – but revenge and fear and a desperate desire to return home. them.
– – –
Al-Hol was not built for this. It opened in the 1990s as a small camp for displaced Iraqis.
But as the final battle raged between US-backed forces and Islamic State’s caliphate defenders in early 2019, and the captured militants were taken to jail, their families were brought here. Within weeks, the camp’s population had grown to 55,000 and a humanitarian catastrophe was unfolding.
The worst was yet to come.
As spring turned into summer that year, aid workers struggled to cope and some of the more radical women in the camp began trying to re-impose Islamic State rules on the families around them. . Among the most radical were the Iraqis, who now make up almost half of the camp’s population.
The women who removed their black face coverings were tried in kangaroo courts inside the tents. Signs of post-traumatic stress disorder reverberated through the children at the camp, who received little psychological support despite surviving the terrors inside IS and the violence outside .
“What are we supposed to do? Asked a 52-year-old Iraqi woman, who did not give her name. Two handbags full of personal documents were slung over her black abaya. “You can’t just leave us here and hope we die.” She said she asked for repatriation to Iraq but received no response.
The other women in the street of the market were Syrians and from all over the country.
“We need these people at home. We can’t handle them here, ”Bashir said, flipping through a wad of identification papers on his desk.
– – –
Most foreign governments have done little to bring their nationals back from al-Hol camp.
But efforts are underway by the local authority led by Kurds and Arab tribes in that part of Syria to reduce the temperature inside the camp by sending the Syrians home. Thousands of Syrian men, women and children have already left the camp after members of local tribes vouched for the returnees, ensuring they could be reintegrated into their villages and towns of origin.
“No one else has the power to do this,” said tribal leader Sheikh Mohamed Turki al-Swiyan, interviewed in Raqqa, in the north of the country, with a family he had helped to leave the camp. . “Presidents go up and down. The princes take up arms and kill each other. Only the tribes here are constants.
But the process is fraught with pitfalls. In some cases, officials said, tribal leaders have sponsored people they don’t know or from outside their communities, in exchange for payments from their families, and some of those returnees have since disappeared.
Many former detainees are returning to communities still reeling from the brutal Islamic State regime and, in many cases, to war-stricken neighborhoods.
Members of three families who had returned to Raqqa, once the capital of the Islamic State, described a life of destitution and ostracized isolation, saying their neighbors ignored or mocked them. Mothers in the local community are reluctant to let their children play with the returnees. The doors of neighbors who once shared meals are now closed.
“They should have helped us on our return,” said Fatima Mustafa, 47, sitting on the floor in her family’s Spartan home. Without work, many returnees are becoming more and more indebted.
“The neighbors saw that we were just women without our men. Surely they should have helped us, ”Mustafa said.
Elsewhere in town, an older woman, Umm Shaima, whose daughter had returned from al-Hol, was twisting her fingers in nervous hands as she spoke. “They can say whatever they want; we don’t hurt anyone, ”she said as her grandchildren stood quietly in the doorway.
Raqqa residents interviewed nearby had little sympathy. “What are they expecting? Asked a man, Mustafa Hamed, as he showed reporters around his house. It had been badly damaged in a US-led coalition airstrike in the fight against the militants. A wire went off and the ceiling sagged dangerously as her 7-year-old daughter, Janna, played below.
Near the town’s main hospital, where activists had once settled, Hassan Mustafa shrugged when asked about the returnees. “They killed people and now we’re back here giving everything we have to rebuild. Do you think we have time to think about it?
His brother Ali agreed. “They should go back to their camp,” he said. “Nobody wants it here.”
– – –
The Iraqi government says it is trying to repatriate its nationals detained in al-Hol. But the initiative is so politically charged in Iraq that the first major repatriation operation earlier this summer transferred fewer than 400 people, according to Iraqi officials.
Among those who had hoped to join them was Warda Obeid, 60, a grandmother from Iraq’s sprawling desert province of Anbar. But her health had deteriorated over the months of waiting, her family said. Her diabetes got worse first. Doctors diagnosed him with heart disease. Medicines were lacking. Last month she passed away.
Obeid was buried on a rocky outcrop overlooking the camp. His family dug the grave under the watchful eye of a camp guard.
His body arrived in the back of a truck, wrapped in a fleece blanket.
“She just wanted to see Iraq again,” said her 50-year-old nephew, Saken, as her siblings and cousins dug the pit for her. “She was tired. She wanted to go home.
On the horizon, a storm seemed to come out of nowhere and soon after it was lifting the desert sands as the family dug faster and more frantically. Soon the camp was engulfed.
Saken shook her head, her hand on her hip. “This place…” he said, pausing. The cloud of dust moved closer, its shape standing out against the slate gray sky. The family continued to dig; a cursed young man.
“We can’t stay here,” Obeid sighed. “There must be a solution. “
– – –
Mustafa al-Ali of the Washington Post contributed to this report.