RAQQA, Syria — Marwa Ahmad rarely leaves her run-down house in the Syrian city of Raqqa. The single mother of four says people look at her with suspicion and refuse to offer her a job, while her children get bullied and beaten up at school.
She and her children are paying the price, she says, because she once belonged to the Islamic State group, which overran a swath of Syria and Iraq in 2014 and imposed a radical, brutal rule for years.
Ahmad is among tens of thousands of widows and wives of IS militants who were detained in the wretched and lawless al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria after U.S.-led coalition and Syrian Kurdish forces cleared IS from the region in 2019.
She and a growing number of families have since been allowed to leave, after Kurdish authorities that oversee the camp determined they were no longer affiliated with the militant group and do not pose a threat to society. But the difficulties they face in trying to reintegrate back in Syria and Iraq show the deep, bitter resentments remaining after the atrocities committed by IS and the destructiveness of the long war that brought down the militants.
There also remains fear of IS sleeper cells that continue to carry out attacks. IS militants in Raqqa on Monday attacked and killed six members of the Kurdish-led security forces, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. The attack came following a surge of SDF and U.S. raids targeting IS militants in eastern Syria.
Near Ahmad’s house, an IS slogan, “The Islamic Caliphate is coming, God willing,” is graffitied on the wall of a dilapidated building.
It’s an ideology that Ahmad once believed in. She said she and her sister joined IS after their brother, an IS member, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2014. She married a member of the group, though she says he was a nurse, not a fighter. He has been detained since 2019.
Ahmed says she now rejects IS. Her community doesn’t believe that though, and she claims it’s because she wears the conservative niqab veil that covers most of her face.
“Now, I have to face people, and many of the people in this society have been hurt by (IS),” Ahmad said. “Of course, it was not only the organization that did so. We, the people who live in Syria, have been hurt by the Free Syrian Army, the regime, and IS, right? But they don’t say that.”
She says the neighborhood bakery sometimes refuses to give her bread. Even her own father, who did not approve of her joining the extremist group, threatened a shop owner who employed her that he would accuse him of communicating with IS if he didn’t fire her.
After IS overran Raqqa, large parts of northern and eastern Syria and western Iraq in 2014, the group declared a so-called Islamic caliphate over the territory. Thousands came from around the world to join. Raqqa became the “Caliphate’s” de facto capital.
U.S.-backed Kurdish-led authorities battled for years to roll back IS. Finally in March 2019, they captured the last sliver of IS-held territory in Syria, the small village of Bahgouz. Ahmed’s husband was captured by the SDF at Bahgouz, and Ahmed and her children were sent to al-Hol camp.
Ever since, what to do with the women and children at al-Hol has been a conundrum for the Kurdish-led authorities. Most of the women are wives and widows of IS fighters. Thousands of Syrians and Iraqis have been released and sent home, as well as a number of foreigners.
Still some 50,000 Syrians and Iraqis, half of whom are children, remain crowded into tents in the fenced-in camp in a barren stretch of desert. Several thousand foreigners from dozens of countries also remain.
Conditions are dire. Kurdish-led authorities and activists blame IS sleeper cells for surging violence within the camp, including the beheading of two Egyptian girls, aged 11 and 13, in November. Ahmad says life in al-Hol was similar to life under IS, “except you’re fenced in.”
Armed militants affiliated to IS still control large parts of the camp, Human Rights Watch said in a recent report, citing camp authorities.
The U.S. Central Command said it conducted 313 raids targeting IS militants in Syria and Iraq over the past year, detaining 215 and killing 466 militants in Syria, mostly in cooperation with the SDF.
The Kurdish-led forces announced Thursday, citing a surge in IS attacks, that they launched a new military campaign against the extremist group, dubbed “Operation Al-Jazeera Thunderbolt,” to target sleeper cells in al-Hol and nearby in Tal Hamis.
Despite all this, Ahlam Abdulla, another woman released from al-Hol, says life in the camp was better than in her hometown of Raqqa.
“In general, everyone is against us. We are fought wherever we go,” she said. She says husband joined IS and worked in an office for the militant group, while she just looked after the house.
With the support of her tribe’s elders, the mother of five returned to Raqqa in 2020 without her husband, who has been missing for four years. She says local authorities have watched their every move with suspicion and asked for their personal information.
“We are scared,” she said. “If anyone asks, I just say my husband died at the Turkish border.” She tells no one she was at al-Hol.
Saeed al-Borsan, an elder of the al-Walda tribe, says that reintegrating women and children from al-Hol has been a huge challenge, both because of a lack of job opportunities and because residents struggle to accept them. Tribe elders like al-Borsan have been trying to help women find housing and livelihoods.
“The children especially have faced difficulties, lack of education, and disconnection from society for five years,” he explained, sitting in a room with other tribesmen with a set of prayer beads in one hand. “They’re victims.”
Local charities and civil society groups have tried to help the children reintegrate into schools and help their mothers improve their skills to find better jobs.
“They stayed under the rule of IS, and many of them are relatively still influenced by them,” Helen Mohammed of Women for Peace, a civil society organization supporting women and children, told The Associated Press. “They were victims to extremist ideology.”
But she believes the women can be successfully reintegrated with the right services and support.
Abdulla says she attended a few workshops but feels her job prospects haven’t improved yet. In the meantime, she earns a little by cleaning carpets and homes and selling traditionally jarred pickled or dried seasonal food, known locally as “mouneh.”
Meanwhile, Ahmad got rejected from yet another job. She said she didn’t get a clear reason why, but believes it’s because her husband was with IS.
“We have to live with the IS label in this society,” Ahmad said as she let her kids out of her dim house to play. “No matter how hard we try to be part of this community, to embrace the people and be nice to them, they still look at us the same way.”
Chehayeb reported from Beirut.