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Thousands Of ISIS Militants' Family Members Are Being Held In Syrian Detention Camps


In northeastern Syria, hundreds of women from Western countries and their children are in detention camps. They moved to Syria with their ISIS husbands back when the group was powerful. Now with ISIS mostly defeated and its so-called caliphate gone, the big question is what to do with these women and children. NPR's Ruth Sherlock went to northeastern Syria to understand how they ended up there.

UM MOHAMMED: I came to Syria in 2015 to live in the caliphate.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Um Mohammed says she was in search of a happier life when she decided to bring her family from Holland to live under ISIS.

UM MOHAMMED: I came with my husband and with my children.

SHERLOCK: She says she sometimes felt discriminated against as a Muslim in her home country. Reading ISIS' propaganda online, she developed this fantasy of what it would be like to live in their territory.

UM MOHAMMED: That it's perfect, like utopia. Now we know that it's not. I don't think it's what most people expected. I regret going and having, you know, to go through this.

SHERLOCK: Um Mohammed is 32 and too afraid to give her full name because she is one of thousands of foreign women and children who now languish in detention camps in northeast Syria after ISIS' defeat. Her husband is in a prison nearby.

UM MOHAMMED: It's not easy. There are so many people here. It's full - so many camps and so many prisons.

SHERLOCK: They were captured by a Kurdish militia who took this part of Syria in the war and who are supported by the United States. As well as over 500 male suspected ISIS members, the Kurds say they hold some 550 foreign women and around 1,200 foreign children.

SUZANNE ALLOUSH: It's a very complicated issue, you know?

SHERLOCK: Suzanne Alloush, who oversees the camps, says not all the women being held here are hardened ISIS supporters. Some were dragged to Syria by violent husbands or lured by false propaganda.

ALLOUSH: They are not all of them are bad womans, you know - yeah, not all of them.

SHERLOCK: But there are a minority of hardliners in the camps. Alloush tells me about a time when they punished an ISIS wife.

ALLOUSH: They found her smoking, so they (laughter) - they whipped her, yeah.

SHERLOCK: They whipped her, and then they beat other women who tried to remove the head-to-toe Muslim dress, the burka. She says even for them, there needs to be a solution.

ALLOUSH: OK, let's be clear. They are ISIS members, OK? So what should we do with them, kill them - for sure not.

SHERLOCK: She wants the governments of the 44 countries that these women and children are from to come and take their citizens. The U.S. has retrieved some. France has offered to take back children but not their parents.

ALLOUSH: Nobody want to listen about them or to hear about them or to talk about them. So this is our problem now.

SHERLOCK: Back in one of the detention camps, another Dutch citizen, a mother of three who asks to be known only by her nickname, Um Asma, says she only ever went to Syria to ask her husband to come home.

UM ASMA: Never I want to make the choice to come to Syria. It was like I want to speak with him, to take him with me back to Holland.

SHERLOCK: When he wouldn't leave, she convinced him to at least ask an ISIS judge for permission for her and their children to go back.

UM ASMA: He ask him if I can go, and then he give the answer. If your wife want to go, let her go. But your son - he stay with us here. I can do nothing.

SHERLOCK: Couldn't leave your son.


SHERLOCK: She says she does understand why people in her home country might consider women like her terrorists.

UM ASMA: I understand because people there are living so long in ISIS place. But I want to say the women who I know - they are not dangerous because we are living like how we was living in Holland. We have of our children. We are busy with the house. It's like a normal life but (laughter) in war.

SHERLOCK: As she speaks, her 3-year-old daughter, a little girl with light blonde hair and sky-blue eyes, leans against her. Um Asma expects that if they could get back to Holland, she'd end up in jail but her children would be given to relatives.

UM ASMA: I think we will go to the prison. It's hard, but it's also - how you can say this?

SHERLOCK: The only option.

UM ASMA: Yes, yeah. But also we are happy with this option because we can give our children a better future.

SHERLOCK: It will be a homecoming for her oldest child but a new life for her two daughters who were born in Syria. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, northern Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.