The author of this article is Conor Mason (pseudonym) – an international volunteer with the Kurdish Red Crescent (‘Heyva Sor‘) aid organisation based in northern Syria. This article is based upon interviews conducted during an on-site visit to ‘Roj Camp’ by The Canary on 4 July 2018. The names of the interviewees have been changed to protect their identities.
Following an on-site visit, The Canary has learned that ‘Roj Camp’ in northern Syria (Rojava) houses 2,000 refugees. And almost all of them are reportedly the wives and children of current or former members of Daesh (Isis/Isil).
For many of the women here, their husbands are dead, imprisoned or missing. A sizeable portion of them are foreign nationals who wish to return to their home countries. But often, their own governments do not want them back, or simply claim they are unable to help them.
As foreign governments wash their hands of the problem, however, the war-torn democratic administration of Rojava has to shoulder the burden of housing and securing these women and children.
As any refugee will testify, life in such camps is hard. And the situation at Roj Camp is made all the more difficult by the larger NGOs apparently pulling back.
Several women in the camp told The Canary that provisions had been cut back. One said:
We used to get a food parcel every month. We could sell some of the food for diapers and other things.
People in the camp told The Canary that the food parcel deliveries stopped in May.
Hundreds of Roj Camp’s residents are children. Many of them are preschool age. And those born in Syria to foreign mothers are quasi-stateless, which makes the repatriation process even more difficult.
Disillusioned and disappointed
For years, the people of Rojava have been fighting a war against Daesh. And the local administration which runs Roj Camp has an obligation not only to take care of the detainees, but also to help secure the fragile, hard-won safety of the region.
Daesh, though greatly diminished, remains active in pockets across Syria. And identifying women in the camp who still sympathise with reactionary militant Islamism is not always easy. Simply releasing them, potentially to return to Daesh, is not considered a safe option.
A 2017 study by the UN found that many foreign fighters have returned from Syria “disillusioned and disappointed” by what they experienced there. The report also found [pdf, 5] that “religious belief seems to have played a minimal role in the motivation” of the returnees sampled.
Similarly, not all of the women in camps such as Roj were motivated by right-wing militant Islamism.
Some of the women were apparently tricked and brought to Syria against their will.
A German woman, Meena, told The Canary that she didn’t know she was coming to Syria:
I was told I was going to Turkey and would be staying there and that my husband would be helping Muslims. The night I arrived [in Turkey], some people came and took me to Syria… to my husband. They took my passport from me and burnt it. There was nothing I could do.
She went on:
A lot of women come [to Syria] after they meet men [from Daesh] on the internet. The men lie and say the life here is good. So the women go to Syria to be with the men. But when the women arrive they are shocked. But there is no way they can get back.
Meena’s story is a common one.
Hannah, from the Netherlands, was sitting nearby with her 2-year-old daughter. She described a similar experience of travelling to Syria in 2013:
I didn’t know my husband was bringing us to Syria. After we arrived, he said he was here to fight the Assad regime.
Her husband had joined Daesh.
I was shocked by things here. Life was so different from what I was used to. I contacted my government and told them I wanted to leave.
Defying Daesh, meanwhile, proved fatal for Hannah’s family:
They killed my husband when he spoke against things they were doing. A lot of what they did was against what we believed.
She went on:
I know [other] women in Daesh who want to leave but cannot. They don’t know what will happen to them if they [manage to escape].
Hannah regretted leaving Europe for Syria. Her experiences with Daesh stood in stark contrast with her life back home:
We lived a normal life in the Netherlands. I was a student. We had friends and went shopping. We were normal people… most of the women [in the camp] are just normal people. I think our countries would want us back.
She explained that Dutch authorities had been in contact and the process to transport her and her children home was underway.
We asked Hannah if she was worried about facing criminal charges when she got back home. She replied with a resigned shrug:
I know what’s waiting for me… jail.
Getting her two young children out of Syria was her priority, she said.
The administration in Rojava has been proactively working to get foreign states to repatriate these women and children, The Canary learned.
The manager at Roj Camp explained that procedures are in place to facilitate passage out for camp residents.
[Their governments] can take them whenever they want. They just need to complete the paperwork and [the refugees] can leave.
Certain governments have taken back some of the women. In many cases, though, little to nothing is done to solve the issue.
One Turkish woman told The Canary:
My husband is dead… my family has contacted the Turkish government [about getting me home], but I have not heard anything back from them.
She did not seem hopeful that her home country was interested in taking her back.
‘We will only take your children’
A young mother from Russia said:
My husband is in jail. The Russian government contacted me but didn’t do anything. They only investigated.
Some time later, she was again contacted by Russian officials:
They said they would take my children back, but not me.
She said her family was threatened by the Russian government:
[The Russian authorities] stopped my family sending me money. The government said I am a terrorist. They said they will put my family in prison if they send me money.
No way out?
Several of the women who spoke to us had been told by officials from their home countries that there were no diplomatic channels open to facilitate their passage home.
A British woman with four young children in the camp said:
I want to return home. I’m hopeful. My family [in Britain] are speaking to a lot of organisations.
We asked if she had received any advice from the British government. She told us:
They say I need to go to Turkey. But I haven’t got any way of getting there. They said there’s no government here [in Rojava] that they can speak to, so there’s nothing they can do.
Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil
In 2017, the Observer reported a British official saying rather flippantly:
The women who chose to leave the UK and go there… will not be coming home.
The children, though, deserve compassion.
In short, responsibility for these women and children has fallen onto Rojava. But it is a burden the autonomous region can ill afford. The cost of war is compounded by trade embargos and hostility from surrounding states. In most cases, it is merely a lack of political will preventing these civilians from returning to their home countries.
Numerous delegations from Britain, which included sitting members of parliament, have visited Rojava. So clearly, political and logistical channels can open up when it suits Western governments to arrange them.
The world owes a debt to the people of Rojava for both past sacrifices and their ongoing fight against Daesh. Now, as that war appears to be nearing its end, wealthy foreign states have chosen to do what they seem to do best: shut their eyes, their ears, and their borders.
Featured image via screenshot