By Maya Alleruzzo
Philip Issa And Andrea Rosa The Associated Press
AL-HOL, Syria – They came from around the world, four women drawn to the Islamic State group’s “caliphate.” They said it was out of misguided religious faith or naivety or youthful rebellion, but whatever the reason, they tied their lives to a group that became notorious for its atrocities.
Now after the militants’ defeat, they say they made a mistake and are pleading to come home. They are among tens of thousands of Syrian, Iraqi and foreign women and children who belonged to the caliphate now held in camps in northern Syria overseen by the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Many remain die-hard supporters of IS. Inside the camps, they have tried to recreate the caliphate. Some women have re-formed units of the militants’ feared religious police, the “Hisba,” and enforce rules and punishments on other residents.
The four women interviewed by The Associated Press at al-Hol and Roj camps insisted they had not been active IS members, and they all said their husbands were not fighters. Those denials and much in their accounts could not be independently confirmed.
“How could I have been so stupid, and so blind?” Kimberly Polman, a 46-year-old Canadian woman, said of her decision to join the caliphate.
To many, their expressions of regret likely ring hollow or self-serving. Travelling to the caliphate, the women joined a group whose atrocities were well known, including sex enslavement of Yazidi women, mass killings and grotesque punishments of rule-breakers, ranging from public shootings to beheadings and hurling from rooftops.
Their pleas to return home point to the question of what to do with the men and women who joined the caliphate. The SDF complains it is being forced to shoulder the burden of dealing with them.
Governments around the world are reluctant to take back their nationals. Some are focusing on repatriating children and not the parents.
Current Belgian policy, for example, is to bring back children under 10. “Up to today our priority remains to return these kids because they are the victims, so to speak, of the radical choices made by their parents,” said Karl Lagatie, deputy spokesman of the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Samira, a 31-year-old Belgian woman, is in the camp with her 2-year-old son after fleeing the caliphate in January 2018 along with her husband, a French citizen she met in Syria.
Samira said that back home when she was young, she drank alcohol and went dancing at clubs. Then “I wanted to change my life. I found Islam.” She came to believe IS propaganda that the only place one could be a proper Muslim was in the caliphate, so she travelled there.
“It was very stupid,” she said. She spoke on condition her full name not be used for fear of drawing trouble for her family back home. Soon after arriving, she said she began trying to escape.
“I hate them,” she said of IS, also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh. “They sold us a dream, but it was an open prison”
Europe’s leaders, she said, should realize “we are not all criminals, that we all have the right to a second chance. What we saw with Daesh was a lesson to us and allowed us to gain perspective on the extremists.”
Aliya, a 24-year-old Indonesian, said her path to IS began after a boyfriend broke up with her. Brokenhearted, she threw herself into religion and “to make up for” her past, she went far to a hard-line direction, watching IS sermons.
“They said when you make hijra (migration to the caliphate), all your sins are cleared,” she said. She too spoke on condition her full name not be used for fear of harassment of her family.
She reached Syria in 2016 with her new husband, an Algerian she had met on route in Turkey. Soon after, they had a son. But they quickly realized their mistake and tried unsuccessfully to escape, she said. Finally in late 2017, IS allowed her and her son to leave but not her husband. She believes he is now held by the SDF.
Her parents are trying to convince Indonesian officials to allow her home.
“I hope for a second chance. I was young,” Aliya said. “I joined ISIS, but that doesn’t mean I killed (anyone) … I just planned to live there. I couldn’t even slaughter a chicken.”
Gailon Lawson, a 45-year-old from Trinidad and Tobago, said she converted to Islam and married a man in her home Caribbean island. Only days after they married, he took her to Syria. “I just followed my husband,” she said. She brought her son, who was 12 at the time.
She and her husband divorced not long after. She said her biggest concern over the next years was keeping her son from being enlisted as a fighter. He was arrested three times by IS for refusing conscription, she said.
During the fighting at IS’s last pocket at Baghouz, she dressed her son as a woman in robes and a veil, and they escaped. The Kurdish forces imprisoned her son and she hasn’t heard from him in a month.
Polman, the Canadian, came to the caliphate to join her new husband, a man she knew only from online. They soon divorced.
She worked in a hospital in the town of Tabqa, helping treat children wounded in the fighting. “I saw an incredible number of children die,” she said. She said she broke down after failing to revive a dying 4-month-old. She said she came to blame the bloodshed on the militants she had joined.
“When I think about my life,” she wrote. “I feel so badly that I think I don’t deserve a future. I shouldn’t have trusted.”