Camp for Iraqis and Syrians fleeing caliphate flooded by families of Isis fighters, brewing deeper problems

The vast scale of al-Hawl can be seen from miles away, on the road that leads to the camp from the west. The white tents housing the displaced women and children of Islamic State stretch out over the dusty landscape far beyond the adjacent towns outskirts, the furthest away encroaching upon the foot of a hill.

The women of al-Hawl now call it Jabal Baghuz, or Baghuz Mountain, named for the oasis town on the Euphrates River where their husbands were finally defeated in March. Deep inside the section reserved for foreigners and beyond the control of the camps overwhelmed guards, Jabal Baghuz is now the only place where the militant groups so-called caliphate lives on. It is from here that the seeds of the Isis resurgence are being sown.

Its a timebomb waiting to go off. There is no easy solution, said General Mazloum Kobani of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the western-backed, mainly Kurdish group now responsible for administering much of Islamic States former territory. Even if the foreigners are sent home, the majority are Syrian and Iraqi detainees and if they are not deradicalised that will be a problem for many years to come.

US
US officials describe Isis as active inside al-Hawl, using the camp as an incubator for the next generation of extremists. Photograph: Achilleas Zavallis/Guardian/The Guardian

Recent Pentagon and UN reports say that while Isis is unlikely to regain its former strength in Syria, an insurgency is fast evolving. While fighters sit in Kurdish prisons or slip back into the local population in Deir ez-Zor province and the former Isis capital of Raqqa, thousands of families wait for them in al-Hawl. US officials describe Isis as active inside, using the camp as an incubator for the next generation of extremists.

Since 2016 al-Hawl has been home to about 10,000 Iraqis and Syrians who fled Isis. During the weeks-long battle for Baghuz, however, the camp was flooded with an unexpected 64,000 women and children, the vast majority of whom have links to the jihadi group. There are just 400 guards to keep order over thousands of women, among them vengeful individuals intent on attacking the Kurdish soldiers and aid workers as well as anyone in the camp who does not obey Isiss strict rules or who are suspected of spying for the SDF.

An
An internal security patrol member looks at a woman holding a baby, reportedly the wife of an Islamic State fighter. Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

Camp officials said that at least two women inside have been killed by the most radical detainees. Last month, an Azerbaijani woman smothered her 14-year-old granddaughter to death for refusing to wear the niqab outside her tent. Yazda, an organisation representing the Yazidi ethnic minority who were murdered and enslaved by Isis, also reported a missing Yazidi woman as recently killed in al-Hawl.

Although none of the women are allowed to have mobile phones, two propaganda videos from the camp where children pledge their allegiance to Isis in front of the groups black flag have surfaced in recent weeks. Their detention in hot, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions has now become a rallying cry for supporters across Isiss social media networks.

As if life in this place wasnt bad enough these women are monsters, said one resident at al-Hawl who asked not to be named to avoid retribution. I cant get the medicine I need for my son when hes sick, the toilets are overflowing. And then these women will burn your tent and beat your children just because they can.

Despite
Despite the guards AK-47s, they are outnumbered and have been attacked. Photograph: Achilleas Zavallis/Guardian/The Guardian

The camp is ringed by a fence and monitored by the SDF and a local police force known as the Asayish. Despite their AK-47s, however, both the guards and the camps population alike know who really holds the balance of power inside.

A core of Tunisian, Somali and Russian-speaking women in Jabal Baghuz issue orders to the other women in the camp. The knives inside kitchen kits distributed by aid organisations have been used to attack the outnumbered SDF. In an incident last month, one soldier died of her wounds in hospital and two more have been seriously injured in knife attacks.

Ayll, the camps head of security, winced as she rolled up the sleeve of her fatigues to reveal a huge purple-yellow bruise covering her upper arm.

map of al-hawl

One of them bit me. Its not the first time its happened, she said. The worst thing is when the women encourage the children to throw stones. They tell them we killed their fathers and destroyed their homes. Dealing with thousands of violent children is very difficult.

At the beginning of the year, when the women and children were evacuated from the fighting in Baghuz on convoys of trucks and bought to al-Hawl, any relief at escaping US-led coalition airstrikes and starvation in Baghuz was short-lived: at least 255 children in al-Hawl have died since January, mostly infants suffering from the cold conditions and malnutrition on arrival. Many women said they would rather they and their families had died in the remains of the caliphate.

Anger at the underresourced and badly managed conditions is growing. The families are exposed to extreme heat and cold in flimsy tents, there are traces of E coli in the drinking water and inadequate healthcare. There are no educational facilities for children.

Al-Hawl
A woman and child walking in al-Hawl. Photograph: Achilleas Zavallis/Guardian/The Guardian

Although almost everyone inside the camp has witnessed extreme violence, and some have carried out grave human rights abuses themselves, psychological support or attempts at deradicalisation remain for now a difficult and expensive impossibility.

Wild rumours of rape, torture and organ harvesting by guards are rife. Even the failure to prepare for the huge number of women and children who managed to leave Baghuz for al-Hawl has been perceived as a deliberate decision by the US-led coalition, which gambled that the international community would not care if the wives and children of Isis fighters were obliterated in the bombing campaign.

The SDF has not dared go inside the 12,000-strong foreign section of the camp in the past three months, after a routine weapons search almost triggered a full-scale riot when thousands of its inhabitants surged up to the camps front gate and administration buildings.

On a recent visit, one soldiers discomfort inside the main section for Syrians and Iraqis was palpable. Nervously gripping his gun, he hurried the Guardians reporting team to move along every few minutes. His two colleagues refused to leave the safety of the armoured pick-up truck.

Children
Children look through holes in a tent at al-Hawl in April. Photograph: Ali Hashisho/Reuters

Smuggling both into and out of the camp happens on a daily basis, Ayll said, raising fears that senior-ranked women could escape. Last month, five detainees bribed guards with $2,000 (1,642) per person to get them out. They were discovered just before they reached Idlib province, Syrias last opposition-held region.

Residents, guards and aid workers all describe the situation as unstable. Nothing quite like al-Hawl has ever existed before, which is partly why both Kurdish and international authorities are struggling to come up with adequate solutions.

Several local officials said efforts are being made to break up the camp to make it a more manageable size: Iraq has said its 31,000 citizens will be moved to Iraqi camps, but rights groups worry the same problems will persist over the border, and the transfer has been delayed several times.

A handful of other governments have repatriated their citizens, but some the UK included are reluctant to bring potentially radical families home.

The dynamics inside the camp are incredibly unhealthy, said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. Each of the populations inside the camp requires a different solution.

Countries should take back the families of foreign Isis fighters and invest the resources in collecting evidence regarding the possible crimes of the women. [Not doing so] is selfish and short-sighted.

Progress on all fronts is very slow. Yet every day the former cubs of the caliphate spend in al-Hawl is another day of their childhood gone, making it harder to break the twin cycles of radicalisation and deprivation.

One Trinidadian boy, now 15, was taken to Syria by his father in 2014. In the last days of the battle of Baghuz, Isis forced him to fight and he was lucky to escape to al-Hawl alive. His father and siblings are dead and he now whiles away the days teaching himself maths from a battered textbook at one of al-Hawls two small orphanage buildings.

My mum knows Im here. I miss her very much, he said.

I keep asking, Why cant I go home? but nobody ever has a real answer.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

 

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