AL-HOL, Syria – “Kuffar!” dusty children with matted hair shouted at Kurdish fighters slinging Kalashnikov rifles. A hundred yards away, black cowled women clutched their veils and stared.
A frigid, rainy winter is coming for the roughly 70,000 people who live in squalid tents in the al-Hol camp in northeast Syria near the border with Iraq. And among them, the tens of thousands of wives and children of Islamic State fighters – as many as 45,000 “ISIS supporters” – increasingly fear the punishment of the Assad regime is not far behind.
Turkey’s assault against the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria’s northeast has damaged the camp’s water supply lines and drawn guards away from the gates – vulnerabilities internees have exploited, guards told The Defense Post during a visit to the camp this month.
The incursion also ushered Syrian government troops back into the northeast as part of a Russia-brokered deal with the SDF. That, in turn, sent international aid groups – upon which camps like al-Hol depend for food, tents and medical treatment – fleeing from the country.
Now, with international aid dwindling as opposing armies encroach and world governments still slow to repatriate some 10,000 foreigners, relations between between ISIS family members and the few hundred SDF guards are at their lowest.
A series of grisly murders of women and children has haunted the camp, and guards have been stabbed and beaten. Victims include girls as young as nine, a senior camp security official and eight-year veteran of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), told The Defense Post.
One photo shown to The Defense Post depicted the badly decomposed torso of a person who was discovered rolled up in a carpet. In another, a middle-aged woman lies on her back, hands bound with cloth and face caked with blood, a triangular hole sinks into her forehead.
“They used a tent stake,” said the senior camp security official, who gave her name only as Lora for security reasons.
Security forces say three female camp leaders, described as amiras, have been surreptitiously organizing Sharia law courts and, allegedly, ordering executions of women and girls for religious violations.
“They organized with coordination from sleeper cells outside [the camp],” Lora said. “The Iraqis and Syrians get information from sleeper cells via the internet on mobile phones and pass it on to the foreigners.”
It is the non-Arab ISIS internees, and Russians in particular, that are suspected of organizing the Islamic police force, or Hisbah, Lora said.
One of the suspected amiras, Um Daoud, had been captured and now sits in the camp jail. The two others and about a dozen suspected members of the Hisbah were still on the loose inside the foreigners’ section of al-Hol, Lora said.
Gatherings of foreign women in the camp fervently denied the killings were organized or that they had a religious motivation, and accused the SDF guards of their own abuses, saying they opened fire on an unarmed protest in September after trying to extract the amiras from the camp.
Camp authorities said internees shot at them, and guards returned fire, killing one woman and wounding seven others. Lora said she and a few other female guards were surrounded in the protest and several women attempted to drag them into the tents.
Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), which operated a clinic in the camp, criticized the guards’ use of force. A representative of the organization did not respond to a request for comment.
Days after the shooting, MSF withdrew from al-Hol and the northeast as a whole as security deteriorated following Turkey’s invasion.
Mistrust and deteriorating conditions
A lack of information from the outside and growing hostility towards their Kurdish captors have proven fertile ground for conspiracy theories among the women in the camp.
There are rumors among the women in the camp that one woman who tried to escape was thwarted by a landmine. A British woman alleged that the guards regularly get drunk and shoot at children. A Sudanese woman said she thinks her government tried to bring her home but “the Kurds” – the women’s sweeping term used to describe SDF and Asayish, the police forces who fall under its command – refused to allow her to leave. Yet another woman claimed that the Kurds want the children to die so they can harvest and sell their organs.
“The Kurds said that if it were up to them, they’d kill us. Because we are enemies,” the Sudanese woman claimed, declining to give her name citing fear of retribution from her government.
“There is no Hisbah in the camp,” said the woman, who is originally from Khartoum. She claimed she came to Syria amid the country’s brutal civil war for “tourism,” and later found herself inside ISIS territory.
“The Kurds took Um Dauoud and put her in prison! She has children! What has she done? She hasn’t done anything,” a middle-aged Russian woman shouted about one of the suspected amiras.
The women spoke to The Defense Post in the annex for foreign women and children, the most volatile part of the camp. Prior to the appearance of half a dozen other women, the Sudanese woman and a university-aged Western woman who asked that her nationality not be referenced acknowledged that there were a significant number of extremists inside. The Sudanese woman also expressed a fear of the Russian women, saying “they fight with their fists, not their mouths.”
But as more women gathered, their expressed fears turned outward.
It is difficult to get a complete picture of the full range of countries represented in al-Hol: The Defense Post was unable to confirm the identities or nationalities of any of the women, and officials say roughly 50% of them lied about their places of origin when they entered the camp months ago. During the hours spent interviewing the women, Arabic, English, German, Tajik and Russian were clearly heard.
Failure of international aid
Rumors have taken hold among the internees that it was “the Kurds” who dismissed the MSF clinic as a form of collective punishment, and women pointed to what they say are increasing cases of being turned away by doctors when seeking care for their children.
Camp authorities for their part say they desperately need international aid groups to return and support the meager services. “There are three medical teams in the camp,” said Muhammad al-Bashir, a representative of the SDF-affiliated Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which oversees civilian matters in the camp.
But since MSF pulled out, the doctors still there can only manage about 10% of medical needs, al-Bashir estimated.
Ideally, they would like to divide al-Hol into two camps of roughly 35,000 people each, segregating internees by nationality to begin deradicalization efforts.
But with the U.S. drawdown, there is not nearly enough international support, al-Bashir said.
“There are thirty people per toilet,” al-Bashir said. Turkey’s bombardment to the north has reduced the camp’s water supply from 30 liters per person per day to 17.
The decline in services, combined with increasing fears about the future, is pushing many internees to the breaking point.
“Even if we can’t get out of here, we need to have doctors, these tents are unbearable. When a storm comes, they collapse. We have small children,” said a German woman of Turkish descent, giving her name as Naeva. “When are we getting out of here?”
But their greatest fear, many women said, was Bashar al-Assad’s army. News of the October 13 agreement between the SDF and the Syrian government to bring pro-regime troops into the northeast spread panic in the camp, women said.
“Back when there was a deal between the regime and the Kurds, we heard the regime came to Hasakah,” the university-aged woman told The Defense Post.
“We thought there was going to be a deal and they were going to exchange us. It was really scary,” she said. A few days later, people in the camp heard shooting.
“We thought ‘great,’” she said sarcastically. ”This is the regime coming in and they are going to slaughter us.”
Days later, MSF pulled out of the camp, leading ISIS women to accuse the guards of orchestrating the withdrawal to punish them.
With winter looming, conditions in the camp are already beyond tolerable, more deaths are almost inevitable, and some women said they intend to flee by paying off guards.
“Even here in the camp, anyone who has money here, she gets out. If I had money, I’d be out,” the Sudanese woman said.
“There are a few guards you can pay. We know who they are. The problem is money.”
Many women said Turkey’s incursion against the Kurd-led forces brought them hope for escape – an opening to avoid freezing to death, being hanged by the Syrian government or being repatriated to places like Russia or African countries.
“We were hoping that Turkey would take us,” one woman said. “The Kurds are [our] direct enemies. They don’t treat us good. They yell, they insult you, they search us regularly.”
“I will go to Turkey,” the middle-aged Russian woman declared. “I’m leaving. I will go to the [Turkey-backed rebel] fighters,” she said. “I’m not staying here to die.”
Many women, especially from Western countries, demanded the latest news about international repatriations. The Sudanese woman, however, said she would stay put. According to her, a German friend paid to smuggle herself and her children out of the camp and towards Turkey’s front line, but stepped on a landmine before she could reach it.
“So we got used to it. We are thinking to prepare for winter,” the Sudanese woman said.
“There’s a war without end here in Syria. Turkey is coming, Bashar is coming, everybody is scared. But you know, everybody is gonna die,” she said.
A woman who gave her nationality as British said she wasn’t sure if she wanted to go back to the United Kingdom with her children.
“I don’t know the situation there [for Muslims],” said the woman, who asked that her name not be published. One of the few women who admitted willingly traveling to ISIS territory, she said she was verbally abused for her Islamic dress back in the United Kingdom and worried that her family wouldn’t be allowed to raise her children if they returned without her.
She said that the U.K. government knows she’s in al-Hol but she hasn’t been in contact with anyone from the Home Office about repatriation.
Despite the conditions in al-Hol, she and a second British woman said they feared retribution from the Syrian army more than the Kurds.
Spoken to individually, away from the crowd, two of the women acknowledged they were deeply afraid not only of the regime, but also of a shadowy group of hardcore ISIS ideologues inside the camp.
“I don’t know who they are. They do things secretly,” said the university-aged woman, two toddlers hanging on her legs. She estimated roughly half of the foreign internees, including herself, want to go home and reintegrate into their societies. The other half, she speculated, could likely never be rehabilitated.
These are pages from a notebook the guards confiscated during a raid in Al-Hol yesterday. The notebooks are given to children between the ages of the 10 and 14. pic.twitter.com/Glr7mvqvz9
— Joanne Stocker جوآن (@joanne_stocker) November 13, 2019
A day earlier, camp officials recovered a notebook during a raid of the foreign annex like the type given to children. Inside were drawings of ISIS flags and the phrase “whether you want it or not the truth will spread” written in Russian.
“There are dangerous people inside this camp,” the university-aged woman said, glancing over her shoulder. “Very dangerous people.”