Conditions Are Deteriorating At Syria Camp Where ISIS Families Are Being Held

May 22, 2019
Originally published on May 22, 2019 6:16 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now for a rare look at what could be a crisis in the making in northeastern Syria. It's part of the aftermath of the fight against ISIS there. Thousands of foreign wives and children of ISIS fighters, people from the west and from around the world who went to Syria, they're being held in one section of a much larger displacement camp. Health conditions at the camp are deteriorating, security is tenuous, so journalists are rarely allowed in. NPR's Jane Arraf was. She was there today, and she joins me now from the region. Hey, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hey, just describe what you were able to see. What's this camp like?

ARRAF: So this is actually a camp within a camp, and it's known as the annex. It's where non-Iraqis and non-Syrians are kept. And it's heavily guarded. There's a wire fence, a steel gate - a couple of them actually - and armed guards keeping watch. And it's kind of like a railway station. This is what it sounded like when I was there earlier today.

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ARRAF: People from everywhere coming and going. Their kids hauling carts with supplies. It's kind of dusty, gravelly, this field with white tents, children playing with toy guns. At the gate, there are dozens of women pressed against that wire fence. They want to go out to go to the market and do other things, but for the most part, they're being told they can't. These are the wives of foreign ISIS fighters, who flocked to the caliphate, and their children. And they're kept under tight security.

KELLY: I can picture it. I can hear it. These women who were pressed against the gate and the others there, were you able to speak to any of them?

ARRAF: I did speak to a few. We were allowed to walk through the camp with the Kurdish guards. But we weren't allowed to talk to everybody we wanted. The guards said one path that we wanted to take was too dangerous. And definitely there was hostility towards the guards, not so much against us.

One woman who didn't want to be named or have her nationality noted said that at night in the camp where she was, everyone was afraid. She said they were afraid of the guards, who would do raids to search for phones or other contraband. And they were afraid as well of some of the other women, women even more extreme than ISIS, whose husbands were executed. I spoke to one woman from Chechnya who asked me in broken Arabic if it was true Russia was taking children back.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: She said are 14-year-old son badly needed an operation. And she wanted the Russian government to take him out. It's a huge problem in that part of the camp, that lack of medical care.

KELLY: You said this is non-Syrians, non-Iraqis being held here. Is that right?

ARRAF: Yes. These are foreigners mostly from Europe and North Africa.

KELLY: What about Americans? Are Americans there?

ARRAF: So not in that camp according to officials. I have met an American in another smaller camp. But the interesting thing is that there weren't a lot of Americans or Canadians who actually went to join ISIS. Most of them were from North Africa, Eastern and Western Europe. The Americans that have been there have generally been taken out, although there are few thought to be left here.

KELLY: What is the future for people in this camp? Do the countries they came from say that they will ever be allowed to go home?

ARRAF: That is a huge and controversial question. For the women, it's really iffy. For the children, some of the countries have started to take back orphans - for instance, Sweden and Russia. I met two orphans in that foreigner section. There were two boys, maybe 13 or 14, one from Trinidad, one from Pakistan. They said they had no parents. They had nothing. They were looking for help. And pretty much everyone there is looking for help because it's a really big question, what happens to kids like that.

KELLY: NPR's Jane Arraf. Thanks so much, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.