More than 600 family members of ISIL fighters have been repatriated from Syria to Kazakhstan over the last three years, as part of an initiative to rehabilitate women and children from the country. One formerly radicalized wife who married a member of the terrorist group, has been speaking to UN News about her regrets, and her hopes for a better future.
“We were told that Syria is the sacred land”, recalls Asel, a 32-year-old Kazakh woman. “If we died there in battle, we would immediately go to heaven and become martyrs”.
In 2014 Asel was one of around 150 people who left Kazakhstan to join the ISIL terrorist network, also known by the Arabic term Da’esh, in Syria, along with her husband and her son. She was pregnant at the time.
Asel grew up in an “average” Kazakh family in the north of Kazakhstan, where religious influence was not as strong as in the south. After graduating from the College of Transport and Communications, she moved to the capital, Nur-Sultan, formerly known as Astana, in 2013.
Once there, she became an adherent of a strict form of Islam, and married a man with similar views, who convinced her that they should relocate to Syria: “we were attracted because we believed that no one would have to work on the sacred land, that we would receive financial benefits on a monthly basis, and that houses and property from the ‘liberated’ cities and towns would be ours”.
The following year they travelled to Syria, via a route that took them through Belarus and Turkey. However, as hostilities intensified, their dream turned sour, and their money and food quickly ran out.
In total, Asel lived in Syria for about five years, moving with her husband from one place to another. During this time, she gave birth to her second son, whilst her husband married two more women from Kazakhstan, who also bore him children.
But one day, she says, her husband did not return home: he was killed by a bomb that hit the building where he was working. Now left a widow, Asel and her children, decided to return to their homeland.
The family had heard on the grapevine that the Government of Kazakhstan was organizing flights for those wishing to return home. Despite fears that she could be sent to prison, Asel realized that, if they remained in Syria, they would struggle to survive the increasingly difficult conditions.
At great risk to her life, Asel, together with women from Dagestan in the Russian Federation, Turkey, and even from European countries, reached the notorious Al-Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria.
Conditions at the camp, which houses over 60,000 refugees, have frequently been condemned as extremely harsh. The families of former Da’esh fighters are kept in a separate, guarded compound, following reported outbreaks of violence between them and others at the facility.
Asel says that she was very lucky to spend just two months at Al-Hol, but those 60 days, combined with the hardships of the previous five years, were enough to underline the urgent need to get her and her sons out of Syria.