A student from Germany followed her husband to Syria to join Islamic State. Now the 29 year old is stuck in an Iraqi army camp for prisoners of war with her three children as she awaits her fate: either a return to Germany or draconian punishment.
On Aug. 25, 2017, a blistering hot summer day in Iraq, Elif K., a 29-year-old Islamic State supporter from Germany, sent her last WhatsApp message from the “caliphate” to her family in Germany. The buildings around her were in flames, the roar of the attacking helicopters drowned out her words. Every explosion elicited a scream from her children. Elif was watching the world in which she had spent her last four years being destroyed. “Our life,” she thought to herself, “is coming to an end.”
Elif is a shy woman with hazelnut-brown eyes who loves cooking and watching quiz shows. Since exchanging small-town life in Germany for Islamic State, she found adventure and established a family. She learned what it felt like to be on the receiving end of airstrikes, taking shelter under her bed hundreds of times — praying, crying and wondering what death might feel like.
That day, she wrote to her father: “Hello dad, we are doing fine. I’m not far from Tal Afar. I will soon have to be taken to Syria because they are bombing the city to pieces. I don’t know if I will make it to age 30. I’ll get in touch after I arrive.” Then, as if to spell out her own focus for the last several years, she sent a second brief message: “Read the Koran.”
Elif threw some clothes together, grabbed her mobile phone and the children and ran out of the house. Out front, her husband was lying in the street. A shell had exploded next to him and he had suffered serious head injuries. His body was red and swollen.
“Hamzi,” she called out, using her pet name for him. But Patrick, her husband and the father of her children, the man for whom she had moved to IS territory, an internationally wanted jihadi, didn’t react.
She says that he was alive, but he could no longer move. “He looked unemotional,” she says quietly. “He was just lying there.” She left him behind and IS men led her and her children out of the city, which was conquered a short time later by Kurdish fighters and the Iraqi army.
Elif tells the story of her flight from the “caliphate” while crouched on a step in a prison camp that the Iraqi government has established for IS wives and their children. Elif is a delicate and pale woman, her body covered in a dark blue abaya. Her face is framed by a black veil. One of the temples of her eyeglasses is broken, but she hardly notices. Elif is a prisoner of war. Following the fall of Tal Afar, she was brought here by Iraqi security forces along with 1,400 other women and children.