The prospect of scoring political points at home should not trump considerations of humanity and fairness
Wed 27 Nov 2019
The water in al-Hawl, the bleak camp in north-eastern Syria where the British children of Islamic State detainees now live, swims with parasites. The winter chill seeps into tents, and there is nothing to play with but plastic medical gloves and flaps of cardboard. There is no school, no trauma care and virtually no medical care, and there are cases of sexual abuse. There are stabbings and shootouts between militant Isis women and camp guards – members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led group that helped the US coalition defeat Isis. The children have watched more women and babies die in recent months than a soldier might witness over the course of a military career.
There are also British women and children at another camp, called al-Roj, close to the Iraqi border. Kimberly and Maryam, a Canadian and a German, feel themselves lucky to be held at al-Roj rather than al-Hawl. When I met them on a research trip to the area in June, the first thing they asked me was whether I was a British journalist.
Kimberly shares a tent with Shamima Begum, the teenager from Bethnal Green, east London. Begum was recruited by Isis and stumbled out of the militants’ final battle early this year, then spoke to British reporters, and swiftly lost her UK citizenship – a move by the then home secretary Sajid Javid that was pure political theatre. For the women in the camp, a British journalist is now a presence to be feared, someone who can get you tried by the media before you have a chance to set foot in a courtroom. “You can understand,” says Kimberly, “that we all feel very protective of her.” I explained that I was a researcher with an organisation that works on conflict prevention, that I would write about them, but with the aim of finding a responsible solution to their fate.
On the outside, Kimberly and Maryam do not look like Isis women any more. In al-Hawl, where militant women police communal spaces, everyone still wears the obligatory black niqab and robes. But in al-Roj, Kimberly wears a burgundy cloak and a cream hat; Maryam is dressed in what looks like pastel “athleisure”, with chunky sunglasses perched on her head. They both reject Isis, beg the forgiveness of their home countries, and are keen for the chance to be returned, prosecuted and given a second chance at life. They point to their stories as evidence that “Isis women” should be judged individually. “We are all tarred by the same terrible black brush,” says Kimberly.
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