Home Feature France has 300 women and children in Syria’s IS camps

France has 300 women and children in Syria’s IS camps

France has 300 women and children in Syria’s IS camps

Roughly 10,000 other men and hundreds more adolescent boys from different countries are held across 14 overcrowded prisons in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah region.

Frank Andrews

Like many of the hundreds of French families whose children left to join the Islamic State (IS) group, Jean-Marc and Monique, retired farmers living in the mountains of Auvergne in central France, will never know why their daughter, Mathilde, and her husband took their four young children to live in IS territory.

For a few years after the young family disappeared in 2013, they had sporadic phone contact: Christmas, an occasional birthday. Their daughter gave birth to a fifth child, they learnt, a boy.

But in mid-2018, the contact stopped.

“It was exhausting,” Jean-Marc told Middle East Eye at the family’s old farmhouse. Monique developed breast cancer.

Then, one day in October 2019, Jean-Marc received a message from their eldest granddaughter, 15-year-old Sara. She was in a camp for IS families in northeastern Syria.

“Dear grandma and grandad,” she began, “did you hear that I was married, and that mummy and daddy and all my little brothers were killed?”

They hadn’t.

In the long message, Sara explained that aged 13 she was married off to a 17-year-old Moroccan.

Two years later, in the midst of a bloody battle for the militant group’s last stronghold, Baghouz, in Syria, she and the family witnessed a soldier enter their apartment and kill their father, an IS fighter, at close range.

With her husband weeks later, Sara saw what she believes was a French plane drop a bomb on the block where her mother and siblings lived, killing them all.

“She had to identify the bodies,” Sara’s grandmother Monique told breaking into tears.

The eldest was 13. The youngest, the sixth child, was born just days before.

A month after that, 15-year-old Sara watched her husband die after being shot by a sniper as he went to get water.

The following day – “the worst day of my life” – she was struck in the head by shrapnel, which she believes came from a French missile.

Sara had to eat hay to survive, she wrote to her grandparents. “I watched children burning right in front of my eyes.”

For years, Sara and hundreds more French women and children have tried to survive in Kurdish detention camps for families of suspected IS fighters in conditions so bad they may amount to torture, according to the UN. They are given no news on when they might be allowed to return: the mothers to face prosecution, the children a long assessment by social services.

Last year, a group of women began a hunger strike in a desperate, unsuccessful attempt to force France to repatriate.

Back at home, desperate families push for their relatives’ return. Given almost no news by suspicious authorities, they wait for scraps of information from the camps.

French police raid their homes at dawn and arrest them for sending relatives money, a lifeline in camps where non-existent medical services, meagre food rations and filthy water leave many detainees gravely ill.

Reluctance to repatriate

At its height in 2015, the IS “caliphate” covered an area roughly the size of Britain.

When Baghouz was taken in March 2019 by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and local Arab groups backed by a US-led coalition, tens of thousands of people streamed out of the flattened city.

Now, roughly 10,000 men and hundreds more adolescent boys are held across 14 overcrowded prisons in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah region.

Women and children, including orphans like Sara, live in two sprawling camps, al-Roj and al-Hol, home to roughly 60,000 people: around 20,000 from Syria, 31,000 from Iraq, and up to 12,000 from other countries: 4,000 women and 8,000 children.

Kurdish authorities, who run the prisons and camps, have repeatedly urged countries to repatriate their nationals. So has the United Nations, the European parliament, countless rights groups and the United States, which has offered to fly people home.

But many governments are reluctant to repatriate citizens who may have had ties to the militant group.

Only around half of the roughly 60 countries with citizens in the camps, including the US, Russia and Kazakhstan, have brought some home – and often just a few at a time.

France, the western country with the most nationals left in the camps, has repatriated around 35 children. It still has an estimated 100 women and 200 children there, two-thirds of whom are under six.

Some families arrived as long ago as 2017.

Meanwhile, life in the camps is becoming increasingly dangerous, as IS assassins stalk the tents and sleeper cells mobilize once again.

Years of horror

In Roj, where Sara and most of the French nationals live, detainees are allowed to send one short voice- note home each week.

There, toxic fumes from nearby oil fields give detainees breathing problems. People die in tent fires. Children have no access to proper education.

Healthcare facilities are scarce and families live on rations of rice, lentils, oil, sugar and bulgur wheat. Only those with money can afford bottled water, fruit and vegetables.

“Everyone knows that if the families [in France] don’t send money to the camps, the children die,” said Marie Dose, a lawyer for several families.

Some women and children have open, infected shrapnel and bullet wounds left over from the 2019 siege of Baghouz.

Around 100km south of Roj is al-Hol, a larger camp first set up for Iraqis displaced during the 1991 Gulf War.

There, women give birth in tents, people queue for hours for worm-riddled water that perpetuates the camp’s acute diarrhoea epidemic and an average of two children die each week, often from preventable conditions.

Families are at the mercy of the region’s extreme weather conditions and nearby fighting. One mother said she heard the “ground shake” recently as Turkey bombed targets in the area.

“I can’t accept just being a spectator to their suffering, their slow death,” a 58-year-old Franco-Moroccan, whose daughter and grandchildren are in Roj, told. “It’s incredibly difficult to live with this nightmare.”

Several of the French women say they have been beaten in Kurdish prisons, where they are sometimes detained for months before being moved between camps. Others say they are locked up for having a mobile phone.

MEE was told by one French woman that her daughter was beaten several times in prison, deprived of food and stripped naked in front of her children.

Another said her sister was currently looking after the two young children of a French woman imprisoned for protesting against her conditions.

Last year, a different French woman’s 18-month-old son “nearly died” in a prison in Qamishli, on the Turkey-Syria border, after a cardiac arrest.

The guards didn’t come when the women in the crammed cell shouted, according to her account, but a cellmate resuscitated the boy.

When provided with these accounts, a spokesperson for the Kurdish authorities told MEE: “What is stated is incorrect. There is a systematic campaign to distort the facts.” They gave no further details.

IS resurgence

Despite some arrests, outnumbered guards in al-Hol have been unable to stop IS attacks and assassinations including multiple beheadings.

The UN last year documented cases of “radicalization” and training at the camp, warning that foreign children were being “groomed” as future IS operatives.

The father of a 29-year-old French woman recently transferred to Roj told MEE that the woman and her three young daughters barely left their tent in Hol. “She [was] petrified that Daesh would return,” he said, using a different acronym for IS.

Then, in late January, hundreds of IS fighters attacked a prison in nearby Hasakah to free captured comrades.

Hundreds of children of mixed nationalities were among the thousands living in appalling conditions at the Ghwayran jail. Some were reportedly used as “human shields” during the attack and are still being detained at the prison.

“Responsibility for anything that happens to these children also lies at the door of foreign governments, who have thought that they can simply abandon their child nationals in Syria,” Save The Children said.

Last year, 10 French women in the camps starved themselves to pressure their government into repatriation.

So did Pascale Descamps, whose daughter – living with her four children in Roj – has advanced colon cancer and needs urgent treatment. The UN Committee Against Torture has urged France to repatriate her, to no avail.

“She tells me that she is getting worse, bleeding a lot, and getting weaker,” Descamps said last year. “She is like an animal in her tent, dying in front of her children.”

In December last year, a 28-year-old diabetic French woman died in Roj, leaving behind her six-year-old daughter, who is now being looked after by another French mother.

Dose, the lawyer, said authorities were informed multiple times about her worsening condition.

“What are we going to tell [the child] when she turns 15? How are we going to explain to her that for three years, France let her mother die there?”

The French justification

Families speaking to MEE said their loved ones accepted they would likely be imprisoned if repatriated and that their children might end up in care, if not with relatives.

Women suspected of being members of IS can be sentenced to 20 years in prison in France, which has some of the most extensive counter-terror legislation in Europe.

Some 250 or more French citizens once in IS territory have been repatriated under an agreement by which authorities in Turkish-controlled areas fly French nationals home if they come onto their territory or are handed over. These are “expulsions”, the French stress, not repatriations.

Paris, which says it repatriates on a “case-by-case” basis, has argued that the women should be tried in Syria and Iraq. France has no jurisdiction over the territory, it argues, and the women and children would be a security risk at home.

Things could come to a head as early as July when France faces a ruling at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) after a case brought against the republic by two families with relatives in the camps.

It will be the biggest test yet of France’s position. (Click here to read full report)


Courtesy: Middle East Eye (MEE)