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‘I’m going to die here’: Wives of ISIS fighters want to return home to Canada

Global News logo Global News 2018-10-11 Stewart Bell
a person wearing a hat and glasses © (Global News)

In an exclusive Global News series, Stewart Bell reports from Iraq and Syria on the aftermath of the war against the so-called Islamic State. In Part 3, Global speaks with two Canadian women held at a camp in Syria for the families of ISIS fighters. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

From the road, Roj Camp looks like the other tent cities that have sprung up in Syria — a grid of white tarp and children flying kites made from sticks and plastic bags.

But the armed Kurdish fighters guarding the front gate are a sign it’s not just another refugee camp: It’s a detention centre for the captured wives and children of the so-called Islamic State.

And seven of them are Canadians.

“I’m going to die here,” one of them, a 26-year-old Toronto woman, told Global News in an interview at the camp in northeast Syria.

READ MORE: Canadian member of Islamic State caught, but RCMP struggle to lay charges against ISIS fighters

The wife of a Lebanese ISIS fighter, she was captured by Kurdish forces last December and brought to the site near the Iraqi border.

While she said she had spoken online with a Canadian official about coming home, that was months ago and she had not heard from the government since.

“My country’s not doing anything for me. No one cares,” said the woman, who has three children, all born in Syria.

A 23-year-old from Montreal was at the same camp with her two children. The wife of a German ISIS fighter, she too spoke to a Canadian official about returning but without any result to date.

“Seeing nothing from Canada is actually making us lose hope,” she said.

WATCH: Canadian ISIS fighter captured in northern Syria speaks out

The Canadians are among almost 500 foreign women affiliated with ISIS who have been captured and are being held at camps in Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria. Another 1,000 are minors.

In addition to the women at Roj Camp, Vancouver's Rida Jabbar, the wife of high-profile Canadian ISIS member Mohamed Ali, was detained with her two children at a different camp.

That brings the total number of Canadians identified by Global News to three women and seven kids, in addition to three male fighters. A Kurdish official said the numbers could rise as the U.S.-backed Syrian Defence Forces retake the last ISIS strongholds.

The Western families are mostly kept at Roj Camp, which was initially built for Iraqi refugees, a few of whom remain. It is run by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the military alliance that controls the region. But the Kurds want to shut down the camp, preferably before the winter cold arrives.

According to Kurdish authorities, the Canadian government showed an initial interest in bringing the Canadians home and had them fill out passport application forms.

But Ottawa suddenly stopped the repatriation process for reasons the Kurds do not understand, said Abdulkarim Omar, co-chair of foreign affairs for the administration that controls the region.

“Those women and children who were brought up according to the fanatic ideology of ISIL, they need rehabilitation,” Omar said. “And this of course needs capabilities and we don’t have these capabilities.”

The two Canadian women at Roj Camp were interviewed by Global News and academic researcher Prof. Amarnath Amarasingam. Both women consented to being interviewed on camera on the condition they could cover their faces and would not be named.

Prior to the interviews, Global News signed a paper agreeing to respect international human rights laws. It also said detainees did not have to answer questions. The camp manager was in the room during the interviews but did not interfere.

Both Canadian women insisted they were not active in the conflict and had spent their time under ISIS as homemakers. One of them said her husband, whom she met online, tricked her into coming to Syria.

“I was just a person who went with her husband,” the Toronto woman said. “I never hurt anyone. I never shot anyone. I never killed anyone. I never did anything horrible to anyone. Just the fact that I went there, you know, that’s the biggest thing. And I don’t even know how to shoot a gun, I don’t know nothing.”

Amarasingam said their stories were similar to those of other foreign women married to ISIS fighters. He described their roles as “a kind of revolutionary domesticity” in which they supported the ISIS cause by staying at home and having children.

“I think once the war heated up in Mosul and Raqqah they also got to the point where they didn’t want to see their kids killed. They wanted to find a way out and some of them made arrangements to leave,” he said.

WATCH: 16x9 investigates the Female recruits to ISIS

The eldest of the women is a Somali-Canadian who said she grew up in Toronto’s Dixon Road neighbourhood and met her husband online.

He was Lebanese but in November 2014 he sent her to Istanbul, where he had arranged for a man named Abu Mohamed to meet her, she said.

She thought Abu Mohamed was going to take her to Lebanon to be with her husband, she said, but instead, he brought her across the border into Syria.

Her daughter was born in Raqqah, the former hub of ISIS activity. She said she stayed at home and was unaware of the atrocities ISIS was committing as it sought to force its rigid version of Islamic law on the population.

“Pretty much the whole time I was in Raqqah,” she said. “The women just stayed in their houses, they didn’t do anything.”

When the bombing began, she was terrified, she said. During her third pregnancy, she decided to return to Canada.

“I thought that maybe if I go back I can give birth, start over, you know like, I know Canadians are different than anyone else. They believe in second chances.”

READ MORE: Calls for independent review after report shows 3 Canadians targeted in Syria and Iraq

Last December, she set off with her kids intending to cross into Turkey but she was stopped at a Kurdish checkpoint. “Cause I’m obvious, you know, I’m Somalian. So they took us straight to the prison.”

She was taken nine months ago to Roj Camp, which currently holds 370 families, 100 of them foreigners. Most are from North Africa but there are also Europeans and North Americans.

Her sister said the Toronto family was talking to Global Affairs Canada but the process was slow-moving and officials had provided no timeline for her return.

The case was unique because she only ended up in Syria as a result of her husband's deception, the sister said.

"She had no idea where she was going," she said. "We just want her to come back."

The Montreal woman said she became more devout at Montreal’s Collège Ahuntsic, where she was inspired by the Muslim converts she met.

The “sisters” encouraged her to pray and cover herself, she said. But nobody recruited her, she insisted. “To come over here, that was really on my own. It was not anyone trying to push me.”

She said she no longer felt comfortable in Canada.

“I was feeling like I’m different from the others, you know, because the moment you cover your face, everyone (was) just looking at you strangely.”

“And I was just like, OK, there’s a bunch of Muslims there (in Syria), everyone is the same,” she said. “I want to live under the rules of Allah, you know, and as long as there’s a place where it’s being used, I have to go over there.”

She flew to Turkey and crossed into Syria, where she lived with other women at an ISIS house in the city of Jarabulus. She said she was not permitted to leave the house without a male escort, which she soon realized meant she would have to marry.

“They don’t force you but it’s like, if I don’t get married, I don’t leave this house,” she said.

A German ISIS fighter eventually came by and asked if anyone wanted to get married. She went to meet him and accompanied him to Raqqah.

READ MORE: Canada’s plan for managing the return of ISIS fighters revealed in documents

She felt she was “just living like a normal family.” She had a TV, internet, a daughter and a husband. Being at home, she never witnessed the horrific crimes of ISIS, she said.

But with the start of the bombing campaign, it became impossible to ignore that she was in a war zone. She began asking if she should get out. Pregnant with a second child, she left Raqqah for Mosul, Iraq, and then came back to Syria.

“At the end, we were just, like, from city to city because every city was getting destroyed and you just have to run away,” she said.

To get her home, her mother paid a smuggler to bring her and the children — including her unborn child — to Turkey. “My mom planned everything,” she said.

They passed through five of the checkpoints that are everywhere in Syria's northeast. But at the biggest one, the soldiers asked for ID. The smuggler tried to pass her off as his wife’s sister, but they looked nothing alike and under questioning, she came clean.

She gave the date of her capture as Oct. 23, 2017.

She gave birth in a prison she said had no medical facilities. “There was nothing, absolutely nothing,” she said. “It was horrible.”

After 63 days she was moved to Roj Camp, where she now lives in a tent and spends the days caring for her kids and waiting for the Canadian government to take her out.

No Canadian officials have visited her, she said, but she did speak with one. “They were asking, like, is everything OK, where we are.”

The official asked whether she preferred to go home through Iraq or Turkey, and she opted for the latter. She said that was five or six months ago. Since then, “nothing, nothing. I’m just having information from my mom, that’s it.”

She insists she is not a danger.

“I don’t want to do anything, I just want to live a normal life and be with my children and that’s it,” she said. “Even if it’s, like, that I have to be, like, judged in Canada and get prison, everything, I absolutely don’t care.”

“I just want my children out of here.”

Both women said they had filled out passport applications but had not received any response.

“I think it’s kind of imperative on Canada to bring them back,” Amarasingam said. “Seven of them are under the age of five, living in a tent city in the desert, under the heat and with winter two months away.”

He said the government’s reluctance could be the result of concerns they might not face arrest if returned to Canada due to the challenges the RCMP faces in building cases against those active in overseas terror groups.

Canada also lacks the resources to put returnees under constant surveillance and does not have sufficient rehabilitation programs for them, he said. The Liberal government may also fear the political fallout of repatriating Canadians who were involved in ISIS.

The Toronto woman broke down as she appealed for help. She said the medical care at the camp was not good and the dust aggravated her asthma. She had been losing weight, she said.

“I’m really sick. My son, he has infection in his lungs.” She pointed to her daughter. “This one, she has asthma and the other one too. So, like, we’re getting more sick, you know.”

“I didn’t do anything,” she said. “I can’t take it anymore.”

“It’s not fair. We come from one of the best countries in the world and we’re suffering. Why?

“I’m so tired of this.”

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca

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