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Families Of ISIS Fighters Crowd Camps In Syria


At the height of its power five years ago, ISIS governed major cities in Iraq and Syria and controlled territory spanning 34,000 square miles. Believers flocked from all over the world to the self-declared Islamic caliphate. Now thousands of them have ended up together in a remote detention camp in northeastern Syria. NPR's Jane Arraf went there and has this report.

UNIDENTIFIED AID WORKER: (Speaking in Foreign Language).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: An aid worker in a red vest on the back of a truck calls out names and tent numbers in a muddy field. It's been raining for days. Women and children crowd around waiting for a slip of paper to exchange for a box of food blankets and children's clothes, all of those things in short supply.

There are hundreds and hundreds of women crowding around and little boys with these homemade carts. They're using them to put in the blankets and the food and the other supplies that they're getting. They're huge crowds of women around each of the tents where they're passing down boxes. And the little boys are carrying them away in these carts.

This is the al-Hol camp in Syria's Hasakah province, a five-hour drive from Baghuz where ISIS made its last stand. The camp is meant to hold 20,000 people. Now there are almost 80,000. Most of the women are completely covered in the long, black cloaks they wore when they lived in what they called al-dawla, the state. Their faces are covered, only their eyes visible. And you can't tell that they're from all over the world.

A woman comes up to me with a piece of paper she's had someone write for her in English.

UM MOHAMMAD: (Unintelligible) English?

ARRAF: Yes. And you? Where are you from? Thank you. So she's handing me a piece of paper, this woman who has just come up. And it says I'm Um Mohammad.

The paper says she's from Turkmenistan. She's trying to get back money she says was taken from her son when they were sent here.

MOHAMMAD: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: She tells me in broken Arabic that if she contacts her family in China, part of the Muslim Uyghur minority, her relatives will end up in prison there.


ARRAF: There was a riot here last week over bad conditions. People inside are furious. The guards are edgy.


ARRAF: A Syrian woman, who was lined up in the rain for hours, shouts that they're human beings not animals.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) They don't give us food. They don't give us water. They are the same as ISIS. They put Iraqis and Syrians together. And every day, they are fighting over food. Why did they mix us together?

ARRAF: If we're criminals, punish us, she says. But don't leave us here.

Another woman in the group trying to take shelter under a metal awning raises her finger to the sky in the sign of allegiance to ISIS. Most of the adults here are women who are married to ISIS fighters. They're believed to be hundreds of kidnapped women and children from the Yazidi minority kept here with ISIS families. And there are others.

MOUSSA ABDULLAH: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Moussa Abdullah, one of the few adult men here, says his house in Deir Azzour was hit by an airstrike. But that's not why he can't go home.

ABDULLAH: (Through translator) I am wanted by the Syrian regime, that and we have problems between the tribes.

ARRAF: The Iraqi government plans to repatriate the roughly 30,000 Iraqis in this camp. But there are people whose governments won't take them back. In addition to Iraqis, camp officials say there are almost 10,000 foreigners here from 53 countries. Gaylan Su from Trinidad and Tobago sits outside the camp management office. She's searching for her son.

GAYLAN SU: I'm a new Muslim when I came here. I just got married to a man. And this silly man brought me here with my child. He never told me he was bringing my child to be a soldier.

ARRAF: Su carries a notebook of her son's drawings. He's almost 17. She wears a red scarf wrapped around her hair. And her face uncovered. She's one of the very few camp residents who isn't completely covered in black. She was married to five different ISIS fighters. She seems lost.

SU: All of those women who wants to stay in this black clothes - they've been giving me a hard time all morning for the way I am. I want to get out of this clothes. I had enough. Yes, I believe in one God. Yes. There's no doubt about that. I believe in God. OK? But all this, I need a break, man. I need - I'm so tired.

ARRAF: Kurdish Syrian leaders are pleading for international help for this camp and for countries to take their citizens home. But most countries have refused. They say they don't know what to do with them. Jane Arraf, NPR News, in the al-Hol camp in Northeastern Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.