In the desert camp in northeastern Syria where tens of thousands of Islamic State fighters’ wives and children have been trapped for months in miserable conditions with no prospects of leaving, ISIS sympathizers regularly torch the tents of women deemed infidels.
Fights between camp residents have brought smuggled guns into the open, and some women have attacked or threatened others with knives and hammers. Twice, in June and July, women stabbed the Kurdish guards who were escorting them, sending the camp into lockdown.
Virtually all women wear the niqab, the full-length black veil demanded by ISIS’s rigid interpretation of Islam — some because they still adhere to the group’s ideology, others because they fear running afoul of the true believers.
The Kurdish-run #Al_Hol camp is struggling to secure and serve nearly 70,000 displaced people, mainly women and children who fled there during the last battle to oust the Islamic State from eastern Syria. Filled with women stripped of hope and children who regularly die before receiving medical care, it has become what aid workers, researchers and American military officials warn is a disaster in the making.
The daily ordeals of overcrowded latrines and contaminated water, limited medical care, flaring tensions between residents and guards, and chronic security problems have left the residents embittered and vulnerable. A recent Pentagon report that cautioned that ISIS was regrouping across Iraq and Syria said ISIS ideology has been able to spread “uncontested” at the camp.
It is impossible to know how many of the women are ISIS believers, and many have publicly disavowed the group. But a stubborn core of followers is menacing the rest with threats, intimidation and, occasionally, violence, aid workers and researchers who have interviewed Al Hol residents said.
The result is something more like a prison than a camp, a place where security concerns often overwhelm humanitarian ones — which only heightens the danger, according to aid workers and researchers who described conditions there to The New York Times.
“Living in conditions that are difficult and being surrounded by people who are highly radical — is that conducive to deradicalization?” said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking who researches Syria and Iraq, and who has visited the camp twice recently.
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“This is a place that can possibly radicalize someone, but certainly doesn’t help deradicalize anyone,” she added.
Yet few have been able to leave.
The Iraqis face being ostracized for their ISIS associations or sent to detention camps if they return to Iraq, which has been executing people accused of being ISIS members in what watchdogs and journalists have called sham trials. The Syrians may not have homes to go back to.
And the roughly 10,000 foreigners from at least 50 other countries are largely unwanted at home.
The Kurdish authorities overseeing the camp have pleaded for the non-Syrians to be allowed to return to their own countries, saying they are not equipped to detain them indefinitely. But only a few countries, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, have repatriated their citizens on a large scale, with the occasional exception of a few young children whom Western governments have agreed to take back.
“They’re in no man’s land. They’re in limbo,” said Sara Kayyali, a Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch who visited the camp earlier this year. “They’re stuck in the desert in a camp that’s not equipped for their needs, with children who grew up in the worst possible conditions, only to get to a place where things are, if possible, even worse.”
Adding to their frustration, the women have little information about where their ISIS fighter husbands are. Authorities at first told them that they would be reunited with their relatives or at least be allowed to speak to them, but little has come of that promise, partly because contact is seen as a security risk.
“I’m struggling to reconcile the two things, wanting to look at them as displaced people and human,” said Dareen Khalifa, an International Crisis Group analyst who has visited the camp, but some of the women are “very ideological, and the atmosphere is very ripe for all sorts of indoctrination of little kids and of women who just don’t know what’s going to happen to them or their families.”
The struggles of daily life have not helped.
The tents were freezing cold in the winter and have been swelteringly hot this summer, with temperatures rising as high as 122 degrees. Much of the water is contaminated with E. coli. Human Rights Watch researchers saw children drinking water from a tank with worms coming out of the spout, according to a report the group released in July, and the skin of many women and children they saw was pocked with sores caused by a parasite.
Conditions are especially poor in the so-called annex, where those who are neither Syrian nor Iraqi are housed, including more than 7,000 children — about two-thirds of whom are younger than 12 — and 3,000 women.
Annex residents are not allowed to leave their section without a guard. The authorities have also restricted aid groups’ access to the annex, making it difficult to provide much more than basics like water and food, aid workers said.
As a result, children in the annex are going without school and other services. There is not even a playground.
“We fear that the narrative of a radicalized population has played a role in hindering humanitarian access,” said Misty Buswell, a spokeswoman for the International Rescue Committee. “The youngest and most vulnerable are paying the highest price and suffering for the perceived misdeeds of their parents.”
Aid groups are gradually expanding services to keep up with the camp’s population, which leapt from under 10,000 at the end of 2018, to more than 72,000 as ISIS lost its last territory in March. But donors are wary of supporting a camp perceived to be housing hardened ISIS followers.
Medical care in the annex is limited to two small clinics, neither of which operates overnight, and women from the annex must clear numerous hurdles to be referred to an outside hospital. Women there regularly give birth in a tent without a doctor or a midwife, aid workers said.
The number of child deaths — mostly from treatable conditions like severe malnutrition, diarrhea and pneumonia — has nearly tripled since March, Ms. Buswell said. Between December and August, the deaths of 306 children under 5 have been recorded at the camp, she said. Almost a third of them were in the annex, double or sometimes triple the rate of deaths elsewhere in the camp, often because children there cannot get medical care, she said.
The women’s grievances are on display in the group chat channels where some of them congregate, which simmer with violent videos, sinister rumors and desperation.
One recurring message in the group-chat app Telegram holds, without evidence, that Kurdish guards are kidnapping children and forcing them to serve in Kurdish militias. Another rumor falsely claims that camp residents’ organs are being sold. Others allege murders, sexual assaults and rapes. Many of the posts are pure ISIS propaganda, including beheading videos and vows to rebuild the so-called caliphate.
Given that residents are being guarded by the same military force that fought their husbands and sons, the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the tensions may have been inevitable. The families who arrived between December and March were among the most committed of the group’s followers, Ms. Tsurkov said, choosing to leave only as the last shreds of the caliphate were being bombarded.
Aid workers and researchers said the guards often raid women’s tents at night, confiscating items or relocating families for what they say are security reasons, and fire into the air to keep order. Guards have confiscated women’s cash and valuables, leaving them without money to buy fresh food for their children, according to Human Rights Watch. Women in the annex are not allowed to have cellphones, though some do anyway.
A spokesman for the camp did not reply to a request for comment for this article. But the camp authorities, as well as some aid workers and researchers, have said extra security measures were warranted by the frequent outbreaks of bullying, harassment and violence.
The Pentagon report said local forces did not have enough resources to provide more than “minimal security,” allowing extremist ideology to spread unchecked.
“It’s a cycle of violence,” said Ms. Kayyali, the Human Rights Watch researcher. “ISIS has committed atrocities against the world. Policymakers don’t want to deal with anyone connected to ISIS. Then they’re re-radicalized by mistreatment, and they go back to what they know.”