“I’m an ‘accidental terrorist,'” Khadija, a 54-year-old South African lady, advised me with a rueful snort. She was once seated in a battered tent in Roj, a detention camp on a windswept desolate tract in northeast Syria. “Coming in was easy. Getting out? Not so easy.”
Khadija has been trapped in war-wracked Syria since 2015, when she launched into what she calls a failed quest to rescue 3 younger members of the family dwelling underneath the Islamic State (ISIS). She is now amongst an estimated 17 South Africans detained for years in camps in northeast Syria as ISIS suspects and members of the family.
The South Africans come with 4 girls and 13 youngsters, one simply 2 years previous, members of the family say. They are held in horrific prerequisites made much more life-threatening by means of fresh Turkish air moves towards the Kurdish-led forces who guard them. None of those South Africans were charged with a criminal offense. The South African executive must resume its aborted efforts to carry them again.
Hundreds of detainees have died in Roj and al-Hol, the 2 camps in northeast Syria preserving 1000’s of overseas girls and youngsters for alleged ISIS hyperlinks. One was once a South African mom. Many had been youngsters who died of preventable sicknesses. Others had been murdered by means of detainees unswerving to ISIS, burned in tent fires, drowned in sewage pits, or hit by means of water vehicles.
The detainees haven’t any option to problem their detention. Women within the camps advised me hardline ISIS detainees threaten and throw rocks at those that wish to move house.
Khadija does now not are compatible the profile of most girls held within the camps. Unlike maximum overseas feminine detainees, who got here to Syria as younger girls or women, she is now a grandmother. Most of the ladies say they had been trafficked into ISIS, introduced by means of male relations, or joined voluntarily, however Khadija insists she got here on a naïve rescue challenge.
Her goal, Khadija advised me once I met her in Roj in May, was once to carry house two nieces and a nephew, the kids of a brother who joined ISIS. But when she arrived, she stated, her brother refused to let the kids move.
“The next thing I knew I was out on the street in Syria, with no Arabic,” Khadija stated, and she knew ISIS killed or imprisoned those that attempted to go away. Khadija stated she survived by means of shifting in with widows of ISIS opponents, cleansing and taking good care of their youngsters. When she after all controlled to escape ISIS in 2018, she was once picked up in northeast Syria by means of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led, US-backed workforce combating ISIS. Regional forces held her first in a jail, then al-Hol, then Roj.
Like different camp detainees, Khadija lacks ok hospital therapy regardless that she suffers from grave sicknesses that experience left her in large part motionless and with out imaginative and prescient in a single eye. She and the opposite detainees additionally lack ok meals, blank water, and safe haven. Although many of the 17 South Africans, together with Khadija’s nieces and nephew, additionally ended up in Roj, they may be able to most effective consult with Khadija two times a 12 months.
In 2021, South Africa attempted to repatriate its nationals however the deal collapsed on the closing minute. “We were packed and ready to go,” some other South African lady in Roj stated. “But we waited and waited and no one came for us.”
The setback stemmed from diplomatic sensitivities, knowledgeable assets stated. South Africa has diplomatic family members with the Syrian executive, complicating its negotiations with the detaining government in nominally independent northeast Syria. But no less than 34 international locations have repatriated nationals from northeast Syria, together with some with diplomatic ties to Damascus comparable to Kazakhstan, Russia, and Tajikistan.
The South African executive must repatriate or lend a hand carry house its nationals earlier than to any extent further die in northeast Syria. It must lend a hand rehabilitate and reintegrate the returnees, spotting that kids are sufferers of ISIS and that many ladies is also, too. Adults will also be prosecuted if warranted. In different international locations, youngsters who’ve been introduced house from al-Hol and Roj are doing remarkably neatly, Human Rights Watch discovered.
I will be able to’t vouch for Khadija’s motives for going to Syria, however I will be able to attest to her remorseful about and depression that she might by no means once more see her youngsters or meet her grandchildren again in South Africa. “I wouldn’t like to die here,” she stated. “I would like a funeral back home.”
Surely the South African government can act earlier than it involves that.
Letta Tayler, Associate Director, Crisis and Conflict Division