Central Asia struggles to reintegrate ISIS returnees
28-year-old Kyrgyz man, Gulmira fled her home in Syria four years ago to escape her Islamic State (IS) fighter husband and the horrors of living under the extremist group’s rule.
Gulmira, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, first left Kyrgyzstan for Turkey in order to find work, but then moved to IS-controlled areas of Syria and then moved there. married.
The woman – who also has a son born in Syria six years ago – does not say why she decided to join ISIS, simply saying that she was “cheated”.
Gulmira now wants to rebuild her life in Kyrgyzstan, but says she does not receive much support and has been “under constant stress” since returning.
“Agents of the State Committee for National Security often come unexpectedly to search my home,” Gulmira told RFE / RL’s Kyrgyz service.
“They didn’t find anything illegal and just took my cell phone and my clothes,” she added. “They say bad things about me to my neighbors. At least I wish I could get some psychological support.
The Kyrgyz Security Committee did not respond to RFE / RL’s request for comment.
But authorities in Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian countries have admitted finding themselves in uncharted territory when thousands of their citizens – family members of ISIS fighters – returned from Syria and Iraq. these last years.
Since 2019, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have repatriated more than 1,000 women and children stranded in Syria and Iraq.
Hundreds more returned in private, long before the extremist group’s defeat in Syria in 2019.
Authorities in the predominantly Muslim region have since worked to rehabilitate and reintegrate their citizens who have been exposed to such things as IS atrocities, airstrikes, poverty and hunger.
Some have been deeply indoctrinated by the extremist ideology of ISIS.
Many professionals, including doctors, teachers, psychologists and religious figures have been recruited to help returnees move on to “normal life”.
There are many successes, according to governments.
Kazakh woman has attended several conferences at home and abroad, telling the world how she and her five young children were given a ‘second chance’ after Kazakhstan brought them back from a Syrian refugee camp in 2019 .
Widow of a Kazakh IS fighter, Sabinella Ayazbaeva has since been busy with her “new chapter in life”. She got a part-time job at a local mall in her hometown of Qaraghandy and enrolled in psychology classes at a university. Her children are all in school.
In Tajikistan, some returnees participated in government-sponsored meetings with young people to warn them of the dangers of joining extremist groups.
But navigation has not been easy for everyone, especially with some school-aged children, according to experts, officials and affected families.
Saule Mukanova, a child psychologist who worked at an ISIS rehabilitation center in Kazakhstan, told RFE / RL that many older children were “behaving aggressively,” calling their teachers unfaithful and calling them even stones.
Mukanova recalls that some of the children even self-harm to express their anger and frustration. It took a while for the kids to get used to their new surroundings, start trusting people, and learn to love playing, watching TV and just having fun.
In Tajikistan, a grandmother told RFE / RL that her preteen grandson has been living in a state-run boarding school since his repatriation from Iraq in 2019 with some 90 other children.
The boy’s father died in an airstrike in Mosul and his mother was jailed in Iraq for having links with ISIS.
According to the woman, the boy was reluctant to meet his relatives visiting him at the boarding school. The grandmother said the child appeared to have been brainwashed by ISIS ideology and idolized his militant father.
The child is making progress, the grandmother said, adding that she hopes he will come out of the radical state of mind completely.
Earlier this year, Tajik authorities said 84 children – repatriated from Iraq – were living and studying in several specialized boarding schools. They have little contact with the outside world and their relatives are only allowed occasional visits.
The government has not said when the children will be released to live with their grandparents or other family members who have been appointed guardians by the authorities.
Society becomes more tolerant
The lives of returnees at home begin with check-ups and any medical treatment or surgery they may need. The adults are also questioned by the security services.
Then they spend several weeks in special rehabilitation centers, receive counseling from psychologists, and meet with Islamic scholars and social workers.
Children attend special classes to adjust to their new life and learn to read and write before entering mainstream schools.
Olga Ryl is the head of Pravo, one of the many Kazakh organizations involved in the rehabilitation and reintegration of children “from the moment their plane landed at the airport”.
Ryl told RFE / RL that it has been a learning process for everyone since the first Kazakh child returned from Syria with her militant father in 2016.
“Since then, we have gained experience in this area and our work is yielding concrete results,” said Ryl. “These are children who witnessed hunger and disease, some had to eat grass to survive… But they were eager to learn, and they were able to catch up with other children at school.
The reintegration process also includes the “restoration” of returnee documents. The majority of them lost their passports and other identity documents. Children born abroad do not have a birth certificate.
The authorities also help women find jobs, retrain or apply for social security benefits.
The attitude of society towards returnees has become more tolerant, says Vasilya Alimova, director of the Center for the Social Reintegration of Children of Uzbekistan.
At first, some returnees complained that their friends and neighbors avoided contact.
Many people openly criticized the authorities’ decision to bring ISIS family members home, calling them time bombs.
In Kazakhstan, some parents reportedly complained that they did not want their children to be in the same class as “children of former terrorists and extremists” repatriated from conflict zones in Iraq and Syria.
“Now there is hardly any discrimination against them. Society… has started to accept them as victims who have fallen under bad influences,” Alimova told RFE / RL. “As for the children, they cannot be responsible for what happened to them.
Alimova said repatriated children – including those born in Syria and Iraq to Central Asian parents – are now “at home” and have the same rights “as all other children here”.
Central Asian officials said they would continue their efforts to bring home the hundreds of women and children who still remain in camps in Iraq and Syria.