Al-Hol Camp, Syria — Rawan Aboud tried to escape Islamic State after the death of her abusive first husband, a militant killed fighting for the group. She was jailed and forced to marry another fighter. When he died, she finally fled.
Now she is interned with fanatic supporters of the violent jihadist group she has sought refuge from since the age of 13.
“I married age 12,” said the Syrian girl, now 18. “My husband then brought me to Raqqa. He beat me and said I was an apostate for trying to leave.”
Thousands of women, especially foreigners who flocked from Europe and North African countries, willingly joined Islamic State, subscribing to its brutal interpretation of Islam and marrying militants.
Some remain ardent supporters of its ideology and live in camps they fled to in eastern Syria which are under the control of the US-backed forces that drove IS from its final piece of territory last month.
But many like Aboud, married off by conservative Muslim families in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, had no choice.
Aboud, several Syrians and a Lebanese woman also wed as a child to a man who joined IS are now detained alongside its die-hard adherents in a guarded section of al-Hol camp.
Regarded as suspect by Kurdish-led forces that helped defeat the jihadists and persecuted by women they are locked up with, they fear they will rot in detention or face death at the hands of their extreme fellow detainees.
Aboud has spent three months at al-Hol along with more than 60,000 people who fled the battle for Baghouz, the final shred of populated territory that Islamic State had held until its defeat there last month.
In an interview with Reuters this month, she wore a green coat, fingerless gloves and eye makeup behind her veil, which she only wears to avoid drawing the attention of IS supporters.
She used the pejorative acronym Daesh for IS, rather than “dawla,” Arabic for state, which many in the camp still use. She said her husbands were dead, not martyred, as slain militants are usually described by supporters.
“My first husband was killed fighting three years ago, thank God.”
Aboud tried to flee IS territory and was jailed in its Raqqa stronghold. When the US coalition began bombing the city, her 9-month-old daughter was killed. Militants moved her and other women from town to town as they retreated, and married her to another fighter who was also killed several months ago.
She then escaped with her other daughter, now 4.
They face an uncertain future.
“I want to go to my family in Idlib. But right now I’d settle for just another part of the camp, away from the foreigners. Somewhere I can use a phone,” she said.
The security forces that guard al-Hol have denied her requests to move, she said. “They keep saying tomorrow and asking, why did you marry an IS fighter.”
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that run the camp did not immediately respond to a request for comment on her detention.
“Because I fled and how I dress, the other women call me an infidel. They throw stones at me. When I queue for water, they say this isn’t a line for Syrians.”
Amal Susi, the Lebanese woman in the same section of the camp, complained of similar treatment and feared never returning home.
The 20-year-old surrendered herself and her two children in 2017 to the SDF after her husband was killed in Raqqa. Months later she was returned to IS territory in a prisoner swap, she said. “It was back to zero,” she said.
Her husband took her as a teenager to Syria to live in Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate.
Susi is also waiting to be transferred to another section of the camp.
“Those of us forced to come should get to leave. IS supporters call us swine and infidels, say we’re spies for the Kurds, and assault us.”
The SDF is struggling to cope with the number of suspected militants and supporters languishing in detention centers and camps while some Western countries refuse to allow their citizens to return.
Most Syrians and Iraqis roam al-Hol camp separately from foreign women who are guarded by the SDF. Many foreigners use derogatory jihadist terms against non-extremists and blame their plight solely on Islamic State’s enemies.
Aboud, Susi and many others hope to get as far away from them as possible.
“We’re not rid of Daesh. They’ve basically moved the Islamic State here, that’s what they believe. They say we’ll build it again right here. The camp is under their control,” Susi said.
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