“You will burn in purgatory”

Women who had joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) want to return to Germany with their children, but they are not allowed by the German government. Authorities point to security risks and potential diplomatic issues. WELT visited a camp in northern Syria where a generation is growing up under the influence and ideology of the terrorist militia.

This article was originally published in German on April 30, 2021 by Die WELT.

By Alfred Hackensberger Correspondent for Die WeltPhotos by Sebastian Backhaus

“I want to go back to Germany with my 3 children,” says Sabile Shabbani. “We can’t take it any longer here.” With her long hair uncovered, a fitted cardigan, and a ring in her nose, she looks like many other young women. But she did not always look like this. The German national with Albanian roots spent three years in the ISIS caliphate. “When I followed my husband here to Syria in 2014, I was only 19 years old. I was young and naive,” she tries to justify herself. Today, the 27-year-old lives with her three children in the Roj Camp, one of the two internment camps for ISIS families in North and East Syria.

Sabile Shabbani. (Image:: Sebastian Backhaus)

Shabbani now rejects the veil, does not wear a headscarf, and certainly not an abaya — the floor-length black cloak that was compulsory for women in the caliphate. “I’ve had enough of the horror of ISIS,” asserts the young mother. She has been in the camp for four years and puts all her hopes in the German federal government. Germany should get her and her children out of the camp. In her hometown of Siegen in North Rhine-Westphalia, Shabbani wants to study mathematics and live as easily as before ISIS.

Roj Camp in the border triangle with Turkey and Iraq. (Image: Sebastian Backhaus)

Roj Camp accommodates foreign former ISIS women and their children. (Image: Sebastian Backhaus)

But a return to German may be a long time coming. German authorities have so far shown little interest in repatriating the more than 100 women and their children in the camps in North and East Syria. While several German courts have ruled that the federal government is obligated to take back German nationals, there have been only three repatriations — 19 children and 4 mothers — since August 2019.

Belief in the Resurrection of ISIS

“Life in the camp is unbearable,” states Shabbani, who says she sleeps every night with scissors and a fire extinguisher close at hand. Although ISIS was defeated in 2019, there are still many women in Roj Camp who believe in the resurrection of the terrorist militia. They set fire to the tents of those who want nothing more to do with ISIS. “It’s dangerous in the camp,” says Shabbani. She has also been diagnosed with breast cancer and needs surgery. “The children are also struggling with poor health and urgently need a good school.” She went on a hunger strike 20 days ago, perhaps to force her return to Germany. “Now I am getting slim too,” she says with a smile in one of the large eggplant-colored armchairs in the administrative wing of Roj Camp. She has already lost 10 kilos.

Source: Infografik WELT

The German government will not be much impressed by her hunger strike or cries for help. The living conditions in the internment camps have been dire for years, and there is a lack of adequate nutrition and medical care. And there is the threat of radicalization among young people. The ISIS ideology lives on firmly in the camps. “You will burn in purgatory if you don’t wear a headscarf” is one of the slogans girls from the age of five are confronted with every day. Radical Islamists are working on a new generation, and the children in the camps are becoming ticking time bombs.

In an interview with WELT, the Autonomous Administration’s Foreign Commission stated, “we are working hard to enable more German children to leave the country.” But without a German consular presence in Syria, repatriations are difficult. Under international law, the autonomous region of North and East Syria belongs to the Assad regime with which Germany broke off diplomatic relations. Critics, however, view the repeated reference to Assad as an excuse by the federal government not to act. Berlin also refers to concerns of the German security and intelligence services in potentially repatriating future terrorists. Recently, a new argument has been added. “The repatriation of women is categorically rejected by the departments of the Kurdish self-administration,” said Foreign Minister Michael Roth in January to a question in the Bundestag.

Representatives of North and East Syria have repeatedly rejected this allegation. Co-Chair of the Foreign Commission of the Autonomous Administration Abdelkarim Omar confirmed to WELT that, “There are no new inquiries from the Federal Republic with lists of names of women and children that it wants to bring back.” Russia brought home no fewer than 34 children this Monday [26 April]. “These were orphans whose identity was confirmed by the Russians through DNA analysis,” explained Omar.

Abdulkarim Omar, Co-Chair of the Foreign Relations Commission of North and East Syria.

Relatives back home in Germany are angry. For years they have been waiting in vain for the federal government to finally do something. Michaela Scheer is one of them. Her daughter Romina and her three children have been detained in Roj Camp for two years. The youngest son, 2-years-old, could have been part of the latest German repatriation campaign in December 2020. He was badly burned when a neighboring tent went up in flames. “But my daughter didn’t want to let him go alone,” says Scheer on the phone. She understands. “Which mother just gives away the youngest of her children?”

Romina Scheer. (Image: Sebastian Backhaus)

Scheer does not understand the selection criteria of the German authorities for their repatriations. Who can leave, who must stay? The relatives were left in the dark. “Well, the youngest boy has burns,” says Scheer, “but his 10- and 5-year-old brother and sister are heavily traumatized, and my daughter is not doing well either.” Scheer believes that everyone should have been brought back, the disappointment is deep. She fears she may never hug her daughter, now 32 years-old, and grandchildren. She is seriously ill.

Romina, who grew up in Spain, followed her husband to Syria in 2014. He died soon after — as did the next two ISIS husbands she married. In the end, she ended up alone with her children in Baghuz on the Euphrates River, the last ISIS bastion in Syria.

“Our home was a hole in the ground: cold, damp, and we had nothing to eat,” remembers Romina in the visitors’ room at Roj Camp. “We saw the hail of bombs, all the fighting, women who fetched water in the river and were shot.” Their youngest son was born in December 2018, in the middle of the war. Romina feels like crying when she thinks about home. Her grandmother, grandfather, and aunt died while she was in the detained in the camp.

In Germany, She Wants to take Off the Headscarf

“It’s time I came to see my mother,” says the former saleswoman in a retail shop. In Germany, she wants to take off the headscarf that she still wears in the camp. “I don’t want any problems, just live a normal live.” When that will happen is unclear. She’s stuck with all the other German women and for an unknown period of time. Most of them were brought to Roj Camp as part of a resettlement program. The camp administration wanted to relieve Al-Hol Camp, which had 60,000 detainees and was overcrowded, and therefore relocated all European ISIS members and families.

Security forces and residents of Roj Camp.

Three hundred more foreign families from Al-Hol Camp will follow the more than 2,618 new detainees. “Roj Camp is smaller and easier to monitor,” says Roj Camp director Havala Nurai. “We have everything under control.” But she cannot stop indoctrination. The ISIS ideology lives on. “There are women who don’t send their children to school because music is played there,” says Shabbani from Siegen. “Their children throw stones at us because we don’t wear a hijab.” Many detainees are convinced that ISIS will soon free everyone from the camp.

Fear of ISIS Influence on Her Son

“I want to show my children a different way of life, away from ISIS,” says Shabbani. She is concerned. “My oldest son is only 6-years-old, but what if he gets older?”, she asks cautiously. “Will he still listen to me when we continue to live in camp?” In the internment camps of North and East Syria, around 40,000 children have been growing up under the influence of ISIS for years. The Autonomous Administration is completely overloaded. There is only one working deradicalization project active, the Houri Center. It was established four years ago.

Youngsters at the Houri Center. (Image: Sebastian Backhaus)

Hundreds of adolescent males between the ages of 12 and 18 are undergoing therapy at the Houri Center. They are mainly “sons of the caliphate”. ISIS raised them from an early age as executioners and suicide bombers and to become soldiers at the front. These young boys are victims and perpetrators at the same time, ideologically blinded and severely traumatized.

There is also a German among them. In the kitchen, he and a colleague are tearing open small milk powder bags and pouring the contents into a red bowl. The tall, sturdy one has been here for a year and a half. He likes it very much. “I was in Roj Camp before. It was deadly boring,” says the 17-year-old. “Here, on the other hand, there is always something going on.”

A German teenager (right) has lived in the Houri Center for several years. (Image: Sebastian Backhaus)

He will not be able to stay much longer because at 18 everyone has to leave the center. They go to prison or — as in the case of the German youngster — back to Roj Camp and back in the stranglehold of ISIS.

The Houri Center’s work may make sense, but in the end, it is just a drop in the ocean. The Autonomous Administration is planning 15 more of these rehabilitation facilities. But there is a lack of money and international support — also from Europe. “The women and children are simply left to their fate here,” says Foreign Commission Co-Chair Omar. “And there is not enough help.” The world is looking the other way, while a new generation threatens to radicalize.

You can follow Alfred Hackensberger via Twitter @hackensberger and on his blog.