Thousands of former ISIS foreign fighters and their families are in Kurdish camps in Syria. Hundreds escaped during the recent Turkish attack. Most European countries refuse to bring them home, but Kosovo is bringing its citizens home. Sara Manisera writes.
Ferizaj. Photos: Arianna Pagani
‘If you don’t follow me, I will take our children,’ Arbenin Demolli told his wife, Amena, one night in 2014. A few weeks later, Amena was on a plane from Skopje, Macedonia, to Turkey with her husband and their three children. The youngest child was six months old. Amena was only 19. They arrived at Istanbul airport, then they caught a bus to the Turkish-Syrian border. From there they were smuggled inside Syria.
Three months after arriving in the war zone, Amena’s husband was killed fighting for ISIS in Aleppo. Amena was forced to marry another fighter, a Kosovar. She had another child with him. From Aleppo, they moved to Hassakeh city, and from there to Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital. They stayed there until it was liberated in 2017.
They were later arrested by the Syrian Democratic Forces. The US supported the Syrian Democratic Forces at the time. Amena’s husband went to jail. They sent her and her children to the Ain Issa refugee camp, and then they moved to the al-Hawl camp with thousands of other former ISIS families.
In April 2018, 110 Kosovars – 32 women, 74 children and four male fighters – were taken from the al-Hawl camp in northeastern Syria, and then by US military aircraft back to Kosovo. Amena and her children were with them.
‘I never thought I would come back,’ says Amena (this is not her real name). I met her at her parents’ house in a small farming village 20 kilometres north of Pristina, the Kosovar capital. ‘I’m happy to be here, especially for my children. I hope they can start school soon,’ she tells me in Arabic.
Amena can’t say much. Like the other 31 women, she is watched and must stay in the house and wait for her trial. The authorities decided to watch the women and avoid security problems and separating mothers from their children.
All the women, including Amena, are part of a plan by Kosovo to bring back into society the former ISIS fighters and their families. The International Organization for Migration supports the plan and there is counselling, food, shelter, and help finding work.
This is very different from most European countries. Most European countries refuse to take back citizens from ISIS. This includes women and children. It leaves them inside camps in an dangerous place. There were more very difficult problems after the Turkish attack in northeastern Syria.
Kosovo is Europe’s youngest country. It is doing the opposite from most European countries. It is starting to bring back its citizens. About 400 left after 2012 to join ISIS abroad. And Kosovo is beginning a project with psychiatrists, family psychotherapists, imams, and mualime (female preachers).
The Great Mosque of Mulla Vesli and the Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Uros side by side in Ferizaj.
Photos: Arianna Pagani
Therapists and preachers
Valbona Tafilaj is leading a team of 20 psychiatrists and experts on radicalization from her office at the Pristina University Clinical Centre. She said, ‘We started working with them as they arrived at Pristina airport. We checked their mental condition because they went through war, airstrikes, and violence for many years.
‘First we look for trauma and psychological problems. Then we decide on the treatment and the therapy for the patient,’ she says. ‘The symptoms can be post-traumatic stress, flashbacks, anxiety, and depression. The trauma symptoms sometimes come six months or a year later.’
There are home visits, family psychotherapy sessions, and outdoor activities, education, and training. Another team of child psychotherapists and educators helps the children. They use play therapy, sports, and other activities to help trauma. Once a month, Tafilaj visits the women at home. But for therapy sessions, the women and children must go to Tafilaj’s office. ‘Most of the children were born in Syria. Their parents took some of them when they were two or three years old, and they only know war,’ says Tafilaj. ‘If we work with them for a long time, we can avoid future problems,’ she says.
Sanie Gashi Mehmeti is another important person in the programme She is a teacher and religious guide with more than 10 years’ experience in women’s prisons. She is one of the mualime who can visit the women regularly. Her main job is to win their confidence.
‘I try to build trust with them. I listen to what they say,’ she says. ‘I don’t treat the women as terrorists. I treat them as people who made a mistake.
‘We also pray together, and I try to give the real message of Islam - tolerance, peace, and respect to others.’
Kosovo is 90 per cent Muslim, but religion does not interfere in political life. But the influence of conservative religious ideas grew after the Kosovo War of 1998-99. Mehmeti blames Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states for this. ‘After the war, lots of books, money, and a lot of Arab aid organizations came here without any control. They gave a bad idea of Islam.’
She also blames the patriarchy. ‘In Kosovo, men decide everything. The husbands forced most of the women to go to Syria. If they went with them, it doesn’t mean they went to fight. Only a few were certain about their choice, but they were sorry when they saw the terrible things ISIS did,’ Mehmeti says.
‘The women need help. They got married very young. They never studied and don’t know Islam,’ she says. ‘If they did a crime, they must be punished. If they didn’t do a crime, we must leave them free. In both cases, they need help.’
Many Kosovars worry that the women and children are still a danger. This can make the programme difficult. So Tafilaj and Mehmeti work with the women’s families and their community and help to stop the negative ideas against the women.
Sanie Gashi Mehmeti, a religious guide and teacher, at one of her classes in Lipjan. Photos: Arianna Pagani
We must help
Mensur Hoti is Kosovo’s director of public security. He understands that people have different opinions, but he says this is a risk they can take. ‘We know where the people are. We prosecute people who did crimes and we do our best to help them back into society,’ he says. ‘It’s a difficult programme, but the state controls it. They are our citizens, and we must take care of all citizens. We could not do nothing and leave them inside a camp in Syria. All the children are victims.’
No-one thinks it will be easy. I understand that when I meet a woman in Ferizaj district. In the garden of a modern house, an elderly woman plays with four children. She is the mother of Fiona (not her real name). Fiona is a young Kosovar woman. She joined ISIS in 2014 with her husband and her first two children. ‘I thought I would never see them again,’ Fiona’s mother says. ‘When they came back, I was so happy. We didn’t know the government was bringing them back.’
Fiona’s mother wears a colourful shirt. But not Fiona. She wears a black niqab that covers her completely. She doesn’t take it off even at home, and she doesn’t want to speak with journalists. ‘My children are fine. I’m fine. Please go away,’ she shouts in English as she brings her children inside.
As her daughter leaves, Fiona’s mother has tears in her eyes. ‘I’m trying to help as much as I can, but I don’t know how to help more. I only hope that one day everything will be as before.’
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(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)