IS Families Call for Uprising in Wake of Turkish Military Operations
By Heather Murdock October 17, 2019
"Get out of here!" shouts a woman draped in black, sitting on cardboard in the dusty camp market.
She juts her elbow at a Brazilian cameraman as he bends over to take a picture. She is carrying a hammer and an angled metal rod.
We are the first reporters inside the al-Hol Camp since Turkish military operations began in northeastern Syria last week. Officials say since the conflict began, the camp, which houses 71,000 people, has become "out of control."
There have been escapes, threats, attacks and open calls for uprising in the past week after most of the forces securing the camp moved to the front lines.
The women, many from among the most hard-core IS families, are openly hostile.
"Who are you to take pictures of us?" the woman in the market barks.
"Goddamn you," mutters another woman as she walks by me and my Kurdish translator. We cannot see their faces, but we feel we are not welcome.
This is my third visit to al-Hol Camp since last winter, when tens of thousands of women and children poured out of the last IS stronghold as it fell. They are mostly families of IS fighters who retreated with the militant group for years as Syrian, U.S. led-coalition and Iraqi forces drove them out of the lands they once held.
Many fighters ended up in jail, dead or in hiding. Some are now believed to be part of "sleeper cells" that still conduct frequent attacks. Their wives and children ended up here, where they are essentially imprisoned, relying on rapidly declining amounts of humanitarian aid.
More than 10,000 of the women and children are foreigners from 58 different countries, and many are extremists among the extremists. It is called a camp, but the people are not allowed to leave. Inside al-Hol, nearly all the residents follow the strict rules set by IS, facing whippings, beatings or death for breaking the IS version of religious law.
"Our only job now is to keep the people from escaping," says Layla Rezgar, 30, who heads the camp's foreign section. She is a soft-spoken woman in jeans and a flannel shirt. She speaks to us plainly: "We cannot control what goes on inside."
Riots, escape attempts, calls for revolution
When Turkey began its military operations last Thursday, Rezgar tells us, she received reports that women were flying black IS flags made with their traditional robes and toothpaste.
Then on Friday, hundreds of women attacked a camp office, ripping padlocks off the doors and threatening to burn it down. Women shouted, "Long live Islamic State!" and "We will chop your heads off!" as they advanced, rioting for hours.
Others rushed through the camp, calling for an uprising.
"They threw rocks and tried to get security officers' weapons," says Nadal, a member of the civilian administration of the camp, who sits with us in a cozy office at the edge of the camp. "Some carried knives."
Early this week, 13 foreign women ripped open a fence and tried to escape with their children, likely with help from IS sleeper cells in the area, Rezgar adds. Those women were caught. But in another camp in the region, nearly 800 family members of IS foreign fighters ran away, as security forces there moved to the border to fight with Turkey.
In September, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called on IS fighters hiding in northeastern Syria to help the families inside al-Hol escape, energizing calls within the camp to rebuild IS. But the chaos of this new war could be the spark that reunites sleeper cells on the outside with extremists on the inside, Rezgar tells us.
"We've been telling foreign journalists from all of the world that this crisis was coming," Rezgar says. "Why is no one listening?"
How IS rules came to al-Hol
Only a month ago, there was talk of rehabilitation and reintegration in al-Hol, with some children going to school and some families being sent back to their villages.
In early March, as families streamed out of the last battles, many women told us they prayed their "caliphate" would be victorious and that the "infidels" would die. At the time, however, most had more pressing matters on their minds.
"My sons will grow up to be jihadis," one woman told me a few days after she fled the still ongoing battle in Baghouz, the last town IS held before it lost its geographical territories. At that moment, however, she was struggling to provide the boys with enough food and water. In the first months IS families moved into al-Hol, hundreds of children died.
Even then, camp officials in al-Hol and other camps detaining IS families warned us that this humanitarian crisis could quickly turn into a security disaster.
In the more than six months since Baghouz fell, some women in al-Hol have established an IS-styled religious police known as the Hisba.
The Hisba enforces rules such as required full-body and face veils and a ban on smoking. The gravest punishments, including death, are reserved for people who are believed to be sharing information with security forces or journalists.
As we wait in the market for the cameraman to finish his work, two veiled women approach, demanding to know who we are.
"We know they are journalists," says one, before our host roughly tells them to leave.
On Monday, we passed by the camp as black smoke streamed out of a burning tent – another typical Hisba punishment, says Rezgar. Other women have been beaten, killed and dismembered, she says.
"There are women that are trained fighters here," she says. "We've found weapons and homemade bombs."
Fear inside and out
Not everyone in the camp supports IS, adds Nadal, the civilian administrator.
"Before the last battles, this was a camp full of victims who fled IS," he tells us. "But then, everything changed."
Even among the women who joined IS, many believe it was a mistake and just want to go home, according to Rezgar. In the past, some women in the camp have been quick to ask us if we can help them get out and get to their home countries or villages. Other women were happy to declare their loyalty to IS and calmly declare that infidels should die.
Now, all fear the Hisba and their militant contacts outside. And as humanitarian aid dwindles, supplies are scarce, and half of the doctors in the area have left to treat war victims. Harsh conditions feed anger in the camp, aid workers say, empowering the Hisba and their supporters.
Our hosts tell us it is far too dangerous to wander around al-Hol, as journalists used to do regularly.
In Hasseka city, about 40 minutes from al-Hol by car, locals tell us they fear camp security will fail.
Samer Ahmed, a 41-year-old father of three, works in a kebab restaurant and drives a motorcycle taxi. Two of his uncles died fighting IS, and one of his cousins was killed by a coalition airstrike.
"I am more scared now than I was when IS had power," he tells us in the back room of the restaurant where he works. "If they come here, we will all have to run."
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