DUSHANBE -- Even though authorities are seeing a downturn in the number of Tajiks joining extremist groups, more than 1,000 Tajiks are still fighting for the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) in Syria, a top security official told parliament.
"[In 2016] the number of Tajiks leaving to fight with ISIL last year decreased five-fold compared to 2015," General Prosecutor Rahmon Yusuf Akhmadzoda told the upper chamber of parliament, AsiaPlus.tj reported February 16.
A month earlier, Interior Minister Ramazon Rakhimzoda reported that 41 Tajiks joined ISIL in 2016. In all, 1,100 Tajikistanis are fighting for ISIL, he said in Dushanbe January 20 while summarising previous year's work. Caravanserai attended Rakhimzoda's news conference.
Tajiks were the most numerous Central Asian suicide bombers in Syria and Iraq for ISIL in 2016, according to a February report by the Dutch-based International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT).
Twenty-two Tajik militants voluntarily returned from war zones in 2016, said Rakhimzoda, adding that their voluntary surrenders spared them from prosecution in accordance with Tajik law.
Looking for Tajik women, children in Syria
Tajik male combatants do not always go alone. Some bring their families with them, authorities say, although the number of Tajik women and children in Syria is not known.
More than 90% of women who end up in Syria go there with their husbands, who generally deceive them into travelling there, said Rakhimzoda.
However, "it's very difficult to obtain information" on the lives of females after their husbands are killed in Syria, he said.
The widows "are handed over to new husbands", he said.
In early January, the Interior Ministry (MVD) began a campaign to extract Tajik women and children from Syria. It is displaying their photos in airports, train stations and other public places, in hopes of raising awareness of their plight and maybe gathering information from knowledgeable passersby.
Few escape ISIL's clutches once they end up in Syria. Marjona, 30, from Qurghonteppa, Khatlon Province, who returned from Aleppo late last year, is one of them. Speaking on condition of anonymity, she agreed to share her story with Caravanserai.
On the way to Syria
"I was a migrant worker in Russia," said Marjona. "Through social media I met another Tajik who lived in Istanbul, and he began to persistently invite me to come see him there. I agreed."
According to Marjona, her "friend" met her at the airport and ushered her to his car.
Instead of the promised hour-long trip to Istanbul, she endured a 12-hour-long journey to Gaziantep, which lies near the Syrian border.
"I was simply kidnapped," said Marjona. "At midnight, we arrived at the border with Syria. There, unknown men met me. They started threatening me, saying that if I didn't cross the border, either they'd kill me, or the border guards would mistake me for a terrorist and kill me."
"On the other side, [other handlers] settled me in a building with many women," she added.
The "house mother" was a woman from the Caucasus who spoke Russian well, she said. She lent Marjona her cell phone so that Marjona could contact her brother.
Marrying to avoid torture
"There were a great number of women there of all sorts of ethnic backgrounds," Marjona said. "They live like slaves. [Their jailers] kept them away from men and prepared them for marriage."
"If you refuse to marry, they torture you and give you nothing to eat," she said. "You have no choice. Either you marry, or you die."
Fortunately, her brother made contact with law enforcement, who turned the information over to the Tajik embassy in Turkey.
"The [imprisoned women] started searching for ways to escape slavery from ISIL," said Marjona. "The woman looking after us started helping me -- she knew the area well. I fled at my own risk ... If they had caught me, they would have tortured me or hanged me in public."
Secret routes out of Syria
Marjona did not disclose her escape route to prevent ISIL from shutting it down. However, such routes exist and Tajiks who want to escape Syria and Iraq have ways of reaching the Tajik MVD via the Tajik consulate in Istanbul, she said.
Accompanied by an unspecified number of other Tajiks, Marjona surrendered to Turkish police after crossing the Syrian-Turkish border. The Tajik embassy in Turkey enabled them to go home.
"For a long time, the [Tajik] police did not believe us," she said. "[But] they conducted an investigation and verified how I ended up in Syria."
(Read the second part of this story, which covers Tajik women still stuck in Syria, on Caravanserai on Thursday, March 9)