Women's Rights

Hopes dim for Tajik families waiting for daughters to escape ISIL in Syria

By Nadin Bahrom


Zainab, mother of 25-year-old Maftuna Tagoimurodzoda of Vakhdat District, Tajikistan, is shown February 26. She still cannot believe that her daughter has gone to Syria. [Nadin Bahrom]

DUSHANBE -- Caravanserai reported on March 8th about how a number of Tajik women were able to escape the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) in Syria and make their way back home.

Other Tajik women have not been so lucky.

Caravanserai found the parents of two such women, militants' wives, who are trapped in Syria with their children. The parents agreed to share their stories.

Wearing hijab

Sirojiddin Makhmudov, the father of 25-year-old Markhabo, a native of Dushanbe, told Caravanserai about his daughter, who is languishing in Syria.

Markhabo's departure for Syria in 2014 was particularly shocking because she excelled academically and came from a prosperous family.

"Parents who don't pay enough attention to their children ... cause their children to take such steps," said Makhmudov, struggling to hold back tears.

Markhabo excelled in Russian, Tajik and English and won a full government scholarship in 2012 to attend a local university, he said.

"But she was expelled six months later," he said. "Tajik universities prohibit wearing a hijab, but she didn't want to attend the school without one."

"She eventually was admitted to a university in Cyprus," said Makhmudov. "At that university, she became acquainted with a Libyan girl from a fundamentalist family."

Sneaking off to join ISIL

After a year and a half of study in Europe, Markhabo returned home.

"Afterwards, her Libyan friend visited us," the father said. "We were glad that a foreign guest was coming to see us."

After two weeks, in late September 2014, Markhabo and her friend left Dushanbe, ostensibly going back to Cyprus.

A week later, the university called Markhabo's parents to tell them that the women had disappeared and that workers had found a note in their room.

The note said the women had resettled where they could profess their religion freely.

"In a state of shock, I turned to every law enforcement agency out there," said Makhmudov. "I learned they had bought plane tickets to Hatay [in Turkey], which is near the border with Aleppo [in Syria]."

Makhmudov raced to Hatay, only to find that Markhabo had crossed into Syria.

Delusions and disappointment

"My daughter joined [ISIL] in early October [2014]," Makhmudov said. "The border between Syria and Turkey was still open. Upon arriving, I immediately took out newspaper and radio ads and left my contact information."

"A few days later, Markhabo contacted us and asked us to leave her alone," he said. "She said ... she was on Allah's path."

In 2015 in Aleppo, Markhabo married a Tunisian. She later gave birth to a girl.

Markhabo later came to recognise her mistake but it was too late.

"She regrets what she did two years ago," said her father, relaying phone conversations he had with his daughter. "She realised the justice that she heard about ... was a lie."

Markhabo still hopes to escape someday, said Makhmudov. "She promises us that she will return the first chance she gets."

Maftuna's story

Zainab (last name withheld by request), the mother of 25-year-old Maftuna Tagoimurodzoda of Vakhdat District, Tajikistan, still cannot believe that her daughter is in Syria.

Tagoimurodzoda, unlike Markhabo, had no funds to continue her education. She married at age 17 and has two children.

"My husband was in prison," said Zainab tearfully. "I worked at the bazaar. That wasn't enough to support three children. That's why we married Maftuna off at 17."

Tagoimurodzoda and her husband went abroad looking for work in 2014. in 2015, Vakhdat police told Zainab that her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren had gone to Syria.

Zainab, who is so poor she cannot afford a phone, has to use her neighbour's phone to speak with her daughter. "Maftuna assured us that they were in Russia. I begged her to return."

Tagoimurodzoda has gone to Syria, police insist.

Since then bad news has come, striking fear in Zainab's heart.

"Our neighbours told me that my son-in-law had died in Syria," she said. "For a year I've felt like I'm part of neither heaven nor earth ... I really hope Maftuna returns home with the children."

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