TASHKENT -- Uzbek specialists are working with dozens of women and children recently evacuated from Syria, where they lived for years under the rule of extremists groups including the "Islamic State" (IS).
Uzbekistan on May 30 announced it had carried out Operation Dobro (Good Deed), a humanitarian effort that brought home 156 Uzbek citizens who had been caught up in various conflicts in the Middle East.
Those evacuated included 106 children and 48 women. Two men were also part of the evacuation, but no information is currently available about their status.
The evacuation came after Kurdish authorities handed over most of the returnees to Uzbek diplomats on May 29 in Qamishli, Syria.
Three hundred Uzbeks in all have been readied for repatriation and the remaining Uzbeks will go home soon, said Kamal Akef, a representative of the Kurdish authorities.
Their arrival in Tashkent "by special flight" was ordered by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, said the Uzbek Foreign Ministry.
About 3,000 Uzbek citizens remain in war zones in the Middle East, said Mufti Usmonkhon Alimov, director of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Uzbekistan (DUMU), on Monday (June 10).
The Uzbek effort comes on the heels of a similar one carried out by Kazakhstan, which repatriated 231 Kazakh citizens from Syria in early May with logistical help from the United States.
Tajikistan in May also repatriated 84 minors from Iraq, where their Tajik mothers are either imprisoned for belonging to IS or on trial in connection with such charges.
'Time, patience and love'
The International Committee of the Red Cross welcomed the Uzbek operation and expressed its readiness to help locate Uzbeks in conflict zones in the Middle East at the request of their relatives, as well as to train local Uzbek psychologists to work with the returnees.
Sascha Graumann, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) representative in Uzbekistan, on May 30 offered to help Uzbekistan provide repatriated children with treatment.
"We're prepared to work with Uzbekistan regarding the situation with the remaining Uzbek children whom UNICEF has located in Iraq and Syria and who are still living in horrible conditions," Graumann added.
Uzbeks who left their country "because of delusion" will receive medical, psychological, material and moral assistance, according an Uzbek government statement.
The government intends to create conditions for their return to a peaceful life and integration into society, including access to educational programmes, housing and jobs, it added.
The women and children who returned are staying in convalescent facilities and psychologists and doctors are working with them, Tanzila Narbayeva, chair of the country's Women's Committee and deputy prime minister, told Gazeta.uz on May 30.
The women ended up in Syria for a variety of reasons -- some were looking for work, some fell in love and some moved to keep their families together, she said.
"Many women's husbands died there. They bore children [in Syria], and some of them died of infectious diseases or wounds. Some women were left with three or four children, no home or food and in the most difficult circumstances," Narbayeva said.
"Where they went, there's no freedom, jobs or decent conditions for them or their children," she said.
"We really don't want other Uzbek women to land in such situations or to become victims of deception and [extremist] recruitment," she said.
Uzbekistan's Ministry of Preschool Education on June 1 organised a celebration in Tashkent for the returning children attended by Shakhnoza Mirziyoyeva, a deputy department chief in the ministry and the president's daughter.
The children were treated to gifts, refreshments and a show with entertainers.
"There is still much work to be done to integrate the repatriated children into society. In order to learn to trust the world, they will need time, patience and love," said Mirziyoyeva, as quoted by Kun.uz.
The humanitarian operation came as Uzbek extremist groups in the region show signs of disintegration.
Imam Bukhari Jamaat, which previously operated in Idlib Province, Syria, relocated to northern Afghanistan in 2018. However, the group's Telegram channel has been silent since January 2019 and its website is no longer functioning.
Meanwhile, some Uzbek militants joined Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which supported IS. One of them was Sherzod Jurayev, 26, of Ishtykhan District in Samarkand Province, who defected and returned to Uzbekistan in 2018.
Though the group's commander, Abu Saloh, also known as Sheikh Salokhiddin, continues to post videos on YouTube, his channel and videos have failed to gain any traction with only dozens of views and even fewer subscribers.
"Uzbek men who are still in Syria or in prisons run by Kurdish forces have the opportunity to return to Uzbekistan," said Umid Asatullayev, a Tashkent-based political analyst.
A special commission last November began reviewing cases to allow some to return home without punishment, he said.
"If they confess sincerely and assist with the investigation, they can avoid punishment," Asatullayev said. "In this way, the government wants to prevent the future radicalisation of these people. Those who participated in combat or in terrorism won't be eligible for amnesty, but they will be entitled to a fair trial at home."
Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry confirmed in a statement on May 30 that it would help Uzbeks who are still in combat zones in the Middle East.
"It is important to inform our compatriots who are in difficult life situations in foreign countries for various reasons that they are all under the protection of the Republic of Uzbekistan, and that the state will take all necessary measures to protect their rights and interests," said the ministry.