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Uncertain future awaits foreign IS orphans in Syrian camp

AFP and Caravanserai

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A child looks on in the Al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, on August 8. [Delil Souleiman/AFP]

AIN ISSA, Syria -- Sitting in a wheelchair beside a metal fence in a camp in northern Syria, nine-year-old Ruqaya Mohammad raises a scarf over her face to hide from journalists.

The Egyptian girl lost her left eye, her legs and both her parents during battles against the "Islamic State" (IS) group in their last Syrian redoubt in March.

She now lives in a large tent along with 23 other orphaned children of foreign IS fighters in a camp for the displaced in Ain Issa, under the care of older camp residents.

Aged 18 months to 13 years old, the children were born to parents from Russia, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Tajikistan, Egypt and Iraq.

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Some orphans in Al-Hol know little else than the IS extremist ideology that blanketed them. Two 'cubs' are shown in a screenshot of an IS video before the so-called 'caliphate' collapsed. [File]

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Many worry about the fate of IS orphans in Al-Hol camp in Syria. A group of 'cubs' is indoctrinated in a screenshot of an IS video before the so-called 'caliphate' collapsed. [File]

"Among the children, Ruqaya moves me the most," said Sara al-Abdullah, a 37-year-old who helps look after the orphans.

"She always looks withdrawn, shy, and sad," said the widowed mother of three, one of nine female residents of the Ain Issa camp paid a small fee to help look after the children.

Outside the tent, tiny children's tops and trousers have been slung across the metal fence to dry. Inside, young boys dip flatbread into bowls of soft aubergine stewed in tomatoes.

A volunteer tries to coax a young child into opening his mouth, while another woman feeds an infant with a milk bottle.

A small boy dashes across the tent and throws himself excitedly into a pile of bedding.

Marred childhood

Some of the children are still visibly scarred after living with their late parents under IS, say volunteers.

"They play at shooting each other or planting mines in the earth," al-Abdullah said.

Clutching bits of wood they pretend are guns, she says they throw themselves into imaginary battles, emulating the cries of IS fighters.

"All that is ingrained in their heads. There's nothing to help them forget," she said. "They don't study, or go and play with the little ones. It's been taken away from them."

IS overran large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, declaring a so-called "caliphate" and imposing their brutal interpretation of Islam on millions.

US-backed Syrian fighters in March expelled them from their last patch of territory in Baghouz.

After years of leading the fight against the insurgents, Syria's Kurds hold thousands of suspected foreign IS members in detention and camps: men and women, but also some 8,000 children -- more than half of whom are under the age of five.

Hundreds of them are unaccompanied, says the United Nations.

The 24 orphans in Ain Issa were among the tens of thousands of residents to stream out of Baghouz in the last weeks of the battle, after months of food shortages and heavy bombardment.

"They were in a pitiful state. They went to the hospital and got better," said Ain Issa camp manager Jalal Iyyaf.

But the camp has received no aid for the orphans and is struggling to provide for them, he told AFP in his office.

"We ask for clothes, food, drink as well as help to rehabilitate them, rid them of IS ideology," he said.

Easing the pain

Back in the tent, Suad Mohammed Ameen, 20, pulls a T-shirt over a toddler's head.

The children she helps need not only food and clothes but also psychological support, she said.

"The toughest part is when they tell me their fathers and mothers were killed in front of them, or how they lost their siblings," she said.

To help ease the pain, she has vowed to tell the children stories and even teach the girls to crochet.

"I promised them that, after everything they'd missed out on, I'd help them catch up on reading and writing," she said.

But the best solution would be for their home countries to take them back, argued camp manager Iyyaf.

The Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria have repeatedly called for the foreigners they hold -- including orphans -- to be repatriated, a request that largely has encountered resistance except in rare cases.

Alaa Suleiman al-Saleh, 19, another one of the caregivers, also hoped the children would be able to go home.

"The situation in this tent is really difficult," said the young woman, who has been teaching some of the girls to crochet.

"I hope these children will return to their countries so they can catch up on their education and childhood," she said.

Central Asian repatriation

For their part, Central Asian countries are bringing radicalised citizens home from the Middle East and trying to rehabilitate them.

Kyrgyz authorities about a month ago said they were working to repatriate families of their citizens turned insurgents who were captured or killed in Syria and Iraq.

A Kyrgyz interagency working group -- including representatives from the State Committee for National Security (GKNB), Interior and Foreign ministries and the State Registration Service and headed by Vice Prime Minister Jenish Razakov -- was co-ordinating the operation, the government said in a statement.

Official statistics show 850 Kyrgyz citizens -- including women and children -- are in combat zones in Syria and Iraq.

Meanwhile, psychologists, doctors, theologians and investigators are working hard to rehabilitate Kazakh women who returned from Syria earlier this year.

The Kazakh government on May 28-31 evacuated 67 women and 171 children from Syria as the final stage of Operation "Jusan" (Bitter Wormwood). The evacuation was the third since the start of the year. In total, 524 Kazakhs -- 137 women, 357 children and 30 men -- were repatriated.

On May 30, the Uzbek government announced it had carried out Operation Dobro (Good Deed), a humanitarian effort that brought home 156 Uzbek citizens, including 106 children and 48 women. Two men were also part of the evacuation.

The Tajik government also announced on August 1 it had formed a commission to repatriate 48 Tajik women imprisoned in Syria and Iraq, Asia-Plus reported.

The Tajik government earlier on April 30 brought home 84 Tajik children from Iraq. Their mothers were either imprisoned or awaiting trial.

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