BISHKEK/OSH -- Abdumalik Maripov, a resident of Aravan district in Osh province, is eagerly awaiting the return of his brothers' children, who are completing a rehabilitation programme after being repatriated from Iraq.
"We're waiting for our 10 nephews and nieces," said Maripov, using a pseudonym. "They're the children of my two younger brothers. In 2014 and 2013 their families took them and left for Iraq."
Maripov and other family members in Kyrgyzstan at first had no information about the whereabouts of the brothers and their children.
They later learned, through the Red Cross, that the brothers were missing and that their wives and children were in Iraqi prisons, and were able to trace them through human rights groups, he said.
"We've been waiting for my nephews and nieces for a long time," Maripov said.
"The children are completely innocent, and they should grow up in their home country," he said. "My family is willing to take in all the children and raise them."
Maripov's nephews and nieces are among 79 Kyrgyz children who arrived from Iraq at Manas International Airport outside Bishkek on March 16.
Their return is part of the Kyrgyz government's Operation Meerim (Mercy), the country's first major repatriation since hundreds of its citizens joined extremist groups fighting in Iraq and Syria, the Foreign Ministry said.
As part of a broad range of measures, and after lengthy negotiations with Iraq, an advance working group comprised of Kyrgyz diplomats and officials went to Iraq in late February to bring the children home, the ministry said.
All Kyrgyz children have been removed from Iraqi prisons with the consent of their mothers, some of whom are serving life sentences, said Aliza Soltonbekova, First Deputy Minister of Health and Social Development.
Parents signed affidavits "granting authorisation to return the child to the country and to allow the relevant state agencies to establish legal guardianship, meaning custody, or determine another type of arrangement for the child".
Using the papers the children and parents already have as a starting point, Kyrgyz authorities will take charge of obtaining the necessary documents for them and legalising the guardianship of the children, Soltonbekova said.
"The relevant state agencies will take care of obtaining or reissuing documents, such as birth certificates, to children who do not have them," she said.
The children are going through a rehabilitation period, Soltonbekova said, which includes a psychological evaluation and a thorough medical examination.
This includes testing for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), viral hepatitis, cholera and malaria, as well as conducting a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for COVID-19, she said.
"There are plans to organise cultural activities for the children, including a visiting circus, puppet theatre, concerts, interactive games and competitions," she added.
Kylym Shamy (Eternal Candle), a Kyrgyz human rights group, was one of the first institutions to write to the government about repatriating women and children from Iraqi and Syrian prisons.
Its director, Aziza Abdirasulova, praised the rehabilitation programme, noting that "it meets all the requirements and will help the children adjust faster here".
"We studied Kazakhstan's experience, including making a special trip to Nur-Sultan when [Kazakh authorities] repatriated the children of their own citizens," she said.
Kylym Shamy has communicated with the relatives of the repatriated children right from the beginning, Abdirasulova noted.
"Before the children were brought home, the relatives provided consent, saying that after the rehabilitation period they would be willing to take the children in, and [officials] inspected their living conditions beforehand," she said.
"The relatives will get custody of the children," she said, adding that "of course, we human rights groups will be monitoring the children in the future, too".
Ideally, she said, the children would have been repatriated with their mothers.
"But as we know, that's impossible at the moment because the Iraqi government is not handing over the mothers," she said. "No one can say that the Kyrgyz government didn't try or didn't want to bring them back."
Syria repatriations next
According to the Foreign Ministry, Kyrgyzstan was able to repatriate the children thanks to co-operation with the Ministry of Health and Social Development, Kyrgyz law enforcement agencies and the Kyrgyz Embassy in Kuwait.
UNICEF also provided considerable help, it said.
The US Embassy in Kyrgyzstan welcomed the Kyrgyz government's repatriation of the children.
"The Kyrgyz government deserves praise for its commitment to help the returned children and to carry out all measures for their early rehabilitation, reintegration, and return to a safe and peaceful life," the embassy said.
UNICEF in Kyrgyzstan also said it would continue to support the full reintegration of these children into their families and communities.
Kyrgyz children in Syria are Bishkek's next priority.
According to the State National Security Committee (GKNB), 850 Kyrgyz citizens went to the war zone in Syria, and 150 of them died there. About 140 of the Kyrgyz citizens who joined the "Islamic State" (IS) were women.
At the March 10 session of the Kyrgyz parliament, Deputy Justice Minister Marat Kanulkulov said the government had ordered the dispatch of a plane to Syria, but gave no further details regarding the date.
The Syrian and Iraqi situations are completely different, Abdirasulova said.
"While Kyrgyz citizens are in prison in Iraq, in Syria they're in refugee camps," she said, noting that the situation in Syria is complicated by the war, as there is not just one state authority, as there is in Iraq.
Many Kyrgyzs are living in camps in Kurdish controlled areas of the country.
For this reason, she said, "our government needs to activate all diplomatic channels for negotiations and involve international organisations for funding".