Caravanserai
Terrorism

Uzbekistan brings home 92 IS-linked family members from Syria

By Caravanserai and AFP

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A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces keeps watch March 30 in the vicinity of al-Hol camp, the larger of two Kurdish-run displacement camps for relatives of IS fighters in Syria's northeast. [Delil Souleiman/AFP]

QAMISHLI, Syria -- Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria on Friday (April 30) handed over 92 Uzbek women and children suspected of having family ties to "Islamic State" (IS) elements to an Uzbek delegation for repatriation.

An Uzbek foreign affairs team was in the Kurdish-controlled city of Qamishli to retrieve the 24 women and 68 children, the Kurdish administration said.

Seven of the children are orphans, said Kurdish official Abdel Karim Omar.

IS declared a proto-state in 2014 across large swathes of Syria and Iraq, but the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), comprised mainly of Kurdish fighters, and the international coalition declared the group's defeat in March 2019.

Syria's Kurds, who administer two large displacement camps in northeast Syria where thousands of suspected IS relatives are being held, have repeatedly urged the international community to repatriate its own nationals.

Their calls have largely fallen on deaf ears with only limited numbers, mostly children, allowed to return home so far.

But Uzbekistan, as well as other Central Asian nations, is among the main countries co-operating with the Kurds to repatriate their nationals.

Uzbekistan has repatriated more than 318 women and children from Syria and Iraq, in three groups, Uzbek ambassador to the United States Javlon Vakhabov told the US Public Broadcasting Service in April, before the repatriation of the 92 Uzbeks.

Children a priority

Other Central Asian countries have brought home some of their citizens from Syria and Iraq, prioritising the repatriation of children.

Kazakhstan was the first in Central Asia to repatriate its citizens from Syria.

Under Operation Jusan (Bitter Wormwood), the government has brought home 188 women, and their tales of the horrors they endured under the extremist group offer a wealth of empirical material.

Since 2019, there have been five Operation Jusan repatriations of Kazakhs from Syria and Iraq, mostly women and children.

"All in all, we repatriated over 700 nationals," Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister Yerzhan Ashykbayev said in a January 8 video discussion hosted by the US-based Atlantic Council, weeks before February's Operation Jusan-5.

Among them were more than 490 children, 187 women and "33 men -- all of whom are foreign terrorist fighters and all of whom were prosecuted", he said.

With Operation Jusan-5, Kazakhstan enlarged those totals slightly, bringing back four men, one woman and seven children, two of whom were orphaned.

Meanwhile, a charter plane on March 16 brought home 79 Kyrgyz children from Iraq, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The children's mothers are all in prison in Iraq.

Their return was part of the Kyrgyz government's Operation Meerim (Mercy), the country's first major repatriation effort since hundreds of its citizens joined extremist groups fighting in Iraq and Syria, the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry said.

As of January, Tajikistan was working to repatriate more than 200 women and children from Kurdish-run camps in Syria, Tajik ambassador to Kuwait Zubaidullo Zubaidzoda told Caravanserai.

It remains unclear how many have been repatriated to date.

Turkmenistan has not commented on the number of citizens who joined IS or who may have returned.

Rehabilitation period

Those returning from war zones typically go through a rehabilitation period.

For the children who returned to Kyrgyzstan in March, that involved a psychological evaluation and a thorough medical examination, according to Aliza Soltonbekova, Krygyz first deputy minister of health and social development.

This included 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 said in April.

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.

In May 2020, Kazakhstan enacted a law ensuring the social rehabilitation of children who have returned from wars in the Middle East.

Under the new law, the Ministry of Education and Science will manage the social rehabilitation of these children and determine what measures to undertake.

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