A humanitarian crisis emerges as ISIS falls in northern Syria

Photograph Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
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Women and children, relatives of ISIS fighters and staunch supporters of the Islamic State, look through the fence where new arrivals displaced from Baghouz are gathered at the al-Hol refugee camp in northern Syria.

An endless stream of disheveled and disoriented women and children poured out of the backs of trucks at al-Hol refugee camp in Hasakeh province in northeastern Syria. Many were the wives and children of fighters for the Islamic State, and were among the most recent wave to surrender or escape from the last of ISIS’ strongholds in Baghouz, in Syria’s Deir Ezzour province.

The women had traveled for hours with their children, and whatever little remained of their dusty possessions collected in military-style packs, plastic bags, and rolling suitcases. From beneath black veils covering their hair and faces, and long, black formless sheaths commonly worn in places which observe a more conservative interpretation of Islam, some were carried out on stretchers semi-conscious, some on rudimentary wheelchairs; some arrived walking and defiant, some relieved. Everyone was exhausted and hungry.

The International Rescue Committee estimated that more than 5,000 women and children, fleeing the fighting between Syrian forces and remnants of the Islamic State, arrived at al-Hol camp in one 48 hour period in early March. Since December, nearly 60,000 have arrived at the camp, pushing the camp to its breaking point, aid workers have said. About 100, mostly children, have died either en route to the camp or shortly after arriving, due to acute malnutrition, pneumonia, hypothermia, and diarrhea, according to the International Rescue Committee. These new refugees join more than 65 million refugees worldwide, now more than at any time since World War II, according to the United Nations.

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A young Syrian boy, roughly 3 years old, hugs his mother as they wait to be transported after surrendering along with other women and children on the outskirts of Baghouz to al-Hol camp in Hasaka province. The boy was shot in the eye during fighting in Baghouz, and was among many others who escaped wounded from the ongoing battle between US and coalition-backed Syrian Defense Forces and ISIS.

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Women and children relatives, who by and large expressed unwavering support for the Islamic State, wait to be registered at al-Hol refugee camp during the Islamic State's final days in Baghouz, Deir Ezzour province. Several thousand women and children arrived at the registration area of the camp in March 2019.

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An aid worker holds up a lost child as thousands of women and children from Syria, Iraq, Russia, Bosnia, Finland, and other countries arrive at al-Hol refugee camp.

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Mohammed Khalaf, 7, holds his little brother, Diyab, at the al-Hol refugee camp.

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One-year-old Fatima looks at her mother as she pulls out a piece of bread. Severely malnourished, Fatima sits alongside her two siblings and mother, Mariam, right, from Kawkaz, Russia, shortly after arriving at the al-Hol refugee camp in March.

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Several thousand women and children arrived at the registration area of al-Hol refugee camp in March.

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Noor, 7, kisses her baby brother, Abdullah, one month old, as she watches over him in the reception area of al-Hol camp after coming from Baghouz with her mother in the Islamic State's final days in Baghouz, Deir Ezzour province.

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Women and children who were among one of the last waves of families and sympathizers of ISIS fighters wait in the human corridor to be transferred to trucks after being searched by female fighters with the Syrian Defense Forces on the outskirts of Baghouz.

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Fighters with the Syrian Defense Forces walk through the tent camp abandoned by ISIS militants only days before in Baghouz.

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The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces claimed victory in late March over the last remaining sliver of land controlled by the brutal Islamic state in the town of Baghuz, as tens of thousands of the fighters’ family members have surrendered through a human corridor set up by the SDF during the past six weeks under heavy bombardment and intense clashes. Women and children, most of whom continued to pledge their unwavering support of ISIS, and some who were likely being used as human shields, had been living in tunnels and caves with limited food, medicine, and sanitation.

International, national, and government organizations scrambled to accommodate the spontaneous humanitarian crisis—and no one was prepared for the state of desperation in which they arrived in droves. The question of what to do with many of these women and children, given their fierce loyalty to the Islamic state, and their utter radicalized interpretation of Islam loomed large. (See life among the rubble in postwar Aleppo.)

Sana'a, from Helsinki, Finland, stands with her daughter, far right, and other women and children who recently escaped from Baghouz.

The children sank into the shells of their bodies, their eyes were empty, glazed with trauma and hunger and confusion. Dust and dirt caked their little boney frames. Despite the desperate scene, many of the women still promoted the virtues of the Islamic State, and mourned its nearing end. From the Russian Caucasus, Kyrgyzstan, Iraq, Syria, Finland, France, the England, and others—including the United States—some women still ruminated on the early days of ISIS, and wondered when and how the Caliphate may appear again in some form in the future.

“When I first arrived in the caliphate, life was normal, and it was good.” explained Sanaa, 47, from Helsinki, Finland. “My children went to school, we had a normal life. But about a year and a half later, the bombing started, and everything got more difficult.” Sanaa’s only visible skin was through the thin slit around her tired, glassy eyes, and her weather-beaten hands. She left Finland to live in the caliphate four years ago with her Moroccan husband, and stayed there four years, where she gave birth to the youngest of her four children. Her 13 year-old daughter is married. (Read about child marriage practices around the world.)

Mothers look after their children following their arrival at the al-Hol refugee camp in northern Syria.

“I want to say to my mother to please contact the Red Cross or government or somebody to take us out of here. We want to come back to Finland and live there. I have been 4.5 years. I have four children. Now I regret why I came here because this is really not nice. I don’t want this any more, but I cannot change history.”

Miriam, 29, from the Russian Caucasus, has three gaunt children with thinning hair—signs of severe malnutrition. Her youngest, one-year old Fatima watched carefully as her mother removed a piece of bread out of a plastic bag just distributed by aid agencies. Listless, Fatima was too malnourished to cry, scream, or to even reach for the bread. She was like so many of the other children who limped out of ISIS’ Baghouz.

Women and children who were among one of the last waves of families and sympathizers of ISIS fighters wait to be transferred to trucks after being searched by female fighters with the Syrian Defense Forces on the outskirts of Baghouz.

Most children of war are forced to take on responsibilities as little more than toddlers. They don’t go to school; they don’t play in playgrounds or learn how to socialize; they don’t laugh and collapse into giggles as children often do. They just sit, expressionless and listless, visibly traumatized, human windows into what one can only imagine they have already witnessed in their tender years. At 7 years old, their lives are often relegated to caring for younger siblings: changing diapers, consoling, looking out for them. Their youth has been robbed, and left in a sliver of Syria their parents revered.

On the outskirts of Baghouz, a 2 or 3 year-old Syrian boy with a patch over his eye clung to his mother as he sat in the back of a metal container-like truck, waiting to be transported to al-Hol camp with a new batch of ISIS sympathizers. A bullet had gone through his eye, and out his neck, his mother explained. She didn’t want to give details about her son. Her child was just one more casualty of this war.

What will happen to the women and children of ISIS fighters, who have been brainwashed and blinded by years of radicalization? Many countries have said they will revoke their citizenship, and not allow them home again. Stateless, and without the possibility of embracing a more moderate version of Islam, these tens of thousands of women and children seem more dangerous than ever.

Lynsey Addario is an award-winning photographer who has documented conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, South Sudan, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller It’s What I Do and recently published her first book of photography, Of Love and War.
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