The Telegraph: ‘They are like my children’: Widows of slain fighters comfort IS orphans in terror camps

This piece originally appeared in The Telegraph, December 19, 2021

By Campbell MacDiarmid, MIDDLE EAST CORRESPONDENT, HASSAKEH, SYRIA 19 December 2021 • 7:30am

Four years ago Anoud and Khala were widowed when their husbands were killed fighting against the Islamic State in eastern Syria, today they are caring for the children of Islamic State fighters.

Left sole breadwinners for their young families, the women are now employed at a newly opened Kurdish owned deradicalisation centre for children detained in a prison for IS women in the town of Hasakah in northeast Syria.

“I’m honoured to be able to play my role in helping these children. For me there is no difference between them and my own kids” said Anoud, whose six- and seven-year-old children come with her to the centre every day.

Adjoining the prison, the Helat Centre was opened recently with funding provided by the UK government, local officials said.

It has space for 50 children, most of whom sleep with their mothers, though eight are unaccompanied children who authorities say are orphans. The mothers have been moved to the prison from Roj and Al Hol detention camps, accused of trying to escape and other infractions.

The children arrive in the morning at the metal gate of the centre where the walls are painted with portraits of Tweety bird and Disney princesses but topped with barbed wire. In the evening they return to prison.

There is no deradicalisation curriculum but children can play and learn basic lessons. They use building blocks to make heart-shaped necklaces, helicopter toys, and sometimes guns.

“It’s not so much about teaching them or giving them lessons as it is about showing them there are colours other than the black of IS and to expose them to music, to let them paint,” said Vian Adar, a commander in the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), one of the militias involved in managing centres for IS linked women and children.

Most of the seven staff are mothers themselves, said Helat Centre manager Perwin Ali, who brings her own two children to work with her.

“We opened the facility because otherwise the children would be kept in prison all the time,” she said. “It’s not their fault, they’re paying the cost of their mothers’ terrorist activities.”

But play and singing may not be enough to counter the influence of their mothers, said Ms Ali, noting that some mothers in the prison have forbidden their children to attend, not wanting them to socialise in a mixed gender environment.

“Children are paying the price of this ideological conflict between us and the parents,” said Ms Ali. “They don’t know who is right. Even though we are showing them love, they are conflicted.”

Eventually the centre plans to separate the children from the mothers they believe to be too radical. This concerns humanitarians, who say that children should only be forcibly separated from their parents as a last resort.

“The mothers keep their kids up at night teaching their kids radical ideas,” said Ms Ali.

“This is why we are planning to have bedrooms to keep them here because we’re not getting anywhere [with deradicalisation]. We will not cut relations with the mothers, they will be allowed to visit them every day.”

The bigger issue is that only one centre like Helat and another that authorities have opened for teenage boys is not enough when there are over 27,000 children living in the main camp for IS detainees. There are hundreds more in Roj camp and other prisons.

“We could rehabilitate all these children and avoid having to send them to prison at adulthood, but funding is the issue,” Ms Ali said. “Solutions have to be found quickly because they are growing up so fast and as they get older it’s getting harder to change their minds.”

But for the women at Helat Centre, the challenges are narrower, such as convincing children that music is acceptable.

“They don’t have any guilt in this,” Khala said, holding her young son in her arms. “I just want to teach them. I would like to change their ideas and help them to become productive members of society in the future.

Khala, a 35-year-old teacher, who like Anoud only gave her first name for security reasons, said she needed the job to provide for her family.

Authorities say the war against IS cost the region 12,000 killed and 21,000 wounded, mostly in fighters of the SDF. Stipends for the families of “martyrs” are barely enough to live on.

As a young girl named Fatma clutched at her skirt, Khala called the children towards her to sing a song.

“My pretty hands have five fingers and they were made by the one God,” Khala sang.

Some of the children hummed along noncommittally but some appeared to have internalised IS ideology that music was forbidden.

Nevertheless, Khala was encouraged by what appeared to be a work in progress.

“I want my kids to have a future,” she said. “I don’t want their lives to be damaged by IS like mine was.”