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Hundreds Of Foreign Wives Of ISIS Fighters And Their Children Remain In Limbo

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We're going to take you now to a remote detention camp in Syria. It's been nine months since ISIS was run out of its so-called caliphate. Hundreds of women from Europe, North Africa, Asia and elsewhere - these are wives of ISIS fighters - they and their children remain in limbo. They're waiting to see if their governments will bring them home.

NPR's Jane Arraf visited the al-Roj camp today, and she joins us now from northeastern Syria. Hey, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, there.

CHANG: So you walked through this camp today. Can you just tell us what it looks like?

ARRAF: Well, on the surface, it looks like an ordinary, although very basic, refugee camp. There are white-and-blue plastic tents in rows pitched on this empty field. And it's all surrounded by a wire fence and a few armed guards at the gate. But the inhabitants are extraordinary. They're women from more than 30 countries who came to Syria to join the caliphate.

CHANG: Wow.

ARRAF: Some of them came eagerly. Some were lured there. Some were forced. And all of them are, at the very least, facing charges of joining what is classed as a terrorist organization in their home countries. And governments don't know what to do with them. So that's the mothers.

But then there are also the children. A lot of the fathers of the children who were there were killed in the fighting. And some of them, both of their parents were killed. Camp officials told us that recently, two American orphans, a 10-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl, were repatriated. But they're still trying to get other countries to take back other orphans, including all of the remaining orphans at this camp, 10 of them who are all from Australia.

CHANG: Australia. Were you able to talk to any of these women, any of these wives?

ARRAF: Yeah. There are two women there with ties to the U.S. One is Huda Muthana, and she was given a U.S. passport but has now been deemed by a court not to be American because her father was a diplomat. Camp officials said the U.S. did not want her to do interviews.

But we did speak to another woman, Kimberly Pullman, who says she's Canadian American. And the camp verifies that. She told me she didn't understand why governments weren't taking the women back to put them on trial in their countries.

KIMBERLY PULLMAN: Our governments know who we are. They know the threats. They know where they are, and they know where we fit within them. And I think that they're the better people, long-term, to handle that. And my other concern would be is that the longer that you leave the women here, the more likely that they are to become more radicalized. And we're seeing it.

CHANG: She sounds so calm and matter-of-fact about her situation.

ARRAF: She really does. She has had a lot of time to think about it. She was actually moved from another much bigger, much more chaotic camp. And that camp has thousands of foreign women who married ISIS fighters, along with their children, and then tens of thousands more of Iraqi and Syrian women in the same situation. But she was moved from that camp because she took off her face veil. And here's how she explains how some of the women reacted.

PULLMAN: There are women that believe that if you do that, that that makes your blood halal. That means that you are allowed to be killed, and that means that your children, as well, fall under that. And there are women that believe that.

ARRAF: And so she says she's scared, basically.

CHANG: Well, I know that there have been concerns about security at these camps after U.S. troops moved out of the way and Turkish troops attacked the area. What are you hearing from officials at this camp about how they're hoping to keep people safe?

ARRAF: Well, there are a lot of different threats around there. And when I talked to the women this time and previous times when I've been there, they've said that the guards are basically trying to do their best, but there aren't a lot of them.

So there are two main concerns, really. One is that there is fighting around some of the camps - not this particular one. And the other one is the security inside the camp. The camp - one of the camp officials was saying that when Turkey invaded Syria, these women who are cut off - they don't know what's happening. They can't get access to the news - thought that the Turks were coming to rescue them, some of them did. And she said some of them were literally packing their bags.

So these are women who want to get out. Some of them have managed to escape. Some have been brought back. But officials are concerned about their ability to keep them safe. And the U.S. is concerned about the ability to keep the more hardcore of these women and the ISIS fighters in detention.

CHANG: That's NPR's Jane Arraf speaking to us from northeastern Syria.

Thank you, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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