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24 Apr 2019 6:30
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  •   Home > News > International

    Death, disease and Islamic State's moral police stalk Syria's al-Hawl refugee camp

    Sickness and disease is rife, but residents of the al-Hawl refugee camp face another threat — from the Islamic State brides who have taken on the role of camp moral police.


    Dozens of women form a thick black blanket against the fence that marks the entrance to the camp, their eyes peering from beneath the black veil so synonymous with the Islamic State (IS) group.

    As we approach, a large number of niqab-wearing women become agitated and start yelling an IS slogan in Arabic, which translates to "Islamic State is not dead".

    The camp guards brandish small electric shock devices and push and shove the women. Rocks are thrown and the women scream and shout.

    This is al-Hawl, the sprawling refugee camp in Syria's Kurdish north-east, home to at least 72,000 people, many of them women and children who chose to or were forced to join IS.

    Four Corners was granted rare access to the camp three times in early April. On this, the second visit, our crew was suddenly recalled by security and ordered to leave because of concerns for our safety. As we left, we heard the sound of guards firing warning gunshots into the air.

    It is likely some of the women at the gate that day were members of an unofficial "ISIS mafia" that police the camp and beat and harass women who do not wear their veil, or who do things considered un-Islamic by IS.

    A German woman in the camp, who asked for anonymity because of fears for her safety, told the ABC she had been beaten by a boy because she was not wearing a niqab.

    "If you don't follow the rules and cover up, they target you," she said.

    She was jailed by IS for trying to flee its now-toppled caliphate. Eventually she made it out to al-Hawl.

    "I've been here for 14 months; I'm one of the first foreigners who came here," she said.

    "I don't know if I'll ever get home."

    A United Nations of suffering

    Al-Hawl and al-Roj — another refugee camp in Kurdish-controlled Syria — are both holding pens for the foreign women and children left behind in the aftermath of IS's collapse.

    The camp guards are members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish paramilitary that, with US support, waged a years-long campaign to retake every last inch of territory captured by IS in 2014 and 2015.

    More than 10,000 foreigners are held at al-Hawl and they comprise a United Nations of suffering — women from Europe, Asia, Russia, the US, Australia and dozens of other nations.

    They are held in a corner of the centre known as the foreigners' camp.

    The ABC's visit to al-Hawl's foreigners' camp revealed a sea of misery: teenagers missing legs and arms, women so sick they couldn't stand, children under five with large, poorly healed burns across their face and arms.

    Then there is the condition of the camp itself: built on an exposed hill, recent heavy rains have turned it into a morass of mud, dotted with pools of filthy rain water, litter and human waste.

    Infectious illnesses are rampant and many of the inhabitants are suffering not only from the long-term effects of starvation, but also from dysentery and the skin disease leishmaniasis, as well as a shocking list of wounds and injuries caused by the grinding Syrian civil war.

    Australians living amid al-Hawl's misery

    At the far corner of the foreigners' camp is a clutch of tents holding several dozen Australian women and their children.

    One of those tents has been home for several weeks to the children of slain Australian IS fighter Khaled Sharrouf.

    His 16-year-old daughter Hoda has told Four Corners they are desperate to leave the camp and return to Australia.

    "These people here are horrible. They don't treat anyone nicely. Once I leave I never want to come back here ever, ever again," she said.

    Her elder sister, 17-year-old Zaynab, is heavily pregnant with her third child.

    "I think that's my biggest fear, is to give birth here — because I've heard a lot of stories of people giving birth inside their tent," she said.

    "A lot of problems have happened — there's no doctors to check the child and people here don't really have experience with giving birth, and so there've been children who have died … it's not a big chance that they'll live."

    'This place is hell'

    Sanitation is non-existent. Some residents are so sick they are unable to walk to the camp's administrative section to access the limited health care provided by non-government organisations such as the Red Crescent and World Health Organisation.

    Many of the women at the camp are pregnant and there are reports of mothers and babies dying during or after birth.

    British IS bride Shamina Begum gave birth to a baby boy in the camp. He died three weeks later.

    Some of the oldest tents are as large as two buses side-by-side and house dozens of families. Other, newer, tents put up by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, are the size of a small room. Some are already collapsing because of the rains.

    Four Corners spoke to a Canadian woman who lived in one of the newer UNHCR tents at the back corner of the camp. She also asked for anonymity.

    Next to her small white home was a crater-sized muddy hole full of rainwater, rubbish and faeces.

    At night the sound of dysentery-struck people moving their bowels in the hole kept her awake, she said. During the day children played in the hole.

    The night before we arrived, the Canadian woman — who has two young children and is heavily pregnant with a third — was forced to huddle under blankets after her tent blew over in the middle of strong winds and heavy rain.

    She followed her husband to Syria and IS, but he died. She tried to live as a widow for two years, but said it was impossible to live alone as a woman under IS.

    She eventually remarried a man in his 50s. He died three months later and she is now carrying his unborn child.

    When the ABC spoke to her, she was packing her meagre belongings — several cheap, mud-spattered rugs, a few battered cooking utensils and several sacks full of worn-out clothes — into a rusty trolley so she could move to another tent.

    "This place is hell," she said.

    "We have nothing, and bad things are happening here.

    "Yesterday one of the guards told me, 'wait till the Americans leave [Syria], then we'll do to you what ISIS did to the Yazidi women'."

    In late 2014, IS swept through northern Iraq, killing and enslaving thousands of Yazidis, a minority religious sect. Many of the captured Yazidi women were sold as sex slaves to IS fighters.

    SDF authorities at the camp reject suggestions guards are doing anything other than keeping the peace.

    Other female residents told the ABC they were surprised by how well they have been treated by the Kurds, who were considered one of IS's greatest enemies in Syria.

    It is still unclear what will happen to the Sharrouf children and the other foreigners at al-Hawl. While about a dozen countries including France, Russia, Indonesia and Egypt have repatriated some people from the camps, most Western nations have so far declined to commit to bringing their citizens home.

    As the ABC left the camp, a woman in her early 30s wearing a hijab approached and asked in broken English for help. Four crying and barefoot young children in tattered clothes clung to her.

    Her sister had kicked her and her children out of their tent and she said they had nowhere to stay that night. Camp authorities had ignored her requests for help, she said.

    Such is the life for the women and children of IS, abandoned to squalid refugee camps while the group's leaders hide in Iraq, plotting a resurgence of their brutal version of Islam.

    Watch Orphans of ISIS on Four Corners at 8:30pm on ABC TV and iview.

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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