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Dead Or Just Deadbeat? Kazakh IS Widows In Limbo After Husbands' 'Martyrdoms'

  • Joanna Paraszczuk

There is no official confirmation that foreign militants fighting for Islamic State who die in Syria or Iraq really are dead. (file photo)

There is no official confirmation that foreign militants fighting for Islamic State who die in Syria or Iraq really are dead. (file photo)

Last August, 26-year-old Baglan Salykov left his wife and two small children in their hometown of Zhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan and ran away to join the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Syria.

Baglan's mother, 60-year-old Kuralai Nurmagambetova, made the long, expensive journey to Syria in October to try to find her son and beg him to come home. But Baglan refused to go.

"It's better we stay here and help our fellow Muslims to build an Islamic state than return home and be convicted," he reportedly told his mom. After spending just two days with her son, Kuralai returned home, alone.

Then, a few months ago, Baglan's family held a wake to mark the 40th day after his death -- a traditional ceremony among Kazakh Muslims -- says Tolymbek Zharkynbekov (his name has been changed), a relative of Baglan's wife who also lives in Zhezkazgan.

But was Baglan really dead? And if so, how did his family find out?

Speaking last week to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Radio Azattyk, Baglan's mother would neither confirm nor deny the information that her son had died in Syria.

Baglan's wife, Zhazira Zhumabekova (her name has been changed), would not talk to Radio Azattyk.

But in an interview last year, Zhazira told Radio Azattyk she had decided to divorce Baglan, saying that her husband had left her in sole charge of caring for their two small children, one a newborn.

Zhazira had given birth to her and Baglan's second child in August 2014, the same month her husband ran away to Syria.

Baglan's decision to join IS has had deep financial implications for his wife and young family. Before joining IS, Baglan worked in Zhezkazgan's copper mine. He was the main breadwinner for his family and that of his younger brother, who has diabetes.

Now the family is having problems obtaining the government benefit that is granted after the death of a family's breadwinner, says Zhazira's relative Tolymbek.

The problem is that Zhazira has no official proof that Baglan is really dead.

"The government should give an allowance to the small children who have been left without a father," says Tolymbek. "But for that, they need documents confirming the father's death. Who's going to give such a document?"

And Zhazira is not the only mother in this situation, Tolymbek adds.

"There are other families where the husband was killed in Syria and the children have been left without a father," he says.

Residents of the central Kazakhstan village of Kengir tell Radio Azattyk that a local man named Erzhan Danikhanov is one of those reported "killed in Syria."

Erzhan's relatives announced his death in April, they say.

One Kengir resident, Igenbay Ermaganbetov, whose brother-in-law Zhanat Saktaganov has also gone to Syria, says there is "unofficial information" in the village about Erzhan's death.

After hearing the news that his son had died, Erzhan's father, Mukhamedkali, went to Syria to try to bring home his son's wife and three children, says Medet Estauov, the former imam of Kengir.

But like Baglan's mother Kuralai, Mukhamedkali returned to Kazakhstan alone.

Finding Out About Death

It is not clear how the families of Baglan and Erzhan learned that their relatives had been killed in Syria.

It is possible -- even likely -- they found out via social media.

When militants are killed fighting alongside IS in Syria and Iraq, their comrades-in-arms post death notices, usually with a photograph of the dead militant's corpse and pictures of him while alive, on social media. In almost all cases, the "death notices" are posted not under the militant's real name but under his nom de guerre.

There have also been reports of Russian-speaking militants sending text messages and photos to inform the wives of men who have died fighting alongside IS.

Militants who die are buried in Syria or Iraq by their fellow fighters. Their bodies are not returned home.

So there is no official confirmation that foreign militants who die in Syria or Iraq really are dead.

In Kazakhstan, government officials will not or cannot confirm that individuals really have been killed fighting alongside IS.

When approached by Radio Azattyk, officials from the akimat, or local government, in Kengir refused to confirm or deny that Erzhan had been killed.

Akimat member Dameli Dybysova says that she has heard talk of Erzhan's death but the akimat has not received any official documents to confirm it. Dybysova says she does not know who could issue such documents.

Back in Jezkazgan, Merek Myrzabekova, who heads the town's Internal Affairs Department, says that she has not heard of Batlan's death -- though she does know that people in Kengir village say Erzhan was killed.

Don't Talk About IS

While the relatives of Kazakh men reported killed in Syria say government officials won't give "IS widows" benefits because they don't have official documents proving their husbands are dead, officials say it is the wives themselves who won't step forward to confirm their husbands are missing in Syria.

Zhezkazgan official Myrzabekova suggests that there is a stigma attached to being an "IS widow."

The wives of men who have gone to fight alongside IS simply don't go to the akimat to apply for the "lost breadwinner" benefit, she says.

"The families of people who have taken such a religious path don't want to talk openly about their problems," Myrzabekova says.

While Batlan's wife has had difficulties applying for the "lost breadwinner" benefit because she has no official proof of her husband's death, Myrzabekova says that "IS widows" are eligible for support if they gave the Internal Affairs department a declaration that their husbands had gone missing.

It is not just local officials and families who are reluctant to talk about Kazakh militants dying in Syria.

Kazakhstan's National Security Committee declined to answer a question from Radio Azattyk about the number of Kazakh nationals who have died fighting alongside IS in Syria and Iraq, saying that a response to such a "closed topic" would only be provided in writing.

Kazakhstan has also downplayed the number of Kazakh nationals in IS-controlled territory, maintaining that there are "about 150" individuals fighting alongside IS as well as around 200 women and children.

But that figure appears to come from a video that appeared on the Internet in October 2013 and which showed a group of about 150 Kazakh militants who said they had gone to Syria with their families.

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena


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