Accessibility links

Breaking News

Central Asia Struggles To Reintegrate Islamic State Returnees

Evacuated from Syria, a resident of Aqtobe, Kazakhstan, talks with a psychologist in a rehabilitation center. (file photo)

A 28-year-old Kyrgyz, Gulmira ran away from her home in Syria four years ago to escape her Islamic State (IS) fighter husband and the horrors of living under the extremist group.

Gulmira, whose name was changed to protect her privacy, initially left Kyrgyzstan for Turkey to find work, but later moved to IS-held parts of Syria and then got married there.

The woman -- who also has a son born in Syria six years ago -- is tight-lipped about why she decided to join IS, merely saying she was “deceived.”

Gulmira now wants to rebuild her life in Kyrgyzstan but claims she doesn’t get much support and has been “under constant stress” since her return.

“Officers from the State Committee for National Security often come unannounced to search my home,” Gulmira told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service.

“They couldn’t find anything illegal and just took away my mobile phone and clothes," she added. "They say bad things about me to my neighbors. I wish at least I could get some psychological support.”

The Kyrgyz security committee didn’t respond to RFE/RL's request for comment.

A boy evacuated from Syria learns his numbers in a rehabilitation center in Aqtobe, Kazakhstan. (file photo)
A boy evacuated from Syria learns his numbers in a rehabilitation center in Aqtobe, Kazakhstan. (file photo)

But authorities in Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian countries have acknowledged they found themselves in uncharted territory when thousands of their citizens -- family members of IS fighters -- came back home from Syria and Iraq in recent years.

Since 2019, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan have repatriated more than 1,000 women and children stranded in Syria and Iraq.

Hundreds more returned privately, long before the defeat of the extremist group in Syria in 2019.

Authorities in the predominantly Muslim region have since been working to rehabilitate and reintegrate their citizens who have been exposed to such things as IS atrocities, air strikes, poverty, and hunger.

Some were deeply indoctrinated by the IS's extremist ideology.

Many professionals, including doctors, teachers, psychologists, and religious figures have been recruited to help the returnees transition to “normal life.”

A Red Crescent worker holds a child who has returned from Iraq to Kyrgyzstan. (file photo)
A Red Crescent worker holds a child who has returned from Iraq to Kyrgyzstan. (file photo)

There are many success stories, according to the governments.

One Kazakh woman attended several conferences at home and abroad, telling the world about how she and her five young children were given a “second chance” after Kazakhstan brought them home from a Syrian refugee camp in 2019.

The widow of a Kazakh IS fighter, Sabinella Ayazbaeva has since been busy with her “new chapter in life.” She got a part-time job at a local trade center in her native city of Qaraghandy and enrolled in psychology courses at a university. Her children all attend school.

In Tajikistan, some returnees took part in government-sponsored meetings with young people to warn them against the dangers of joining extremist groups.

But it hasn’t been smooth sailing for all, especially with some school-age children, according to experts, officials, and families involved.

Saule Mukanova, a children’s psychologist who worked at a IS rehabilitation center in Kazakhstan, told RFE/RL that many older children initially “behaved aggressively,” calling their teachers infidels and even throwing stones at them.

Mukanova recalls that some of the children would even self-harm themselves to express their anger and frustration. It took time until the children got used to their new surroundings, began to trust people, and learned to enjoy playing, watching television, and just having fun.

A plane filled with Tajik children turning from Iraq lands in Dushanbe. (file photo)
A plane filled with Tajik children turning from Iraq lands in Dushanbe. (file photo)

In Tajikistan, one grandmother told RFE/RL that her preteen grandson has been living in a closed, state-run boarding school since he was repatriated from Iraq in 2019 along with some 90 other children.

The boy’s father died in an air strike in Mosul and his mother was imprisoned in Iraq for having links with IS.

According to the woman, the boy has been reluctant to meet his relatives visiting him at the boarding school. The grandmother said the child seemed to be brainwashed by IS ideology and that he idolized his militant father.

The child is making progress, the grandmother said, adding that she hopes he will fully grow out of the radical mindset.

Earlier this year, Tajik authorities said that 84 children -- repatriated from Iraq -- live and study in several specialized boarding schools. They have little contact with the outside world and their relatives are only allowed occasional visits.

The government hasn’t said when the children will be released to live with their grandparents or other relatives who were appointed as guardians by authorities.

Society Becoming More Accepting

The returnees’ lives back home begin with health checkups and medical treatment or surgeries they might need. Adults also undergo interviews by security services.

Then they spend several weeks in special rehabilitation centers, receiving counseling from psychologists and meeting with Islamic scholars and social workers.

Children attend special classes to adjust to their new life and learn how to read and write before joining regular schools.

Olga Ryl is the head of Pravo, one of several Kazakh organizations that has been involved in the rehabilitation and reintegration of the children “from the moment their plane landed at the airport.”

Ryl told RFE/RL that it’s been a learning process for everyone since the first Kazakh child returned from Syria with his militant father in 2016.

“Since then, we’ve gained experience in this field and our work is bringing concrete results,” Ryl said. “These are children who witnessed hunger and illness, some had to eat grass to survive.… But they were eager to learn, and they were able to catch up with other children at school.”

The reintegration process also includes “restoring” the returnees’ documents. The majority of them have lost their passports and other ID. Children born abroad don’t have birth certificates.

Authorities also help the women find jobs, be retrained, or apply for social security benefits.

The society’s attitude toward the returnees has become more accepting, says Vasilya Alimova, the director of Uzbekistan’s Center for Children’s Social Reintegration.

In the beginning, some returnees complained that their friends and neighbors avoided any contact.

The Chance rehabilitation center in Aqtobe, Kazakhstan, where women and children repatriated from Syria are given assistance.
The Chance rehabilitation center in Aqtobe, Kazakhstan, where women and children repatriated from Syria are given assistance.

Many people openly criticized the authorities’ decision to bring IS family members back home, calling them ticking time bombs.

In Kazakhstan, some parents reportedly complained they didn’t want their children to be in the same class with “the offspring of former terrorists and extremists” repatriated from the conflict zones in Iraq and Syria.

“Now there is almost no discrimination toward them. The society…has begun to accept them as victims who fell under some wrong influences,” Alimova told RFE/RL. “As for the children, they cannot be responsible for what has happened to them.”

Alimova said the repatriated children -- including those born in Syria and Iraq to Central Asian parents -- are now “home” and have the same rights “like all the other children here.”

Officials in Central Asia say they will continue efforts to bring home the many hundreds of women and children who still remain in camps in Iraq and Syria.

  • 16x9 Image

    Kanymgul Elkeeva

    Kanymgul Elkeeva is a Bishkek-based correspondent for RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service who joined the company in 2009. She has covered a wide range of topics including human rights, migration, and social issues and won awards from international organizations for her reporting. She studied journalism at Bishkek Humanitarian University.

  • 16x9 Image

    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.