Accessibility links

Breaking News

'How Can We Stay Silent?' Kazakh Mother Mourns Daughter Killed After Joining Islamic State

Gulzhan Imasheva doesn't think she'll ever receive her daughter's body.
Gulzhan Imasheva doesn't think she'll ever receive her daughter's body.

QANDAGHASH, Kazakhstan -- The last time Gulzhan Imasheva saw her daughter, Gulbanu Asanova, was in May 2015, when Asanova was a teen secretly preparing to run away from her hometown in northwestern Kazakhstan and join Islamic State (IS) extremists abroad.

This week, after learning that Asanova had been killed in Syria, Imasheva and relatives held Islamic funeral ceremonies for her daughter at their home in Qandaghash, in the Aqtobe region.

There was no burial. Asanova's body has not been recovered from Syria. It may never be.

Imasheva says she believes her daughter was "executed" by the IS extremists she had joined three years earlier in Syria, because she was trying to escape from them and flee to Turkey.

She thinks Asanova was buried somewhere in Syria's eastern tribal heartland of Deir-ez-Zor Province.

From that war-torn area on the border with Iraq, Asanova had regularly telephoned her mother over the past three years to talk about her life among IS fighters in the Syrian war.

'How Can We Stay Silent?'

Imasheva has resigned herself to the likelihood that she'll never receive her daughter's body or know, for sure, if or where she was buried.

"I sometimes think maybe it's better that she died as she did," Imasheva told RFE/RL. "Who knows? They might have used her as a suicide bomber somewhere, which would have been even worse."

Other relatives declined to speak on the record to RFE/RL about Asanova's plight, saying they don't want to be known as the family of a terrorist.

But Imasheva says she must speak out about what happened to her daughter, if only just to warn others not to make a similar mistake.

"How can we stay silent after we learned about her death?" Imasheva told RFE/RL. "Relatives and neighbors have been visiting on a regular basis to pay their condolences."

"We haven't seen her body and we haven't been able to bury her, but we're still carrying out funeral and commemoration ceremonies," she said. "We're even slaughtering a lamb and offering the meat as alms to the poor. What else can we do?"

Gulbanu Asanova left home when she was 17.
Gulbanu Asanova left home when she was 17.

Kazakh media reports say two women from Kazakhstan recently were sentenced to death and executed by the IS militants they'd joined in Syria.

Those reports named one woman as "Gulbanu," saying that she'd taken the name Umm Mariam after joining IS.

Imasheva says that woman was her daughter.

A spokesman from Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry told RFE/RL that authorities are still investigating the reports of Kazakh women being executed in Syria by IS militants.

For now, the government has no definitive answers about what happened to Asanova.

'Don't Look For Me, I'm Going To Syria'

According to Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB), Asanova was one of about 800 Kazakh citizens who have left their homeland to join IS militants in the Middle East since early 2014.

They are among thousands of Central Asians thought to have made the same journey in order to join the IS extremists' fight.

Officials in the KNB have told RFE/RL that about 100 of the Kazakhs who joined the IS in Iraq and Syria have since returned to Kazakhstan.

The other 700 have either been killed there, have fled to other countries, or have stayed with embattled IS militants in pockets of territory they still control.

Asanova was last thought to be with IS fighters holding out in an isolated rural part of Deir-ez-Zor Province.

Born in 1995, Asanova was the youngest of four children -- the only daughter of Imasheva and Viktor Asanov.

Imasheva says Asanova wasn't particularly religious until she met her first husband at Qandaghash College in early 2013.

They married, and Asanova moved away from her childhood home, when she was 17.

Asanova never finished her college degree. But the couple remained in Qandaghash, where Asanova gave birth to a baby daughter in late 2013.

By March 2015, Asanova's marriage had fallen apart and the couple divorced.

Just two months later, Asanova dropped her 19-month-old daughter off with relatives and disappeared into the night.

Imasheva says she discovered a note that Asanova left behind: "Don't look for me. I'm going to Syria."

Initially, Imasheva said she didn't believe the note and thought her daughter had returned to her ex-husband.

But he insisted that he'd had no contact with Asanova since their divorce.

That's when Imasheva and her husband turned to police to ask for help finding their missing daughter.

"Police and officers from the security services came to our home and interrogated us," Imasheva told RFE/RL. "Later, the security services contacted us and told us that our daughter had gone to Syria."

"My daughter later contacted us saying she was in Syria," Imasheva continued, adding that Asanova had managed to obtain a passport to travel abroad in just two or three days.

"Without any education, no job, and no money, she was still able to travel all the way to Syria," Imasheva said. "I still don't understand how this was possible."

Shortly before Asanova left Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbaev had warned about IS recruiters in Kazakhstan who would "provide financial assistance to the unemployed, the poor, and the sick -- and then take them away."

Nazarbaev said the extremists sent hundreds of Kazakh citizens to the Middle East, including entire families, and were "not allowing their wives and children to return."

In November 2014, an IS video posted online showed about tens of Kazakh militants who had joined the extremist group in Syria along with their wives and children.

According to Kazakh authorities, more than 150 Kazakh women already had made the journey to Syria to join IS by the time Asanova arrived there.

Less than a year later, Asanova telephoned her mother using the encrypted WhatsApp messenger application to tell her that she'd married an IS fighter in Syria and given birth to a daughter named Rumesia.

Most likely, Imesha says, her second husband was killed while fighting in Syria.

Asanova then married another IS fighter who was killed in battle, Imasheva said.

On August 20, Imasheva says Asanova telephoned her again to announce she'd given birth again.

But Asanova did not say whether the child was a boy or a girl, or reveal the baby's name.

Imasheva says Asanova also began to ask for money in the summer of 2018, pleading that she needed it to escape from her situation in Syria and flee to Turkey.

"She asked for 2 million to 5 million tenges, in dollars," Imasheva said, a sum equal to $5,400 to $13,5000. "Where could I get that much money from? My spouse and I are pensioners."

"She would say, 'Mama, send me money.' I thought that somebody else was forcing her to say that in order to extort money from us. It was not possible to thoroughly discover the truth about this over the telephone," Imasheva said.

In October, Imasheva says all communication with her daughter ceased.

Imasheva says her phone has been switched off since then.

Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague with reporting by RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent Zhanagul Zhursin in Qandaghash, Kazakhstan.
  • 16x9 Image

    Ron Synovitz

    Ron Synovitz is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL.

  • 16x9 Image

    Zhanagul Zhursin

    Zhanagul Zhursin is a correspondent in Aqtobe for RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. After graduating from Zhubanov University, she worked at the local TV station in Aqtobe. Zhursin also served as the editor in chief of local media outlets. She joined RFE/RL in 2011 and has been working as a broadcast and print journalist for more than 25 years.

Facebook Forum

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.