ORAL CITY, Kazakhstan -- At 13, Asan is at least three years older than his fourth-grade classmates. But age isn't the biggest difference between Asan and the others at his Russian-language public school in Oral, in northwest Kazakhstan.
Asan was repatriated from Syria two years ago and is still making a gradual transition to life in peacetime, under the watchful eyes of relatives, teachers, and the Kazakh government.
Both of Asan’s parents were recruits of the Islamic State (IS) militant group and are thought to have died in Syria along with Asan's older brother, Amza.
Asan is still haunted by the horrors of his life in Syria -- death, violence, and air strikes -- the boy’s grandmother says.
But Asan doesn’t tell classmates about his parents or the gap in his Kazakh life. His teachers have decided that the boy’s “past” must be kept secret, at least for now, to protect him from being bullied or ostracized at school.
At the family’s request and to protect their privacy, RFE/RL is using pseudonyms for Asan and his relatives in this article.
His 60-year-old maternal grandmother, Asel, was made his legal guardian when the boy was flown home to Central Asia from a Kurdish-controlled refugee camp in Syria in 2019.
Kazakhstan has repatriated hundreds of its citizens -- minors and adults -- from Syria under a five-stage operation called Zhusan that ended earlier this year.
The number of returned children is estimated at between 400 and 600, including dozens of orphans. In a separate operation, at least 14 more Kazakh children were brought back from Iraq, where their mothers have been jailed for being IS members.
Kazakhstan has since launched a complex effort to reintegrate returnees and otherwise help them adjust to their new lives.
Specialists involved in the process say the rehabilitation of children in Asan’s age group -- old enough to remember the mayhem they witnessed -- has been particularly challenging.
The government has recruited psychologists, doctors, teachers, and other experts to work with the returnees at special rehabilitation facilities, before allowing them to reunite with relatives.
Asan spent nearly a year at such a rehabilitation center, where psychologists are embedded to help the children overcome their mental traumas.
“It’s been quite difficult to build trust with the children, as a majority of them behaved aggressively because of [their exposure to war and IS atrocities],” says Saule Mukanova, a psychologist who has worked with the returnees.
“The [older] children were hostile toward us in the beginning. They would call us ‘infidels' and even threw stones at us,” Mukanova tells RFE/RL.
Mukanova says that some children have used self-harm as a “form of expression, if they didn’t like something.”
Despite the initial hesitation, however, it usually takes just a few days for most of the children to start accepting their new surroundings, Mukanova says.
“In the beginning, the children would draw tanks, weapons, bombings, using dark colors. Some of them drew limbs detached from bodies. But later, they started drawing different things; they turned to happy, bright colors,” she says.
Mukanova says the older returnees have usually been taught IS ideology and undergone basic military training, including the use of weapons, and assembling and reassembling guns.
Reports from the ground suggest that in some IS-controlled areas, it was obligatory for people, including children, to watch videos of beheadings by the group.
Many have also experienced hunger, illnesses, and injuries, Mukanova adds.
The Surviving Child
Asan could neither read nor write properly when he returned from Syria. He was given special classes at the rehabilitation center to prepare him for school.
He spent a year within the state-run facility's fences, where programs focus on helping younger returnees become carefree children again: playing, swimming, drawing, doing homework, and watching TV -- things they were deprived of in Syria.
When I tell him that I’m not going to give him to anyone, he asks me, ‘Are you sure?’”-- Asan's grandmother
Two years on, Asan's grandmother says he still gets nightmares sometimes. He hides under the table when he hears an aircraft. And he panics when he sees men with “serious” faces, thinking they might "beat him."
Asan needs constant reassurance that he's now safe in a permanent home, one where he'll be cared for, Asel says.
“When I tell him that I’m not going to give him to anyone, he asks me, ‘Are you sure?’”
The boy’s mother, Aigul, was Asel’s only child. She dropped out of a state university to get married, and went on to have two children.
Reportedly radicalized online, Aigul and her family traveled to Syria to join IS in 2014 despite warnings from relatives. Asan was 6 when he was taken to the war zone.
In 2017, Asel heard that her daughter, son-in-law, and their firstborn son had been killed in air strikes.
Then, thanks to occasional WhatsApp messages from strangers, the grandmother learned that Asan -- the surviving child -- had been moving from family to family, from shelter to shelter, for nearly two years.
Some of the families who looked after Asan were Russian speakers; others were foreigners who sent messages in Arabic, the grandmother recalls.
Asan finally ended up at a refugee camp, where he was picked up by Kazakh authorities. He became one of the first Kazakhs to be returned home from Syria.
The Kazakh government’s decision to repatriate its citizens from Syria and Iraq and help them reintegrate to society has divided the public in this post-Soviet republic of around 18 million.
According to the state Committee for National Security, at least 870 Kazakhs – a majority of them children accompanying older family members -- had gone to IS-controlled areas in Syria and Iraq since 2013. But the exact number still is unknown.
Some Kazakhs believe that those who joined IS shouldn’t be trusted again. One Kazakh returnee has described people referring to her as a ticking time bomb and questioning whether she abandoned “extremist ideology.”
Others support the repatriation program, saying Kazakh citizens left stranded in Syria will create major security threats in the long run, with children potentially getting caught up in a new generation of extremism.
But most everyone agrees that Kazakhstan has a long, difficult, and unfamiliar task ahead as it seeks to rehabilitate and assist returnees so they can successfully navigate their new lives.
Ikbalzhan Mirsaitov, an expert on extremism issues, says that child rehabilitation is a particularly delicate process that involves not only families and teachers but also requires the support of their classmates’ parents.
“One woman told me that she was against her child being in the same classroom with the children of former terrorists and extremists. She is afraid,” Mirsaitov says.
“I do understand her concerns as a parent. But isolation ultimately leads to radicalization again. Instead, what’s needed here is to help pull the children out of isolation and self-isolation,” Mirsaitov tells RFE/RL. “It’s an enormous task, but it must be done. There's no way around it.”
At Asan’s former rehabilitation center, specialists are under no illusions that reintegration is simple and straightforward.
Psychologists keep in touch with Asan, his grandmother, and teachers to make sure Asan gets all the support he needs. They regularly monitor Asan’s progress and are mindful of relapses.
Asel hopes that her grandson will catch up on his studies and maybe one day join his own age group at school.
Asel has also changed her own plan of early retirement and now works as a contractor renovating homes to provide for her grandson.
In the meantime, no decision has been made by the school about whether to tell Asan’s classmates about his life in Syria.
The grandmother says they’re taking it one step at a time and keeping all options open.