QARAGHANDY, Kazakhstan -- Sabinella Ayazbaeva has her hands full with her five young children, psychology courses at a university, and a part-time job at a youth center in her hometown in central Kazakhstan.
But she makes time to take part in the state-backed, anti-extremism campaign to warn young people against the dangers of terrorist groups that use religion to recruit new members online.
A widow of an Islamic State (IS) fighter, Ayazbaeva is one of around 600 Kazakh citizens the government in Nur-Sultan repatriated from Syrian refugee camps in 2019.
Ayazbaeva, 31, spent five years in Syria, where she says she witnessed brutal killings and “terrible injustices” committed by IS, while living in constant fear of deadly air strikes.
In media interviews, speeches, and meetings, Ayazbaeva talks about the horrors of life under the IS and her disillusionment, hoping her words will stop others from “making the mistakes” she and her husband made in 2014.
How It All Started
Describing her life before Islamic State, Ayazbaeva says that she and her husband had a “happy marriage, successful business, and a private apartment” in Qaraghandy.
Both were practicing Muslims who attended a local mosque and led a quiet life. That is, until her husband made friends with “untraditional” Islamic groups online, she recalls.
In 2014, he convinced Ayazbaeva that they should move to Syria to live and raise their children in an Islamic state.
The couple took their three children -- aged between 1 and 6 years -- and left Kazakhstan, telling their relatives they were going on “a family vacation.”
Within weeks, the young family arrived in Raqqa -- the main stronghold of the self-styled caliphate -- where reality struck the couple almost immediately.
Her husband was made a fighter and wouldn’t come home for days. There were near-daily air strikes that forced her and others to hide in the basement of the building she lived in, thinking, “Is it my turn to get killed?”
She said she would see “the bodies of women and children without limbs being pulled out from under the rubble after air strikes, or someone's insides coming out.”
The couple wanted to leave Syria, but they knew there was no way home anymore, as IS members would “kill anyone who wanted to flee,” she says.
And from Kazakhstan there was the bad news caused by their decision to move: Ayazbaeva’s mother suffered a stroke after she found out that her daughter had gone to Syria.
Ayazbaeva went on to have two more children in Raqqa before her husband was killed in an air strike in 2017.
She and her five children were left at the mercy of IS fighters who were increasingly losing ground to the Syrian Army and Kurdish forces.
“Then a period of big hunger began in [IS-controlled areas] in 2018. It was difficult to explain to children why we don't eat. I would make soup from grass,” she says.
Ayazbaeva and the children eventually ended up in the village of Baghuz, the last area IS still controlled. In early 2019, just weeks before the final defeat of IS in the village, Ayazbaeva made her way to a Kurdish-controlled refugee camp.
It was a turning point in her life.
In the refugee camp, Ayazbaeva was told by Kurdish officials that Kazakhstan “will send a plane to take its citizens home.” Waiting for the imminent repatriation, Ayazbaeva spent only a few weeks in the camp.
“It was cold, but we now had food and there were no air strikes. Besides, it was a lot easier to endure because we knew that it’s temporary and we’re going home,” she says.
“The plane came on May 6, 2019, and took us all back to Kazakhstan,” Ayazbaeva recalls.
I understand that some people see us as a security time bomb, but it’s not true. I’ve witnessed those horrors firsthand. I understand more than anyone else that we shouldn’t follow [radical] ideas.”-- Sabinella Ayazbaeva
Ayazbaeva says she felt emotional when a Kazakh woman in "a military uniform" told her at the airport: “Let me carry your baby. You’re barely standing on your feet.”
The Kazakh government returned nearly 600 of its citizens in the so-called Operation Zhusan that took place in three stages between January and May 2019.
In a similar operation this year, the government announced on February 4 that 12 more people -- four men, one woman, and seven minors -- had been brought back from Syria.
Authorities says at least 800 Kazakh nationals had left for Syria and Iraq to join militant groups there.
Kazakh officials said in May 2020 that 31 men and 12 women from among the returnees had been jailed on terrorism-related charges after their return, while a handful of others were under investigation.
Ayazbaeva and other returnees were taken to a rehabilitation center in the city of Aqtau, where they underwent a medical checkup and were offered counseling sessions with psychologists and other specialists.
The next step was a stint at the Shans rehabilitation center in her hometown, before being told she was free to resume her normal life.
Mixed Feelings In Society
“For about two months I would still think it was just a dream,” Ayazbaeva said in one of her public speeches. “It was my dream to sleep on a soft bed, under a roof.”
As Ayazbaeva began a new chapter in her old home in Qaraghandy, her priority was to ensure her children made a smooth transition to life in Kazakhstan -- going to school, making friends, and reconnecting to grandparents and other relatives.
She hopes her children will eventually overcome the trauma they suffered in their five years in the war zone.
She lives near her parents and maintains close relationships with her late husband’s relatives, too.
"The reaction from society [toward me] was mostly positive," she says. "For example, I never heard anyone call me a terrorist. But some of my old friends are afraid of being in touch with me again."
But Kazakhstan -- a Central Asian country of some 18.5 million people that is 70 percent Muslim -- is wary of the threat of homegrown terrorists.
The government blamed Islamic extremists for deadly violence in the city of Aqtobe in 2016 when a military unit came under attack. Officials said the assault was carried out by some 20 Islamists who raided two gun stores before targeting the soldiers.
Ayazbaeva seeks to reassure society that people like her are not security threats.
“I understand that some people see us as a security time bomb, but it’s not true,” she insists. “I’ve witnessed those horrors firsthand. I understand more than anyone else that we shouldn’t follow [radical] ideas.”
Ayazbaeva says she is grateful to the Kazakh government for giving her a second chance and believes that all of the countries that have citizens stranded in Syrian camps should do the same. That topic was the focus of a speech she made at the European Parliament in 2019.
Another planned meeting in Switzerland was canceled because of the pandemic, but she continues to participate in anti-terrorism projects and gatherings at home.
Asked about religion, Ayazbaeva said she is still a practicing Muslim who goes to mosque and wears the hijab.
“I’m not disillusioned in my faith,” she says, adding that she doesn’t blame the religion for her “wrong decision to go to Syria.”