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Kyrgyz Women 'Hiding Their Young Sons Under Hijabs' In Syrian Camps To Avoid Detention

Kyrgyz children in juvenile prisons in Syria
Kyrgyz children in juvenile prisons in Syria

Adina returned to Kyrgyzstan from a Syrian camp last autumn on a flight organized by Bishkek to repatriate dozens of wives and children of Kyrgyz Islamic State (IS) fighters.

Adina says she is happy to be home but adds that her "heart bleeds" because her 20-year-old son, Nurmuhamed -- the eldest of her four children -- was left behind in Syria.

The last time Adina, who didn't want her last name published for privacy reasons, heard from her son was a letter he sent from a Syrian jail in 2022, three years after he was arrested by Kurdish forces aged 15.

Adina and other Kyrgyz women in the Kurdish-controlled Al-Hawl and Al-Roj camps in northern Syria say Kurdish guards routinely check their tents and take away boys as young as 8 to place them in juvenile prisons.

"I don't know why they do it, but they would come both during the day and at night to detain boys. Mothers would put hijabs and dresses on their sons to save them," she told RFE/RL. "Every woman who was raising a son had a bag [packed with the necessary stuff] ready for her son to take and ran away if there is a risk of being caught."

Nurmuhamed was 13 years old when his parents, residents of the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, took their five children to the Syrian city of Raqqa, the so-called capital of the self-proclaimed Islamic State caliphate.

Her husband and youngest child died in air strikes several days apart in March 2019 when IS was being ousted from its last strongholds.

"On March 14, the same day my husband died, Nurmuhamed went to look for food and never returned. I was hiding in a trench with my other three children, where we were arrested and taken to Al-Hawl."

Adina later found out that Nurmuhamed was detained by Kurdish forces and was placed in a prison, but she doesn't know any other details. She only has one last photo of her son, a video grab showing Nurmuhamed behind bars.

Nurmuhamed in 2019
Nurmuhamed in 2019

"In autumn 2019, women in Al-Hawl were searching for their husbands and sons on videos recorded in prisons," Adina said. "I saw my son in one of the videos and made a screenshot. Before that, for five months, I didn't know if my son was dead or alive."

Once again, Adina doesn't know if Nurmuhamed is alive or in which prison he is being held. She and her relatives have repeatedly asked the Kyrgyz government to help find her son.

"Kyrgyz authorities told us that they didn't find him in any prisons," Adina said.

‘State Responsibility'

Also left behind in Syria was the Kyrgyz teenager "Aitbek," who was allegedly taken to a juvenile detention from Al-Hawl at the age of just 10 in 2019. Aitbek's real name is not used for security reasons.

"Aitbek's mother and four siblings returned to Kyrgyzstan in 2023. The mother had asked the authorities to return her son, too, and she waited for him, but she died without ever seeing him again," says Hamida Yakubova, the head of a parents group campaigning for the repatriation of their children from Syria and Iraq.

The whereabouts of Aitbek are unknown. Yakubova has obtained a video that purportedly shows Aitbek and several other boys looking out of a window at a detention facility.

"Aitbek" in a juvenile detention facility in Syria
"Aitbek" in a juvenile detention facility in Syria

Meanwhile, in the Al-Roj camp a Kyrgyz mother says she is desperately trying to save her two sons from detention as the family awaits the next repatriation flight.

Speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, the woman said her eldest son is 20 and the younger one -- who was born in Syria -- is 7 years old.

"We heard that [Kurdish forces] send boys under 18 to juvenile prisons and once they reach 18 they will be placed in regular prisons," she said. "We think the reason the guards take the boys away upon reaching puberty is that they want to prevent them from having sex with women. Mothers put hijabs and dresses on their sons, but the [Kurdish guards] often determine by the way they walk whether it's a boy or a girl."

The woman said she never allows her sons to leave the tent.

"The children here don't develop properly because they don't get educated. My eldest son still behaves like a small child," the woman said. "These children have never lived a normal life. All they know is camps in Syria…. I would love to go back to Kyrgyzstan with my sons."

Marat Imankulov
Marat Imankulov

Kyrgyz authorities say at least 850 of their citizens left for Syria to join IS. Dozens died there.

In 2021, the government launched the Meerim operation to repatriate its citizens, most of them women and children, and rehabilitate and reintegrate them into society. This year, 432 Kyrgyz -- including 303 children -- were brought to Kyrgyzstan from Syrian camps.

"They are our citizens…and their repatriation is the direct responsibility of our state," Marat Imankulov, the head of Kyrgyzstan's Security Council, told RFE/RL.

Written by Farangis Najibullah in Prague with reporting by RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Aigerim Akylbekova

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