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Kyrgyzstan Faces Challenges In Repatriating Islamic State Women, Children From Syrian Camps

Kyrgyz women and children arrive in Bishkek from a Syrian refugee camp in August.
Kyrgyz women and children arrive in Bishkek from a Syrian refugee camp in August.

BISHKEK -- Kyrgyzstan recently repatriated 95 wives and children of Kyrgyz Islamic State (IS) militants from Syria, in the second such operation this year.

But the task is just beginning for the government in Bishkek, as it must find ways to reintegrate the new citizens who haven't lived a normal life for many years.

Among those who arrived at the Bishkek airport aboard a special flight on August 30 were 64 children, many of them born in Syria. Forty-one children and 18 women were repatriated in the first stage of the repatriation operation, called Aikol (Generous), in February.

Some 450 Kyrgyz women and children have been stranded in Syria and Iraq since the collapse of the IS extremist group in 2018. There are still dozens more family members of IS fighters in Iraqi prisons and hardscrabble Syrian refugee camps.

The Kyrgyz government has been under pressure from their relatives to bring the others home.

Hamida Yakubova and Ramaz Sariev from the Kara-Balta district of the northern Chuy region have been among the most vocal in urging Bishkek to follow the examples of neighboring Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in repatriating hundreds of their citizens from the refugee camps.

Yakubova told RFE/RL that her daughter and grandchild were among the group repatriated last week. "My daughter left home in 2014, saying she was going to study in Istanbul. But it turned out that she wasn't planning to study, she was brainwashed and lured into going to Syria," she said.

Yakubova is the head of the Lend a Helping Hand group that brings together Kyrgyz parents whose daughters went to Syria.

Kyrgyz authorities say there were at least 140 women among the estimated 850 Kyrgyz citizens who left Kyrgyzstan to join IS between 2014 and 2018.

There were many other women who were taken to Syria and Iraq from Kyrgyzstan by their husbands or other male relatives. At least 150 Kyrgyz were killed in air strikes and fighting. Others managed to escape IS and return home on their own long before the extremist group's so-called caliphate fell five years ago.

Died Before They Returned

Ramaz Sariev never shied away from speaking to the media about how his family was torn apart by IS recruiters who Sariev said brainwashed his two young daughters -- Nuriza and Kalira -- who left for Syria within three months in early 2014 without telling their parents.

The girls were 18 and 16 at the time. They both married Kyrgyz militants in Syria and gave birth to two children each. Their husbands were killed in fighting.

Sariev's wife -- who was pregnant at the time -- went to Syria to bring her daughters back but got stuck there. She gave birth to her son in Syria.

Meanwhile, Sariev sought help from the government to help return his family and spoke to the media to raise awareness of their plight.

But he didn't live to see his wife, son, eldest daughter, and two of his grandchildren repatriated in February as he died in 2020.

The youngest son -- who Sariev never met -- is now attending school in Kara-Balta.

His other daughter, Kalira, remains with her two kids in the Al-Roj camp in northeastern Syria waiting to be repatriated.

'None Of Us Went To University'

Also waiting for repatriation are some 40 Kyrgyz women -- aged between 20 and 65 -- jailed in Iraq for their links to IS. Their jail sentences range from 10 years to life in prison.

One of the women -- who introduced herself as 27-year-old Nilufar from the southern Osh region -- told RFE/RL in April that they wanted Kyrgyz officials to secure their freedom and bring them home.

"Most of us came to Syria and Iraq with our husbands in 2014-15," Nilufar said in a WhatsAPP interview. "Not a single person among us has been to university. It is very easy to deceive people like us. Obviously, we were deceived [by our husbands]."

Nilufar also showed several photos that she said depicted women in the Iraqi prison where she is being kept.

Kyrgyz women in Rasafa (Rusafa) are shown in prison in Baghdad in April.
Kyrgyz women in Rasafa (Rusafa) are shown in prison in Baghdad in April.

Bishkek repatriated 79 children -- aged between 2 and 18 -- from Iraq in March 2021. Authorities said the children's mothers were in jail and their fathers were killed in the conflict.


Kyrgyz politicians, experts, and others warn that the government, the families, and society have a difficult job in rehabilitating the returnees.

Specialists working with repatriated children in neighboring countries have said some of the elder children had been indoctrinated with IS ideology and even undergone IS military training.

The children have spent all or most of their lives in conflict zones, prisons, or refugee camps, deprived of school, health care, and normal society. Many have witnessed fighting, air strikes, death, and destruction while also experiencing hunger and poverty.

Many returnees -- children and adults alike -- suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental and physical trauma.

Two Kyrgyz children repatriated from Iraq in March 2021
Two Kyrgyz children repatriated from Iraq in March 2021

Zhenishbek Ashirbaev, a Kyrgyz expert on extremism and terrorism issues, says a delicate approach is needed in dealing with the returnees, most of whom have spent about a decade in a "highly radicalized" environment.

"To integrate them back into our society we need a very carefully planned rehabilitation process, with the help of trained psychologists and with other comprehensive measures," Ashirbaev told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

Experts warn that adequate rehabilitation and reintegration are paramount both for the well-being of the returnees and prevention of any security risks or negative influence on society.

Written by Farangis Najibullah in Prague with reporting by Zamira Kozhobaeva, Mirlan Kadyrov, and Sanzhar Eraliev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service in Bishkek
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    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 impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

    RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service is an award-winning, multimedia source of independent news and informed debate, covering major stories and underreported topics, including women, minority rights, high-level corruption, and religious radicalism.

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