DUSHANBE -- With Islamic State (IS) fighters on the verge of defeat in their last stronghold in Syria, hundreds of foreign women and children, the family members of the militants, have ended up in refugee camps in the war-torn country’s northeast.
Among them are at least 50 Tajiks.
With debate raging in the United Kingdom and the United States about the possible return of young women who joined Islamic State and now want to come home, Tajikistan is taking a firm stance: the government believes the only way to prevent future security threats is to bring home the jihadists and their families, especially the children.
Tajikistan’s Foreign Ministry announced on February 12 that it will take all the necessary measures to make sure no Tajik child is left in Syria or Iraq.
“We are trying to repatriate all our citizens from Syria. First of all, we want to bring back the children,” Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin told reporters at a February 12 press briefing in Dushanbe.
Tajikistan has also secured a deal with Iraqi authorities to facilitate the return of more than 90 Tajik children, most of whom live with their mothers in Iraqi jails. The Tajik authorities say most of the women were taken to Syria by their husbands.
“We reached an agreement with Baghdad that we’ll pay a $400 fine per person instead of the $2,500 fine Iraq [usually] charges…for illegally crossing their border,” the minister said.
Many of the incarcerated women fled the fighting in Syria for Iraq.
The Tajik government has assigned its ambassador to Kuwait and Iraq, Zubaidullo Zubaidzoda, to organize the return of the women and children.
Zubaidzoda told RFE/RL that he has established contacts with “all sides involved” -- the Syrian authorities and international aid agencies, as well as the Kurdish-led forces who control some of the areas -- to discuss access to the Tajik nationals in refugee camps.
The Foreign Ministry’s announcement immediately “spread as the best news ever” among Tajiks in a sprawling refugee camp on the outskirts of the northeastern Syrian town of Al-Hawl, says Tahmina Odinaeva, an IS widow from Tajikistan.
Odinaeva, 36, who lives in a tent with her two children, says she has written to the Tajik authorities pleading for help.
I am not here by choice. My husband deceived me. He brought us to Syria. Then he was killed."-- Tahmina Odinaeva, an IS widow from Tajikistan
“I want to go back home,” Odinaeva says, adding that she wants to be reunited with her parents and brother, whom she stays in contact with via the WhatsApp messaging service.
Odinaeva insists she “made a mistake” by listening to her husband who she says tricked her into coming to Syria in 2015.
She met her husband, an ethnic Uyghur from China, in a Chinese bazaar in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, where he worked. The couple went on to marry and have two children before her husband convinced Odinaeva to move abroad.
“I am not here by choice. My husband deceived me. He brought us to Syria. Then he was killed,” she says, speaking by phone from the refugee camp.
Odinaeva didn’t give any further details.
Authorities in Dushanbe and Odinaeva’s family in her native town of Hamadoni in southern Tajikistan confirm her account that she left Tajikistan with her husband and children more than three years ago.
Ambassador Zubaidzoda says he is planning to meet Tajik nationals like Odinaeva, stranded in refugee camps along with their children. The diplomat already has experience in organizing the repatriation of Tajik nationals: He played a key role in bringing back six Tajik IS orphans from Iraq last year.
Zubaidzoda says there are 92 Tajik children and 43 women Tajikistan wants to bring home from Iraq. Some of the children live in refugee camps, but most are in prisons with their mothers serving jail sentences for the crime of belonging to an extremist group. Some of them have been sentenced to death.
According to Iraqi law, the repatriation of the minors requires written permission from at least one of the parents and an Iraqi court order. At the February 12 press briefing, Tajik Foreign Minister Muhriddin told reporters that the ministry believes most of the fathers have been killed.
All of the drivers that caused a small number to fight abroad -- injustice, marginalization, repression -- still exist. Young people will seek new ways to express this frustration, sometimes using violence."-- Edward Lemon, Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security
The foreign minister says the “biggest challenge” is the refusal of some of the Tajik mothers in Iraq and Syria to send their children back to Tajikistan.
Some of them argue that they don’t have any relatives in Tajikistan willing to look after their children. In a few cases, some mothers insist they don't want their children to be raised in secular Tajikistan, the Foreign Ministry said.
Tajikistan’s repatriation efforts come as Islamic State militants, besieged by Kurdish-led forces, are fighting to retain their last piece of territory in Syria, in and around the village of Baghuz, which is close to the border with Iraq.
The question of what to do about foreign IS fighters and their family members captured by the Kurdish-led forces has created a major headache for governments in their home countries. According to a report by the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, more than 40,000 foreign citizens joined Islamic State in Iraq and Syria between 2013 and 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump has urged European nations to repatriate their nationals from Syria to stand trial at home.
Different countries, fearing the potential security threats the former jihadi fighters pose, have employed different methods to deal with IS returnees, ranging from prosecution and imprisonment to rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
In the European Union, returnees face criminal investigation and sometimes prosecution. In Belgium, returning members of Islamic State can be sent to secure units for rehabilitation. And according to a European Parliament report, the French government allows its citizens to be prosecuted in France or Syria, providing they get a fair trial.
Tajikistan’s desire to bring its foreign citizens home has its roots in the country’s experience with civil war in the 1990s and its aftermath. Then, dozens of Tajik refugee children ended up in militant training camps in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan.
At the height of the IS successes in Syria and Iraq in 2015, Tajikistan offered an amnesty to its nationals who voluntarily returned from the conflict zone and renounced violence.
More than 100 people returned to Tajikistan, before and under the amnesty, and reintegrated into society, albeit under the watchful eyes of the authorities.
Some of them now take part in state-sponsored campaigns against extremism. Former fighters often appear on state television, giving interviews about IS atrocities they say they witnessed in Iraq and Syria.
WATCH: Extremist Ties Turn Brother Against Brother In Tajikistan (from September 2017)
Some of those who returned were convicted of being mercenaries or being involved in recruiting fighters for IS.
Not everyone, however, is happy about their return, fearing some of the returnees still hold on to their extremist ideology.
“We never know for sure what was the real reason they came back. We can’t be sure they really deradicalize,” said a university lecturer in Dushanbe who wished to remain anonymous because he is personally familiar with some of the cases of the returnees.
Although there are no official barriers for the returnees to work or study, there is no rehabilitation process for those who spent time in IS-controlled territory.
“As of yet, we have not seen any attacks by former foreign fighters” in Tajikistan, but the absence of the rehabilitation programs “could create problems for the family members and society more generally in the long term,” says Edward Lemon, a fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security in Washington, D.C.
“What may be more threatening in the longer term is the fact that [Islamic State] has now dissipated and traveling to Syria is now all but impossible, [so] more Tajiks may be inspired to carry out attacks at home,” Lemon says.
“All of the drivers that caused a small number to fight abroad -- injustice, marginalization, repression -- still exist. Young people will seek new ways to express this frustration, sometimes using violence,” Lemon told RFE/RL.
The authorities say some 1,900 Tajik nationals left for Syria and Iraq to join IS since 2014 and that nearly 500 of them are believed to have been killed. Some have returned. The fate of the rest is unknown.