“Welcome back to Kyrgyzstan,” says Shukur Shermatov, addressing a class of 20 women. He is wearing a traditional felt cap, but there is nothing traditional about this school. It sits inside two rings of military security and the students are women who have been brought home from camps in Syria, where they ended up after living with the Islamic State group.
The rehabilitation centre is woven into the mountains of northern Kyrgyzstan, and it is where wives and children of suspected IS recruits spend their first six weeks after being repatriated.
Our BBC World Service team are among the first visitors, and like the residents, everything we say and do is closely monitored by the state intelligence agency.
The women listen to Shukur attentively as he takes them through their first lesson. The course covers citizenship, religious ethics, and anger management. Posters on the wall offer tips on how to control your emotions.
As well as the re-education programme, the families receive medical treatment, psychological support, and – for the first time in years for many – sufficient food, water, and shelter.
Some countries have balked at repatriating women such as these – women who say they followed husbands, fathers and brothers into a war zone unknowingly. What happened to them there – what they did, how much they knew – has been hidden in the wreckage of the so-called caliphate. Decisions on whether they are victim or perpetrator now have to be made by officials, potentially thousands of miles away.
The Kyrgyz government has, at least for now, decided to treat them as the former – albeit, cautiously. Nine out of 10 are under police investigation.
After the lesson, we are led into a simple dormitory with four single beds, where we meet a woman draped in a purple hijab. We are calling her Fatima, not her real name, for her safety. Through a small window, the snowy lakeside landscape could not look more different to the Syrian camp she has left behind.
“The main thing here is that it’s calm. Everyone is so grateful for that. The children love it.” She pauses and appreciates the silence. “The calm.”
Fatima followed her husband to Turkey in 2013 when he said he wanted to work there. The whole family went, including Fatima’s two adult sons, her daughter and a grandchild. She says she only realised they were in Syria when she heard the roar of jet planes overhead and saw IS guards.
We asked whether she really had no idea where they were going and, like many of the women we met, she insisted she was unaware and it was normal for a woman to follow her husband.
Within days of their arrival in Syria, she had lost her husband and son. Her husband burned to death after a bomb hit his car, while her son was shot by a sniper. Shortly afterwards, her other son fell ill and died.
Unable to leave, the women spent nearly six years under brutal IS rule in Iraq and Syria, where Fatima’s daughter had more children. When IS fighters were driven out, Fatima, her daughter and four grandchildren ended up in al-Hol, Syria’s largest detention camp for suspected IS fighters and their families. They spent four years there, desperate to come home.
“Women were sick and children were crying all the time. We were begging them to let us leave,” she says. “We barely survived. When people from Kyrgyzstan came to collect the first group, everyone was in shock.”
In October, her daughter and grandchildren were told they were being repatriated, but not Fatima.
“I cried when they told me I wasn’t on the list. How wasn’t I on the list? I’m their mother!” she sobs. “But now that I am here and will soon be back with my family, I am so happy. I’m glad my grandchildren can have an education. I want them to study science, to understand the world better.”
At 57, Fatima is the oldest person in the rehabilitation centre, one of 110 mothers and 229 children Kyrgyzstan brought back from Syria in 2023 as part of a new repatriation operation. Only Iraq repatriated more last year.
Kyrgyzstan plans to bring back at least another 260 women and children, after years of campaigning by relatives of people stuck in Syria. The aim is to give people the government believes may have been victims a second chance.
Even so, the returnees are all interrogated and remain under regular surveillance after finishing the reintegration course. Nine in 10 are facing criminal investigations, the head of the Kyrgyz national security council told us. Potential charges could include assisting terrorism or transporting children to a war zone. As yet, however, no-one has been prosecuted.
The continued surveillance, and potential of criminal proceedings, mean the women are often reluctant to talk about their time in Syria.
After Elmira, who has passed through the rehabilitation centre and is now rebuilding her life in a town outside the capital, Bishkek, agrees to speak to us, we get a glimpse of what this monitoring looks like.
Soon after we arranged to see her, we were phoned by her social worker, notifying us that she would be present at the interview too. When we arrived, two counter-terror police officers, whom the family recognised, were there as well. After some discussion, they agreed to wait outside.
Elmira claims she was tricked into going to Syria by a man she met online. He convinced her to join him in Turkey and, thinking they would be happy together, four days after her 18th birthday she flew out to meet him.
But when she got there, she was greeted by a different man who said he was his friend and took her on a 17-hour drive across the Syrian border. She claims that by the time she realised what was happening, it was too late to turn back.
She married twice. Her first husband died after a couple of months, then she married a man from Dagestan and had his child. She won’t say any more about what he was doing in Syria but explains they were looking for a way out before he died in a rocket attack.
Elmira says the hardest moment was when she thought her daughter might be dead. She had gone out, leaving her little girl at home, when rockets hit their neighbourhood. Terrified for her child, Elmira ran home in tears.
“Then someone brought her out, alive, healthy, and she was just afraid. The neighbour’s house had been hit and other children who were nearby died.”
Like Fatima, Elmira and her daughter ended up in al-Hol camp.
“I still can’t believe it. Sometimes I wake up at night and don’t know if I’m dreaming,” she tells us. “I’m so grateful to everyone who helped get us out of there and didn’t abandon us. We know that not every country does that.”
Elmira, who is now training as a seamstress, asked us not to disclose her real name. After seeing the response to the repatriations from some Kyrgyz people on social media, she has decided not to tell anyone about her past.
“It isn’t pleasant,” she says. “A lot of us don’t understand why they are afraid of us. We are afraid of them! People think we have come back here with machine guns and suicide belts. It’s not like that. We are people just like they are. We also have families. We also have children. And we also want to lead peaceful and happy lives.”
“And why tell people, when I myself want to forget?” Elmira adds. “I was 18 then. I’m 27 now. I’ve learned not to be so naïve.”
Elmira’s mother, Hamida Yusupova, spent the past decade pleading with the Kyrgyz authorities to bring back her daughter and granddaughter, and founded a campaign group for parents of girls who went to Syria.
“We know that Syria can be a one-way trip. You start to realise that your child might never make it back home,” she says.
“I thank God, that she’s back home and, finally, I’ve met my granddaughter. But Elmira has lost nine years of her youth. It’s a long time.”
When Hamida came to collect them from the rehabilitation centre, their reunion was filled with more tears than words.
“Elmira had become a mother. She understood how hard it is when you raise a child for 18 years and, one day, they tell you they’re ‘going to work’, shut the door, and disappear to Syria. I wouldn’t wish it on any mother,” Hamida says.
“All Elmira could say was: ‘Mum, forgive me, forgive me.’ Nothing else. Apart from, then she told me how much I had aged!”
Elmira and Hamida are well aware that not everyone around them will be forgiving.
Like many of its central Asian neighbours, Kyrgyzstan – where 90% of the population identify as Muslim – was a major source of recruits for IS, a UN-designated terrorist group, during its rise to prominence.
Hamida feels her daughter was a victim of manipulative men and guilty only of being gullible. However, we spoke to Kyrgyz women the same age as Elmira who said they felt anxious that the returnees could radicalise others, especially after seeing how the Taliban retook Afghanistan.
“As a mum, I’ve heard a lot of insults and slurs. I don’t want my child to have to hear that. I don’t want people to point fingers at my child and call her a terrorist,” Hamida says.
Deputy Prime Minister Edil Baisalov is keen to showcase the repatriation policy as proof that Kyrgyzstan is a tolerant democracy that looks after all of its citizens.
“I believe that the best thing is that they forget the nightmare they have been through, and that nobody in their families and communities remembers this situation. That everyone is just a good citizen of Kyrgyzstan,” he tells us.
Mr Baisalov knows this is a contentious subject, particularly in some Western countries. A former ambassador to the UK, he was in post shortly after Shamima Begum, one of three London schoolgirls who left to join IS, had her British citizenship revoked.
The deputy prime minister also wanted to send a political message. Human rights groups have questioned Kyrgyzstan’s reputation as an island of democracy in central Asia since disputed elections in 2020 and the introduction of new laws.
“For Kyrgyzstan, this was not an easy decision,” he said. “Of course, our kind of Islam is not radical. It is a very tolerant Islam, respectful of other religions. We are a small nation that needs to take care of each other. Even of those who commit mistakes.”
The scheme is supported by the UN children’s agency Unicef and Sylvi Hill, who lead their repatriation efforts in Kyrgyzstan, describes it as “commendable”. She says Unicef is calling for “all governments to facilitate the return, rehabilitation and reintegration of their children affected by conflict”.
The women we spoke to say they are grateful to be offered this second chance, and they are well aware that there are nearly 50,000 others from around the world still trapped in camps in northern Syria, with no way out.
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