AL-JADAH CAMP, Iraq – When Asma* finally escaped from Mosul’s old city it was almost night. Gunfire rang out nearby, and the fading light illuminated the rubble of the al-Habda minaret, once a symbol of Mosul, which had been destroyed by militants fighting for the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).
Asma and her five children were among the last families to flee Mosul’s old city when it was liberated by Iraqi forces in July, but they didn’t hurry to find refuge. Instead, Asma and her children walked slowly, hungry and afraid, so as not to arouse the suspicions of the Iraqi soldiers.
Asma was the widow of an ISIS militant, and she knew that, although she was leaving Mosul alive, she would never truly escape the war. “Just tell me where I can get something to eat,” she remembers asking the soldiers as they passed by in their trucks. “You are a Daesh woman,” they shouted at her, using a pejorative Arabic term for ISIS. “We will not help you!”
Asma and her husband had come to Mosul from Kirkuk in 2014, after the city fell to the jihadist group. Asma’s husband had been working as an English teacher in Kirkuk when ISIS offered him a job translating videos and books.
“My husband’s change was not gradual, it was not religious or ideological, he did not pray even regularly,” says Asma, speaking to Women & Girls through a translator. “He needed money and when they asked him to move to Mosul and, above all, when they offered him a good salary, he did not have any hesitations. He just told me, ‘Asma, in a month we move with the children.’ And so we did.”
After they moved, Asma says she did not know who her husband spent the evenings and the nights with. She only knows that the rigid rules of the caliphate soon seeped into their home lives. Their two older children were made to attend ISIS schools, and her husband told her their eldest son was destined to become a fighter.
“[ISIS militants] told us we had to teach our children how to be martyrs,” she says. “They said that this would have made us great for Allah.”
Isolated and Afraid
Then, in March of this year, Asma’s husband died fighting in Mosul. She moved her family from their home in the city’s west to live with other fighters in the old town. She could think of nowhere else to go, and at the time, most of the food available was going to ISIS families.
When the Iraqi army entered Mosul’s old city in June, the food ran out. So Asma joined other ISIS families, the only people left in the city by then, as they fled to nearby displacement camps. When she arrived at al-Jadah camp and gave her name to the workers there, she found out that, as someone who had been married to an ISIS militant, her identity was already known to the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi secret service.
Al-Jadah camp is an expanse of tents – possibly thousands, although nobody keeps official count – covered with sand and surrounded by net fences and barbed wire.
Inside the camp there is a section of between 70 and 100 tents known as the DD area, reserved for ISIS families. Everyone knows who they are, their tents are marked with a cross and numbered. Inside are women, children and teenagers.
The women say they are often subjected to surprise interrogations, when camp officials question them about their militant husbands. The officials question the children and sometimes, the women say, the families are locked inside their tents. Nobody living in section DD is allowed to have a cellphone.
Noor, 16, lives in one of the DD tents with her mother and her remaining brothers. Despite her young age, she is already a widow. Her husband, a 22-year-old ISIS fighter, died in an airstrike 10 months after their wedding. When she talks about him, Noor’s face lights up with pride.
“We had a beautiful life in Mosul, and we were generous with everyone,” she says. “Now we are miserable. We are forced to live close to people who hate us.”
Noor’s aunt, Samah, lives in a tent nearby. She has lost eight of her 11 children in the war. Samah says the camp officials deny her and her family food and water. “When I am in line for food distribution and officials realize that I come from DD section, they spit on me,” she says.
Samah, Noor and other ISIS women spend their days in their tents because hiding is the only way they can protect themselves from the insults and anger, they say. All around them there are the victims of IS, the remaining survivors of the violence that their husbands and sons have perpetrated.
“We [have] lost not only our people, our land, our homes, but also the chance to raise our children without being hated,” Samah says.
“For all of us,” she adds, pointing to her three surviving children, “it would have been better to die in Mosul. Yes, even the children.”
Officials at al-Jadah camp say the families are separated and marked for their own protection. “We isolate ISIS families for their safety, not to marginalize them. No one mistreats them,” says Husain, a security officer who asked to be identified only by his first name.
Another Iraqi official, who asked to remain anonymous and is in charge of al-Jadah’s security, says sometimes they question ISIS families in case they have information on the movements of militant fighters. “Some of them could be collaborators, they could be hiding important information on sleeper cells,” he says. “These people have lived under ISIS for three years. None of these families are completely innocent. But we are careful about their safety, here in al-Jadah.”
The Plight of the ISIS Children
Sitting in her tent, which is empty except for a pile of dirty mattresses on which eight people sleep at night, Halaa begins to cry.
“Yes, I’m from IS,” she says. Her husband was a doctor and worked in a hospital in Mosul. When the militants arrived, her whole family joined the group “with conviction,” she says.
“For us it was a simple application of our religion, no one forced me to cover my face and body. The arrival of ISIS in Mosul for us meant [the chance] to have a dignified life. We wanted to live safely, according to the rules of the Koran. And so it was.”
Al-Jadah camp has no psychological support system, no programs of deradicalization or reintegration. So the women in DD area spend their days talking to each other about the injustices they have suffered and retelling stories of how the men in their lives became martyrs. And they worry for their children, who have to attend a small school in a tent with the other displaced children, already stigmatized even though they, too, have lost everything.
“I’m sure my children will be abused,” says Halaa. “They will be forever and for everybody only ‘IS’ children.”
A blonde girl walks on the sand between two tents in the DD section. She says her father and brother were killed by ISIS in Mosul. Then she points to the tents where the ISIS families live.
“My mother told me not to come here, not to talk with these kids and not to play with them,” she says. “These kids are devils. They are all devils.”
*The women in this story are referred to only by their first names to protect their identities.