Tunisian children growing up in camps for IS combatants are burdened by the sins of their parents. Despite being victims of terrorism, Tunisia brands them as terrorists. They dream of going back home, but their home country does not want them.
“I wake up in the morning and I find my bed flooded in water… We have no school bags, and we also have no schools… We don’t have food… I am tired of the tent, I want to watch TV, to own a cell phone, I want to own something… I want to live in a house, surrounded by four walls.”
Maha was born in Tunisia eight years back. She was no more than three years old when her parents took her to Turkey, then to Islamic State territory. The father was killed before her fifth birthday. After that, Maha moved between hospitality areas. The Islamic State allocates a large house in every area they control to host women from foreign countries, usually widows of IS combatants killed in action, and unwed women.
Maha eventually ended up in Al-Roj camp. She has never known kindergartens or school yards; she can’t write or even articulate a single sentence in classical Arabic. Her knowledge of French and English is limited to some numbers and letters.
Her mother received a college education, but her daughter can barely spell out letters during the few lessons her mother secretly gives her inside the tent. This tent has been Maha’s world since she and her family were detained; it’s the home, the school, the playground and the small cell inside a camp that feels more like a large open-air prison.
She may still have some distant memories of her birthplace, but her younger brothers, both born in Syria, only have their mother’s tales about Tunisia to paint a picture of their motherland. Even though it seems like a faraway memory, an almost imaginary place, the three children only speak of how much they miss it and want to go back home. But apparently home itself does not share the same sentiment, and is in no hurry for its children to return.
Hundreds of suspected IS combatants and their families live under inhumane conditions in camps, but no country takes responsibility
This five-month investigation follows the lives of Maha, other Tunisian children and their mothers inside the camps housing IS combatants’ families in north-eastern Syria. The investigation sheds light on the suffering of these children, how they are deprived of an education and all other basic rights. It also looks into the Tunisian authorities’ failure to return them home, in clear violation of international law and the Tunisian constitution, as well as their shortcomings in providing the necessary support for those who managed to return, and failure to successfully reintegrate them into society.
There are least 104 Tunisian children and their mothers among 14,000 non-Iraqi foreigners in north-eastern Syria, from more than 60 countries. The Syrian Democratic Forces detain the families of Syrian and foreign suspected IS combatants in temporary camps, the largest of which is Al-Hawl camp in Al-Hasakah governorate.
On a broader scale, around 200 children and 100 women claiming to be Tunisian are detained outside Tunisia without charges other than being family members of IS combatants. Most of them are in Syria and to a lesser extent Iraq. According to Human Rights Watch “a lot of the detained children are under six years of age, and bringing home their mothers as well may be in their best interest.”
Since announcing the defeat of the Islamic State terrorist organisation in March 2019, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (also known as Rojava) has been asking the concerned countries to either take back their detained citizens or form an international tribunal to put the Jihadis on trial. But a lot of countries are reluctant to take their citizens back. Tunisia is also hesitant to return stranded children of IS members. Most of the younger children were either born in IS-controlled territories or brought there with their parents at a very young age.
“We are not alive here. Why should my children pay for the mistakes of their father and me?”
At dawn, north-eastern Syria. There are no roosters crowing here to declare the arrival of a new morning, but Mofeeda has a fixed time for putting the dough on the fire. As with every day, she moves gently, trying not to disturb the sleep of her children while preparing the dough and baking the bread. They lie next to her in the tent. She whispers a short prayer asking God for help on the new day, then shrouds her body with a long flowing headscarf.
Like the rest of the camps, Al-Roj has been closed to visitors until further notice. Mofeeda and the rest of the women and children have no idea where their destiny might take them. She tells us stories of worn-out tents becoming playthings for the wind, falling apart or flooded by the winter and sewage water. About far-away toilets that constantly flood. She speaks of wild dogs that scare her little children, about drinking water that is either never enough or polluted. She tells us about the garbage everywhere, and the diseases. Nothing inspires hope here, but Mofeeda and thousands of others are still determined to live in these overcrowded camps, on the hope that they might return home one day.
Because she is motivated by hope, Mofeeda chases the daybreak every day. She starts making bread to sell later in the market, two dollars a day that she hopes can sustain her children, keep them alive in anticipation of good news. “The only hope is for my children to return home. We are not alive here… Why should my children pay for the mistakes of their father and me?”
Three years have passed since Mofeeda and her children arrived at Al-Roj camp. She and other foreign women and their children have been detained without being charged or put on trial. In the camps, there is no such thing as rights for children. They grow up without any protection, care or education. Those born in Syria are denied their citizenship.
The children are first and foremost victims of human rights violations, not perpetrators. Returning home is therefore the only option
Letta Tayler, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who specialises in terrorism and counter-terrorism, tells us in an interview that this sort of open-ended detention without charge is a form of collective punishment prohibited by international law. She asserts that children should not be punished for their parents’ crimes, and even children who committed crimes under the Islamic State rule should only be detained as an exceptional last-resort measure. She emphasises that children associated with the armed groups, even those who were members, are first and foremost victims.
According to international law, Tayler continues, countries have to assure that stateless children receive a citizenship at the soonest, including those living abroad. They must be provided with rehabilitation and reintegration services, none of which are available at these camps. Even if they were, reintegration is naturally impossible in desert camps thousands of kilometres from the children’s homes.
Regarding returning the children home, whether accompanied by their mothers or not, the Human Rights Watch researcher points out that international laws concerning children heavily stress the unity of the family. This means children should not be separated from their parents unless the separation is clearly in the children’s best interest.
She explains that adults suspected of committing serious crimes can be interrogated and put on trial back home if it needs to. The north-eastern Syrian authorities do not put any of the detained foreigners on trial for being members of the Islamic State group.
The problem is not limited to the indefinite detention of innocent children who have already gone through unimaginable horrors under the rule of IS, according to Tayler. It extends to Tunisian adults who are potential war criminals but are not put on trial, in itself an affront to IS victims.
She concludes that because of the difficult circumstances in north-eastern Syria, and the lack of any criminal proceedings for the detainees, return is the only option. The current policy of abandoning Tunisian children under siege in war zones is unethical, illegal and inhumane.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the children’s living conditions got even worse
The Observatory of Rights and Freedoms of Tunisia started a national campaign many years back, under the slogan ‘It’s my right to return’. The Director, Marawan Jeddah, says the organisation demands that the rescue of the children trapped in the camps be expedited – especially in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has meant that international organisations no longer visit to monitor camp conditions. Naturally, infractions by camp administration towards children, such as torture, abuse and possibly sexual harassment, have increased. Jeddah says danger lurks around every corner for these children, whether inside or outside camp.
Jeddah tells us what will happen to the children and mothers who escaped the attacks on Ain Issa camp. “They are destined to either successfully reach the Turkish side, or get captured by the terrorist groups. The groups can use them in their operations, or as human shields, or sell them to human trafficking operations.”
Mofeeda, in her thirties, enters her cloth tent and takes off her facemask, which she fashioned out of an old pair of trousers the camp management gave her last winter. “The facemasks outside are expensive, so we used these trousers to make facemasks for us, this is all the protection we have.” As she writes sarcastically in a letter to us, “Your brother is no hero, merely forced to obey.”
Here in Al-Roj camp, the temperature outside is almost 40 degrees Celsius. It’s a crowded camp, with nobody allowed to enter or leave. Water is scarce, and basic necessities are no longer available.
We communicated with Mofeeda over many months to get her story. Correspondence was not regular; she had to talk to us in secret, as phones are banned inside the camp. Mofeeda describes the conditions in the camp during the Covid-19 pandemic like a newspaper reporter – she studied journalism in college. Then she ended up in a camp in north-eastern Syria, in a tent with four hungry mouths to feed, in the midst of a global pandemic.
Our story was initially supposed to revolve around education, but as Covid-19 increased in scale, conditions in the camps deteriorated even further. In addition to the pandemic, other diseases and health conditions were already rampant, including malnourishment, diarrhea, heart failure and anaemia. Now, on top of everything, people suffer from increased restrictions on movement and isolation measures.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has called on the governments of “third-country nationals” – those not from Iraq or Syria – to help their nationals stranded in Syrian camps, in view of what it calls “serious limitations on access to humanitarian aid, and the risks associated with Covid-19”.
The International Crisis Group has also warned of the spread of Covid-19 in the Al-Hawl and Al-Roj camps. “Should this virus hit places like al-Hawl, we risk being in a position where we are just going to watch people die.”
We find out later that a group of Tunisian mothers and children, among other nationalities, were moved at the beginning of October 2020 from Al-Hawl to Al-Roj camp, to “reduce the burden on Al-Hawl camp, which is facing many security problems”. But Mofeeda calls Al-Roj the “black camp” and says it is no less dangerous than Al-Hawl. To her, it’s out of the frying pan, into the fire.
“Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”- but not for children in Al-Hawl and Al-Roj camp”
‘Those who enter it are lost, and those who exit it are given a second life’ – this expression completely suits Al-Hawl camp. We all know the difficulties and dangers of entering this camp. Many of the extremist elements detained there have adopted the same lifestyle as under IS rule. This is in spite of the presence of the Asayish – the Kurdish security organisation that guards the camp – and constant monitoring by the Syrian Democratic Forces. A cross-border smuggling network and violent incidents are attributed to women who have formed an Islamist police force (Al-Hisbah) inside the camp. They monitor what other women wear and how they behave in their daily lives, to see if they are following IS doctrine.
In the extremist section of Al-Hawl camp, where the Islamist policewomen prevail, you can hear IS terms like killing, beheading, decapitation, infidels, invasion, revenge and, of course, Khilafah. Many Tunisian women have been subjected to violence and intimidation at their hands, and some have even had their tents burned to the ground for criticising IS.
There are an estimated 57 Tunisian children at Al-Hawl. After a long wait, we managed to obtain approval to enter the camp and meet them and their mothers. On the day of our visit, we found out to our surprise that we were banned from entering the X-1 zone where most of the Tunisian women’s tents are located. We only managed to meet two Tunisian women, brought to the office by camp administration. One refused to be interviewed on record, and the other sat in front of the camera holding her little daughter.
From behind her niqab, Marwa spoke about her desire to return to Tunisia, to give her child a better future. It was an interview with a mother who is herself a child – she is still under 18. Marwa arrived in Syria with her Tunisian father and Moroccan mother and was married off to a Tunisian man. The man divorced her in “the State”, as she puts it, referring to the time of IS rule.
Marwa left the education system when she was in elementary school. Her daughter, staring at the camera with wide black eyes, has never received a day of education in her life. “Kids love to learn, but who will teach them?,” Marwa wonders out loud, her accent now mostly that of the east rather than North Africa.
Education is a basic human right, part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and enacted in a number of international human rights treaties. “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” is one of the seventeen goals promulgated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development formally adopted by the UN in New York in December 2015.
The right to education is at the heart of UNESCO’s goals. UNESCO considers good, comprehensive, inclusive, equitable and fair education to be a powerful tool in eradicating the underlying roots of violent extremism and preventing young people from joining extremist groups. It has been proven that a security response to violent extremism and terrorism is not sufficient.
Tunisian children do not fare any better in Al-Roj than Al-Hawl when it comes to education. The only school that gave them lessons has long since closed. Mofeeda’s children only have some books and stories brought by one of the relief organisations that used to visit the camp before the pandemic.
Mofeeda tries to fill the gap by teaching her children in secret inside the tent. Simple things like numbers and letters in English and French are all she can help her children with. She is always afraid of the camp administration finding out. She says any mother discovered teaching her children alone faces punishment, including prison time.
In one of her voice messages, Mofeeda asked her youngest son to speak. The child, who was born in Syria, said in a flawless Tunisian accent: “We are always alone. We have no toys or family.” He added, in a childlike tone, “I want to return to Tunisia to learn.”
If the international community fails to reach a way to rehabilitate these children and reintegrate them into society, they will become the next generation of IS.
Mofeeda and other non-extremist mothers face immense challenges to keep their children from being influenced by the extreme IS ideology in the camps. The lack of education, and the delay in returning them to their countries, make matters progressively worse, driving children towards extremist doctrine. The biggest fear is that if the international community fails to reach a way to rehabilitate these children and reintegrate them into society, they will become the next generation of IS.
Marwan Jeddah, Director of the Observatory of Rights and Freedoms of Tunisia, says most of the parents of these children are college-educated, yet still chose the path of “extremism, terrorism and crime”. He wonders about the future of children who never receive any education to begin with.
He tells us a story about a Tunisian grandmother who visited her grandson in one of the detention centres in Libya. The grandmother gave a piece of cake to the child, and to her shock, he started eating it without removing the plastic wrapping. He had never seen a piece of cake in his life before.
Referring to the tents, Jeddah says, “There are children who dream of seeing a wall, as they have seen nothing but plastic in their lives.”
“Grandpa, please take me back to Tunisia”
On a conference table at the headquarters of an NGO, Fathia sits in front of us. Being in her fifties, she is dressed completely in black. Her loose-fitting dress can’t hide her frailty, and her eyes are withered and dry from crying. Fathia has been suffering for years.
Her anguish started when her daughter travelled with her husband to Syria, to join the Islamic State. The husband was killed and her daughter later died, leaving two children to grow up alone in one of the camps in north-eastern Syria. Her granddaughter was only 20 days old when her parents took her to Syria. She is now seven, and her younger brother, born in Syria, is almost five.
About two years ago, in spite of her illness, Fathia knocked on every door she could, trying to appeal to the authorities to return her grandchildren. She received no response.
The two orphaned children constantly move between camps, different women taking care of them. There is no semblance of stability in their lives. The kids suffer through the cold of winter and the heat of summer. They cannot sate their hunger. Fathia chokes on her words and tears up, telling us her grandchildren have to find food from the garbage.
She assures us that she would be in favour of putting her daughter and son-in-law on trial if they were still alive, but she doesn’t understand why her grandchildren have to pay for the mistakes of their parents. Her granddaughter sent a voice message to her grandfather one day: “Grandpa, please take me back [to Tunisia]. I want to live with you.” Fathia is haunted by these words. All she wishes for in life is for her grandchildren to return to Tunisia so that she can raise them herself.
“The children will return either through legal or non-legal means. But the delay in their return carries dangerous implications for both international and Tunisian national security”
Fathia wasn’t the only one to come and see us that day – a number of relatives of detained children did. They come from different governorates, but they now know each other. Years of demonstrations in the streets, meeting in waiting areas and government offices, have brought them together.
One is Delilah, in her sixties. Her 14-year-old orphaned nephew is in a prisons run by the Syrian Democratic Forces. Another is Hamdah, in his seventies, who lost contact with his son, daughter and grandchildren when they escaped the Turkish bombardment of Ain Issa camp in 2019.
We also meet Zahra. Only her father, husband and son remain in Tunisia; the rest of her family – her mother, all her siblings – went to Syria. She now has 14 family members there, six of whom are children. One of them is now a mother, while still being a child herself.
Rafiqa, a woman in her sixties on whom cancer has taken a visible toll, is the mother of a young woman who left Tunisia after her marriage in 2014. Rafiqa hopes the authorities can bring her daughter back; she is an amputee who lost a hand and suffered extensive damage to her legs, back and head from the shrapnel of an explosion, and is now paralysed. She has been unable to take care of herself since her husband’s death.
After the 2011 revolution, thousands of Tunisians went in droves to what the Tunisian authorities call tension hotspots. Many of them joined the Islamic State terrorist organisation, in addition to other militant groups. The Tunisian authorities say the total is 3,000 people, while the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights puts it at over 7,000. Though some women joined terrorist organisations of their own volition, many others claim that they merely travelled to join their husbands, or out of fear of losing their children.
The relatives of the Tunisians trapped in camps have in common the suffering they face while waiting for their children, the authorities ignoring their pleads and correspondences, and their belief that the children should return home, accompanied by their mothers. They also believe that the mothers should be put before the justice system. There is one common utterance: “May God forgive those responsible.”
According to one of the relatives, who chooses to remain anonymous, “there is a political inclination to keep the topic under wraps, and stop the children and their mothers from returning to the country. Even if it means that they remain in constant danger, the authorities want to wash their hands of them. If there hadn’t been people in power who facilitated and conspired for the youth to travel to the tension hotspots, we wouldn’t have children and grandchildren homeless in camps today!”
Marwan Jeddah, Director of the Observatory of Rights and Freedoms of Tunisia, says: “We took it as a good sign when the president received six orphaned Tunisian children that were brought home from Libya. We considered it a message saying that these are the children of Tunisia, and that it is the duty of the country to return and reintegrate them into the society. But things ended at that gesture, whether in Libya where we have official representation, or in Syria where we don’t.”
“The strange thing is that the fathers were deported from Syria and the children were left there! Here is where the Tunisian contradiction becomes apparent, because when Beji Caid Essebsi and his consecutive foreign ministers were in power, the declared reasoning was that Tunisia does not deal with armed militias. This excuse is refuted by the fact that the government did cooperate with armed militias in Libya to return diplomats, or in the search for Sofiane Chorabi and Nadhir Ktari, journalists who disappeared in Libya in 2014. Therefore, this excuse is just a blatant lie. Then the excuse completely vanished when the Tunisian state brought back combatants, who are in all logic more dangerous.”
He attributes the Tunisian authorities’ inaction in retrieving detained children to a lack of political courage and a lack of awareness of the dangers their stay in the camps poses.
“These children will return sooner or later. They won’t stay indefinitely in those camps, but the sooner we bring them back, the better are the state institutions’ chances to rehabilitate and reintegrate them.”
He concludes: “The children will return either through legal or non-legal means. But the delay in their return carries dangerous implications for both international and Tunisian national security.”
No signs of transnational communication in sight
In early 2019, Human Rights Watch accused Tunisian officials of dragging their feet on helping bring home Tunisian children held without charge in foreign camps and prisons for families of IS members. More than a year later, Letta Tayler of Human Rights Watch confirms that this charge still applies.
“Since our 2019 report the Tunisian authorities have returned another small group of children from Libya, but this is just a symbolic gesture. Tunisia has to return these children home and help rehabilitate and reintegrate them into society, along with their parents,” Tayler says.
“Considering the difficult circumstances in north-eastern Syria and Libya, and the absence of any judicial proceedings for the detainees, the return is the only solution. The current policy of abandoning Tunisian children under siege inside war zones is inhumane, unethical and illegal.”
Replying to Human Rights Watch, the Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “Tunisia gives special consideration to the cases of detained children, in line with its unwavering belief in human rights… the government will not refuse to take back detainees with proven citizenships.”
Former Tunisian Minister of Foreign Affairs Khemaies Jhinaoui stated in a parliamentary session on 28 November 2018 that the Tunisian government will continue its efforts towards resolving the files of the children detained in Libya and Syria. He emphasised that Tunisia is not absent there (meaning Syria), and is in daily contact with the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding the Tunisians detained in Syrian prisons, including children in the camps.
However, the camps where the Tunisian children are being detained are inside areas controlled by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, not the Syrian regime. Abeer Alia, joint Vice-President of the Foreign Relations Department of North and East Syria’s Autonomous Administration, interviewed by us at her office, says: “The Autonomous Administration requires a formal document from the Foreign Ministry of any country in question, as a condition for sending any child. They only hand over children to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or an agency that officially represents them. They will not hand over the children to any unofficial organisations.”
Alia stresses that the Tunisian authorities have never communicated with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria regarding the return of the children from the camps, and that it doesn’t look that they will do so anytime soon. We tried to reach out to the Tunisian Foreign Ministry for comment, but was met by silence.
The primary goal of reintegration programmes is the deconstruction of extremist ideologies
The stranded children are not the only ones suffering because of how poorly the Tunisian authorities handle their cases. There are those who already returned but are “forgotten” or classified as “unknown” by the relevant departments charged to keep track of them.
Neila Feki, Vice-President of the National Counter-terrorism Commission of Tunisia – an anti-terrorism and anti-money-laundering commission established in 2015 – tells us that the commission has prepared programmes to rehabilitate children born in war zones and returned to Tunisia, focusing primarily on the education of those who will stay in prisons or social integration centres.
According to Feki, the primary goals of the reintegration programme are to deconstruct extremist ideology and to rehabilitate them into normal children. She also says that UNESCO is giving Tunisia access to experts and pedagogical methodology studies to help reintegrate the children into Tunisian society, as well as to make them welcome in pedagogical and educational spaces. She emphasises that Tunisia is developing the capacities of these children and deconstructing the ideas that can drive them into extremism and violence.
Our request for a copy of the rehabilitation programme was denied. Even though the commission confirms its existence, the stories of returnees and their children tell of a different reality.
Even if the desire to return to Tunisia comes true, the struggle to become part of society again is not over yet
As soon as the office door is closed, Hadya removes the niqab covering her face. In her thirties, she looks exhausted, with a pale face and eyes that still haven’t lost their lustre. She asks to remain anonymous. Her voice is calm, collected and strong, but she starts to lose her composure, tears finding their way to her eyes, while talking about her regrets.
“My life was shattered. I am back to zero… I feel that I am running in a vicious circle. I think, how will the people look at me and my children? If I told any other woman what I was in Syria, she would be shocked. So I don’t want to mention it. Though sometimes, I like to tell my story of regret to benefit others and correct them. If you want to live as a Muslim, you can do it anywhere, in your home, in your room. You don’t have to join anyone.”
“But I couldn’t have known all of that if I hadn’t lived through the experience. I would have still thought the same way. I went to the Islamic State and learned many things. I met many people and came to some shocking realisations.”
“The situation inside the Islamic State is disastrous. I always tell myself that I hope that this is a lesson to me, so that I don’t believe any of these lies or these groups again. They are liars, only after power and money. Even there, within the Islamic State, money was the main motivator for everyone.”
Hadya’s first husband was killed, and she hasn’t heard from her second husband since he was captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces. She is one of around 50 women who returned to Tunisia through coordination with the Tunisian Consulate in Istanbul, along with over 60 children. These children find themselves in a very difficult situation, as most were born outside Tunisia and have no identification papers.
These days, it’s not only regret that occupies Hadya’s mind. Since she returned to Tunisia in February 2018, she has been working day and night to get her children identification papers. Without them, they cannot be enrolled in kindergarten or school, or receive healthcare.
Hadya and her three children – four, five and seven years old – managed to escape Ain Issa camp and reach Turkey. Even though they all returned legally through the Tunisian Consulate after taking DNA tests, two of her children are still without identification papers. She says the kindergarten principal was shocked when she first found out about the situation of the children and their mother, but supported them. The oldest one was able to get a birth certificate, since she was born in Tunisia. She is also the only one enrolled in school, in first grade.
Her oldest daughter, unlike her younger siblings, suffers from PTSD. Hadya says she remembers the “tragedy of the camp”, “the escape” and the “constant hiding from the eyes of the soldiers”.
“In the child protective services in Aryana, I was directed to a psychologist at Errazi psychiatric hospital. But I don’t have the medical paperwork to take my daughter to the doctor. I also told them about my other children, but they told me that I have to settle their legal situation first.”
We met with Tunisia’s General Delegate for the Protection of Children’s Rights, Mehyar Hamadi, who says the delegation only handles cases for children returning from Libya. “They don’t have any notices directed to them about children brought in from Turkey.”
This statement shows a breakdown in communication between the authorities responsible for reintegrating the children. The delegation is supposed to be aware of the returning children and their situation, as a key player in their rehabilitation and reintegration process. This makes us wonder about the actual use of this programme, supervised by the National Counter-terrorism Commission, especially since we were denied access to its details.
By the time of publication, Hadya has still been unable to get official IDs for her three children. This means that for another year or more they will be unable to officially enrol Fin school or kindergarten, and won’t be able to receive medical care – not to mention the continuing lack of psychological support for children who lived in a war zone and grew up in detention camps.
We lost contact with Mofeeda. One of the Tunisian mothers tells us she was investigated by the camp administration after they discovered she had a phone. Her four children still lack any education or basic rights. Their relatives in Tunisia hope to hold them one day, to watch them grow – away from IS influence and ideology, and the danger of the pandemic – and to help them recover from the way their country has failed them.
Under her dripping tent, the child Maha still can’t read or write, and still dreams of seeing a wall.
The research for this article was supported by the Candid Foundation’s journalism grant.