Sitting in front of her tent in Sector 4 of the Al-Hol refugee camp in Syria, Iraqi mother of two Umm al-Mutasim is holding her mobile phone, sending WhatsApp voice messages to her brother Ahmed in Mosul. She is trying to organize an escape for her and her two children: Mutasim and Hamza.
Umm al-Mu’tasim has been living in al-Hol in the northern governate of Hasakah since the fall of Baghuz in March 2019, when the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated the town near Deir Ezzor from the presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Her husband is Tunisian. He was a Sharia judge for ISIS and is still imprisoned in the city Hasakah prison awaiting trial or the Tunisian authorities allowing him and other former ISIS members to return. To leave Al-Hol, the agreement requires that Umm al-Mutasim and her children get into a garbage truck at night when the cleaners are at work. The people at the main gate will the truck through. Once outside, a smuggler will take them first to the SDF-controlled countryside of Deir Ezzor, then to Abu Kamal, which is under control of the Syrian regime, before crossing the border to eventually reach Mosul where her brother Ahmed and the rest of the family will be waiting. Cost: $ 5,000.
The Hell of Al-Hol
Following the battle of Baghuz, the SDF took control of the last ISIS strongholds in eastern Syria. ISIS’ male members went to prison, while their women and children were transferred to detention camps, such as Al-Hol, Roj and Al-Arish in Hasakah province. Syrian children older than 12 were moved to the juvenile prison in Tal Maarouf east of Qamishli.
The number of people currently residing in Al-Hol camp is estimated at 60,000, among whom some 40,000 children with over 60 different nationalities. According to data issued by the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria, the camp hosts some 11,000 ISIS men, of whom 2,000 foreigners, while the rest are Syrians and Iraqis. However, some people claim the actual number of ISIS operatives in the camp is not more than several hundreds.
The camp is divided into sectors. Iraqi families live in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 7th sectors, while Syrian families occupy the 5th, 6th and 8th sectors. Other nationalities and their children have their own separate area. Leaving the camp is only possible with a written permit, while being accompanied by a camp representative.
Al-Hol finds itself in a state of utter misery due to an overall lack of basic necessities and medical care. It is overcrowded, which easily leads to the spread of diseases. In 2019 and 2020, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), more than 1,000 people died, most of them children, mainly due a lack of proper nutrition and health care for newborns. In addition, the winters in the semi-desert region can be very cold, while the camp lacks heating. In summer, it is hot and dusty, while the sewage network regularly floods.
The residents furthermore face regular violations by the “Asayish,” the Kurdish internal security forces supervising the camp, which do not hesitate to shoot people protesting against the camp’s tragic conditions.
“I lost my 25-year-old son Hassan who, with four other civilians, including two children, was shot dead by the Asayish,” said Ahmed, who has lived in Al-Hol camp for over three years. “They took part in a demonstration against the camp’s deteriorating health and living conditions in March 2019 .″
Camp residents have faced arrests for communicating with ISIS cells, as well as for activities perceived as hostile by the Autonomous Administration. Women in the camp moreover suffer from sexual harassment and attempts to exploit them.
In July 2020, Al-Hol again witnessed clashes and protests, following the Asayish harassing a woman from Deir Ezzor. The clashes led to the death of one woman, while two others were injured and 22 got arrested.
There are furthermore almost daily assassinations in the camp. Since the beginning of 2021, more than 60 people have been killed in Al-Hol, according to a report issued by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. According to the Autonomous Administration, various cells of residents are being behind such crimes.
The lack of prospect, due to the fact that most countries refuse to retrieve their citizens, as well as the camp’s poor living conditions and security, has prompted many non-Syrian families to try flee with the help of smugglers. Syrian families generally rely on tribal mediation or reconciliation attempts initiated by the Autonomous Administration.
We talked to several smugglers and people who managed to flee. According to them the smuggling of ISIS families has several stages. The first consists of accessing a middleman inside the camp well acquainted with both the smuggling networks and the Asayish. His mission is limited to getting the family outside the camp. The smugglers take care of the rest.
Exiting the camp mostly takes place by water, food or garbage truck, and sometimes through the tunnels that run underneath the fences surrounding the camp. Some foreign families managed to obtain forged Syrian identity papers and are included on the lists of Syrians allowed to leave as a result of mediation.
The second stage of the process concerns the transfer to the families’ final destinations. Two roads are taken. The first leads from Al-Hol through the areas controlled by the SDF, across the Euphrates River and then to Iraq. Most families take this route. The second road leads from the SDF-controlled region to Idlib in the northwest of Syria. The prices of these operations differ depending on various factors.
“The number of family members and their age play a role in determining the price,” Abu Ahmed, a 44-year-old smuggler from Shaddadi near Hasakeh, told Daraj. “Families with young children pay more for safe exits. ”
“The destination plays a role too,” he said. “The road to Iraq is more expensive than the road to Idlib. Prices range between $5,000 and $20,000. These sums are divided among smugglers, leaders from the SDF and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) on roads leading into Iraq, as well as factions of the Syrian army on roads to Idlib.”
Statistics of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) in the Autonomous Administration show that, from the start of 2020 until March of this year, 700 escapes took place.
“Escape attempts increased after the Turkish attack on the city of Ras al-Ain and the region north of Raqqa in October 2019,” said ISF spokesman Ali Hassan. “However the security forces managed to intercept most families of ISIS fighters trying to reach Aleppo, Idlib and Turkey.” Our team tried to talk about the smuggling operations from Al Hol camp with a number of SDF people, including Mustafa Bali, Gabriel Keanu, Sheikh Moss and other officials, yet they either ignored our messages or refused to comment.
In addition to the SDF and Syrian regime forces, the Iraqi PMF are considered one of the main players in the smuggling operations. Once the families cross the Euphrates River by boat they enter areas under control by the PMF.
According to Ahed al-Salibi, a journalist from Deir al-Zor working for the River Media network, especially the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia is involved in transporting families from the Hussein al-Ali crossing near Abu Kamal into Iraq.
“PMF units receive money for every person they transport into Iraq,” al-Salibi told Daraj. “The sums are paid according to the agreement concluded with smugglers in the areas under control by the SDF. Part goes to the transit fees the militias pay to Syrian regime forces, especially the 4th division, which has checkpoints across Deir Ezzor.”
There is no accurate information about the exact sums the PMF receive for every family of ISIS fighters. However, if a fighter is concerned, the amount generally ranges between $ 5,000 and $15,000, depending on his position. At times, it can be even more. The PMF use their military vehicles to transport people across Iraq.
The Syrian army, which controls the region north and east of Aleppo, is also involved in the smuggling. They generally receive fugitives to transport them or facilitate their passage into the governate of Idlib.
“Several army factions are involved in the smuggling of ISIS families from the camps,” said one army commander, who preferred not to be named. “The objective is strictly materialistic, while they also justify their role by saying that the families are not guilty of any crimes. ”
“The smuggling is not limited to only families,” he added. “There is also the smuggling of ISIS fighters accused of murder and other crimes against civilians. Some were released after being arrested s in exchange for money. Such acts are generally carried out without oversight from the army leadership or the Turks, which are responsible for security in the northern regions.”
After many failed attempts to get a testimony of an escapee from Al-Hol camp, we were finally able to communicate with Umm Iman, a Tunisian woman. She agreed to tell us the details of her escape to Idlib in mid-2020 as part of a large group of ISIS women and children. At the time, the escape was considered the largest of its kind.
Umm Iman began planning her escape with a group of foreign ISIS women in coordination with former ISIS fighters, who had been able to escape and reach Idlib during the latter stage of the group’s collapse. It took her $1,000 to secure an exit from the camp and a car to the Aleppo countryside.
After an agreement between the parties was reached, the agent inside the camp arranged the exit of Umm Iman and 9 other women with their twenty children. They left the camp in the evening inside a garbage truck, before being handed over to smugglers who transported them in several cars to the Aoun al-Dadat Checkpoint, which separates the areas controlled by the SDF and the Syrian army respectively.
Upon reaching the checkpoint, the army knew of their presence, as the ISIS operatives in Idlib had coordinated the whole operation. Umm Iman did not know how much the army officers received for letting them pass. The group then passed through the regions of al-Rai, Azaz and Afrin before reaching the countryside north of Aleppo.
According to Umm Iman, the passage went smooth and without trouble all the way up to the border of the Idlib, which is controlled by the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which interrogated the women before releasing them again.
“Free my ani”
At the start of 2020, when scenes of the detention camps crystallized, as the media started documenting the living conditions inside, jihadist factions in Idlib, such as the HTS, Guardians of Religion Organization (GRO), and the Turkestan Islamic Party, started to collect donations and secure funds to smuggle families of ISIS fighters, especially women and children, out of the camps.
Over the past two years, GRO, which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Syria, collected funds from its supporters in and outside Syria, to allocate them to smugglers and transfer detained foreign families from the camps to Idlib.
In recent months, however, the GRO efforts have declined mainly due to its dispute with HTS, which cost the group a lot of resources and saw many of its members arrested. In addition, the bad economic situation plays a role and the international restrictions on financial transfer to Syria have caused foreign donations to decline.
HTS has also worked on allocating funds to moving families from al-Hol to Idlib. However, according to Ahmed, a journalist from Idlib, the HTS activities are limited to allocating collective housing for the escapees and their children, and providing them with food and clothing for a limited period of time. After that, the families can either leave for Turkey or live in Idlib at their own expenses.
The Turkistan Islamic Party in Idlib still works on securing exits for families in the Al-Hol, Al-Arish and Roj camps. Yet, the party’s activities are limited to people of Uighur origin, in addition to securing accommodation for foreign women in areas where its fighters and their families are based in Idlib.
Fundraising to pay for the smuggling of ISIS fighters’ families out of Al-Hol camp are not limited to jihadist factions. Civilians also organize campaigns to collect money. The city of Darkoush, for example, witnessed several such campaigns aimed at bringing back city residents held in the camps
All parties working at collecting donations work exclusively on getting women and children out. Last March, a new donation campaign with the aim to remove women and children from Al-Hol was launched. The campaign spread on social media, yet it was not clear who was behind it. We contacted the WhatsApp number that was given, yet the people in charge refused to say anything, other than that they receive remittances through black market offices in Idlib.
Orabi Abd al-Hayy Orabi, a Syrian researcher who specializes in Islamic groups, confirmed that HTS does not play a role in paying money to smuggle ISIS families out of the camps. Adding: “Fundraising by Islamic factions or on a local level all depends on individual cases.”
Umm Al-Mu’tasim managed to leave the camp with her children in a water truck, yet was less lucky on along the way She got arrested at a SDF checkpoint on the Deir Ezzor Hasakah road and was returned to al-Hol camp, where she has started to arrange her next escape attempt, which may one day result in her returning to the family home in Mosul.