This article originally appeared on VICE France.
At the Roj camp in northeast Syria, winter is on its way. Each night is colder than the last, and soon, the mercury will plunge below zero in this open-air prison. Meanwhile, its inmates – many of whom are European women and children captured in former ISIS territories – are left to languish. The women are accused of supporting the group, while their children are collateral damage.
Detainees are busy, rushing to prepare for the winter as best they can. The guards – working for the Kurdish authorities in charge of the region – have distributed thin blankets, which the women have sewn to their tents. They have also distributed a few camping stoves, but the detainees can’t leave them lit overnight, at least not without risking setting the shelter on fire. Detainees search high and low for shoes that will keep them warm; any without holes will do. They’re desperate to avoid the winter illnesses — bronchitis, hypothermia and so on — that return each year to plague the camp, replacing the severe dehydration of the sweltering summer.
Marc*, a young retiree from the Paris area, has a daughter-in-law and four grandchildren about to spend their third winter behind Roj’s high walls and barbed wire. “Ever since they got stuck over there, my grandkids have been getting sick, one after the other. It’s a never-ending cycle – and sometimes it can be really brutal,” he says. Marc is a member of the Families United Collective (Collectif des Familles Unies), an organisation that brings together the families of French detainees who are stuck in the Iraqi-Syrian zone. “My six-year-old grandson is the most fragile of the bunch. From time to time he’s passed out, or suffered dehydration. And if that happens at night, when the little camp clinic is closed, well, they just tell you to come back the next morning.”
The next morning may be too late for some. Marc’s grandson is still hanging on, but a number of women and children have died at Roj, as well as at Al Hol, another camp located a bit to the south. Among them were at least nine European children under the age of three who died from dehydration, malnutrition or war injuries. In one case, a one-year-old French child was run over by a military vehicle.
This is one of the harrowing revelations in a recent report by the London-based advocacy group, Rights and Security International (RSI). Titled Europe’s Guantanamo, the report describes the inhumane conditions that tens of thousands of detainees are living in, including about 230 European women and 640 European children. The report calls upon European states to repatriate them.
“Like those detained at Guantanamo Bay, these women and children are subject to treatment and conditions that have been classified by international experts as amounting to cruel, inhumane and degrading,” the report’s authors write.
They go on to describe the detention as “illegitimate”, stating that it has no legal basis and is totally arbitrary, and that certain actions on the guards’ part amount to torture. It explains how women detainees have been imprisoned with their children for weeks at a time in cramped jail cells. “I know a Belgian woman who spent a month in isolation with her five-year-old daughter. They were kept in the dark, in a room that had to be about the size of a lavatory,” recalls one French woman detained at Al Hol.
Other women have been placed in isolation without their kids, who were then left to fend for themselves. The report tells of one woman who was placed in isolation without her child – even though she was still breastfeeding.
Adding to the restrictions on inmates’ freedom, the camp atmosphere is one of constant violence. Guards have been known to shoot at inmates – during a protest at Al Hol, for example – and physically abuse them. The RSI researchers state this is due in part to conflicts between detainees who still adhere fully to ISIS’ ideology, and those who’ve renounced it – or at least that’s how they’re perceived. “One time, a Russian woman threatened my daughter with a knife,” recalls one French detainee. Fuelled by fundamentalism, some of the violence seems totally irrational. “A woman called my daughter [a] ‘non-believer’ and pushed her to the floor because she had a puppy in her arms.”
More troubling still, the report’s authors revealed that groups of women have sometimes set up their own “courts” to punish their fellow detainees who don’t share their interpretation of Islamic law. In one case, a European detainee was violently beaten by a group of women because she had spoken with a male employee at Al Hol. In another instance, a 14-year-old Azerbaijani girl was allegedly strangled to death because she hadn’t sufficiently covered her face.
Marc, the Parisian retiree, receives brief updates on his grandchildren via voice memos, photos of their drawings and the occasional written message. To him, the conditions described in the RSI report are a necessary reminder of a sad truth he knows too well. He emphasises that the report clearly lays out the responsibility of EU member states. “European states have the sole ability to end the detention of their nationals,” the report states. It then calls upon the states to repatriate the women and children: the women, so they can go to court in Europe; the children, so they can be cared for and live a normal life.
In December 2020, Germany and Finland repatriated women and children from Syria. But many European states have been slow or unmoving in their action. In response to the subject, the UK Foreign Office minister Lord Ahmad said on the 16th of November 2020 that risks posed by adults who travelled to Syria “are best managed outside the UK”.
Since March 2019, France has repatriated 28 individuals, all children. While the process for choosing specific children is complex, it seems French authorities prioritise repatriating the youngest and most vulnerable among them, especially orphans. One little girl with a serious heart condition was repatriated; otherwise, she might have died in a matter of days.
Basically, it’s done on a case-by-case basis – a depressing fact for those close to the situation. “In the camps, you have 16-year-old French girls who are orphans, who were brought there when they were 10 or 12 years old, tops,” explains a researcher who went to the camp in person. “They end up being victimised all over again. They didn’t ask to end up there in the first place, and now, because they’re 16, their countries won’t let them come back.”
In early 2019, French newspaper Libération revealed the French government were poised to bring back all French detainees imprisoned in Syria’s northeast – women, children, and men alike. But the move was cancelled abruptly, after polls were published showing public opinion to run very much against the citizens’ return.
As far as the families and their lawyers are concerned, repatriation is the only acceptable solution to the problem. But the situation seems to be stuck at a standstill. “The lack of action is clearly deliberate,” says Emmanuel Daoud, a lawyer defending a woman suffering from colon cancer, who is currently detained with her four children at Roj. “They’re just being left to rot.” And the members of Families United Collective agree: “The only obstacle now is the political opportunity to do it.”
Until that day comes, Marc and the other members of Families United Collective continue – between meetings with NGOs and international organisations that are helping them – to admire photos of their grandchildren’s drawings from afar. In some of the pictures, children have drawn airplanes – planes that could bring them back to France, to a hope of a normal life.
*Name has been changed.