After several weeks of volunteering for Zhian Health Organisation, a local NGO in Iraqi Kurdistan, I was presented with the opportunity in August of 2018 to visit a women’s correctional facility, which I was told had become a dumping ground for ISIS brides after the recapture of Mosul. So far, I had accompanied a small team to several refugee camps around the Kurdish region, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how significantly things had changed from when I first visited a refugee camp, four years ago. In place of blue tarpaulin tents were brick homes, and what was once a group of displaced individuals, was now a community. The people had moved forward from the chaos and hopelessness of their circumstances, and from the remnants, they were reconstructing new lives. The prison, then, gave me the chance to see another face of the aftermath of the Islamic State.
Who could they possibly be – the volunteers from all corners of the world, who chose to leave their homes to join the cult that ravaged countries like my own for half a decade, destroying a countless number of lives along the way.
I envisioned scarred, sneering faces, marred by a world of blood and brutality that morning, as myself and a team of female doctors walked through the prison gates. The walls were made of a brittle, sand coloured concrete, and with the greyish hue of the sky it looked as though colour had leaked elsewhere, like in an old Polaroid. The sun was unrelenting. I was carrying an immensely heavy box, cloaked in an opaque plastic sheet. “Careful”, a doctor told me, “That’s the ultrasound”. We stopped outside of a large, white cabin, with an extended roof to act as shade over a small section of fraying astroturf. Inside, was an explosion of colour. The walls were a brilliant blue, with monkeys dangling from emerald vines, chased by rainbow-coloured parrots and butterflies. The distorted figures of Mickey and Minnie Mouse smiled down on the swings, slides, and tiny tables and chairs that filled the room. Skirting the cabin were 5 identical bunk beds, with floral bedding. The captured brides, I discovered, had been allowed to keep their children. The toys were pushed to the edges of the room and propped against the bunk beds. A mattress and pillow were pulled to the corner, and the ultrasound was placed on top of one of the colouring tables. I took my place at the drawing desk by the door, leaning the registry papers against a stack of Noah’s Ark colouring books.
Khadija was the first patient I registered. She was from China, and she had two children. The eldest couldn’t have been older than four, and the baby slumped against her shoulder didn’t quite look two. I wasn’t able to determine if they were little boys or little girls. She spoke in Arabic and told me she was twenty-one.
If I was correct about the age of her oldest child, she would have been around seventeen when she became a member of the Islamic State. She was thin and very pale, with a soft, heart shaped face, deep brown eyes, and heat flushed cheeks.
I was struck by how pretty she was. Her children had short, wiry hair about their chin that was the most remarkable shade of deep red, like sun-dried tomatoes. They had the same round face and delicate features as her but riddled with scabs and rough pink patches. The smaller one seemed to wince with every movement, and coughed sporadically with such might, it seemed almost impossible the tiny body could have been the source of the sound. The older child played with a little girl, perhaps a year older, with the exact same colour hair. Ruqiya was next. She was from Mosul, born in 1999 like me, and was five months pregnant. I watched her cry quietly as she gazed at the grainy footage of the ultrasound and saw her son for the first time. Fatima from Azerbaijan was twenty-nine and had twin daughters that were almost three years old. They had yellow skin, yellow hair, and yellow eyes. They might have disappeared against the compound walls, like grains of sand. Chiman from Duhok wore a Gucci tracksuit with the hood up, and matching Gucci slides. She smelt of coconut oil. She was born in 2002. Ayesha, from Iran, wasn’t sure how old she was, but guessed she was around forty. Gulen from Turkey, thirty-two, had a son that was five months old and cried for an hour without pause.
These were women that I knew, that I had seen before. In the park, stuck alongside me in traffic, on the street, hosing down their driveways like Kurdish women do in the evenings. Each and every one of them could be imagined on the outside, playing bit parts in the sequence of my day, and I, I suppose, in theirs. The reality was that they didn’t exist beyond the four walls of the prison compound, and the relentless honking of cars heard from the motorway, and the domed roof of Erbil’s busiest shopping centre that could just barely be seen from the courtyard, and every other mundane sight and sound and smell that we associate with life in the modern world would never be known to them again. The bloodied brides I pictured seemed as far from them as they would be from my friends, or my sisters, or myself. Quite simply, they were women. Women who had committed terrible, unspeakable, unfathomable crimes, who had been disowned by their countries of origin, and who now would live the remainder of their lives in four walls, and a few hundred square meters.
But what were their children’s crimes?
Thin, sun bleached, sticky children, a hundred combinations of hair colours, skin colours, and eye colours, that bobbed and weaved through the apparatus of the room, and that hadn’t received medical care in months. The closest thing to the outside world was the paintings on their walls, and their colouring books, and of course, what their mothers would tell them of it. As they skipped and sang in jumbled languages, I wondered how long this system was expected to work. As long as they could fit in their mothers’ cells, or as long as they were still children, and knew nothing of the extraordinary, harrowing circumstances they were born into. With the sword of the Islamic State having reached so many, and cut so deeply, it is very likely that these children will face extreme alienation and hostility, and potentially physical endangerment once they are revealed to society.
However, to keep them imprisoned until early adulthood would be to deny them even the slightest chance of normality, only to send them out into the world with no education, nor an understanding of modern civilisation.
The children of the camps and the children of ISIS were surely victims of the same war. Both, due to absolutely no fault of their own, were exposed to a world of unimaginable violence and destruction. And yet, it seemed our world had washed their hands of the children in the prison. Donations of clothing, toys, and baby products had reached a near halt since January of this year, and the ZHO staff were the first doctors the children had seen in months. For some, it would be their first ever doctor’s visit. They lived on a prison diet. They shared a home with hundreds of women, many of them suffering severe post traumatic stress and depression, some still subscribing to Islamic State beliefs.
If these children, infants, and babies, are not recognised as among the most vulnerable victims of this war, and given the guidance and global support that so many others have received as a result, ISIS will inadvertently continue to claim the lives of the innocent for a few more generations. This is not just the responsibility of the Kurdish government, who have already been left to sustain thousands of Islamic State men and women from almost every continent, as well as over a million refugees and IDPs. It has taken a village to abandon these children, it will now take a village to free them from the confines of their futile reality.