‘If you don’t follow me, I will kidnap our children,’ Arbenin Demolli told his wife, Amena, one night in late 2014. A few weeks later, Amena was on a plane from Skopje, Macedonia, to Turkey with her husband and their three children, the youngest of whom was six months old. She herself was only 19. They arrived at Istanbul’s airport, then caught a bus towards the Turkish-Syrian border. From there they were smuggled inside Syria.
Three months after arriving in the war zone, Amena’s husband was killed fighting for ISIS in Aleppo. The young widow was forced to marry another fighter, a Kosovar, with whom she had another child. From Aleppo, they moved to Hassakeh city, and from there to Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, where they stayed until it was liberated in 2017.
They were eventually arrested by the Syrian Democratic Forces, which were backed by the US at the time. Amena’s husband went to jail; she and her children were sent to the Ain Issa refugee camp, and then moved to the al-Hawl camp along with thousands of other former ISIS families.
In April 2018, 110 Kosovars – 32 women, 74 children and four male fighters – were taken from the sprawling al-Hawl camp in northeastern Syria’s Hassakeh province, and flown by US military aircraft back to Kosovo. Amena and her children were among them.
‘I never imagined I’d come back,’ says Amena – an assumed name; she cannot reveal her real one. I meet this young, green-eyed woman wearing a red abaya, at the entrance to her parents’ house in a small farming village 20 kilometres north of the Kosovar capital Pristina. ‘I’m relieved to be here, especially for my children. I wish they can start school soon,’ she tells me in Arabic.
Amena can’t say much. Like the other 31 women, she remains under surveillance and house arrest awaiting her trial – a decision the authorities say they made to monitor the women and avoid any security threats, while at the same time preventing a painful separation of mothers from their children.
All the repatriated women, including Amena, are part of a mandatory programme that Kosovo has put in place for the rehabilitation and reintegration of former ISIS fighters and their families. It is supported by the International Organization for Migration and includes counselling, food, shelter and help finding work.
This is in stark contrast with most European countries that have refused to take responsibility for citizens affiliated with ISIS – including women and children – leaving them in limbo inside camps in an unstable region which recently erupted into chaos again, following the Turkish offensive in northeastern Syria.
Kosovo, Europe’s youngest country, has taken the opposite approach, starting to repatriate its citizens (some 400 had left since 2012 to join ISIS abroad) and beginning an experimental project that involves psychiatrists, family psychotherapists, imams and mualime (female preachers).
Therapists and preachers
‘We started working with them on their arrival at Pristina airport by checking their mental condition, as they have been exposed to war, airstrikes and violence for many years,’ explains Valbona Tafilaj, the co-ordinator of a team of 20 psychiatrists and experts on radicalization dynamics, from her office at the Pristina University Clinical Centre.
‘The first phase [of the project] includes the identification of trauma symptoms and psychological distress. Then we decide on the treatment and the therapy the patient has to follow,’ she says. ‘The most visible symptoms are post-traumatic stress disorders, flashbacks, anxiety and depression. The trauma symptoms can emerge six months or a year later.’
The rehabilitation programme consists of home visits, family psychotherapy sessions and outdoor activities, combined with an individual reintegration path supported by schooling and vocational training courses. Another team of child psychotherapists and educators helps and supports the children, using play therapy, sports and other recreational activities to help heal trauma. Once a month, Tafilaj visits the women at home. But for therapy sessions, the women and children must travel to Tafilaj’s office.
‘Most of [the children] were born in Syria. Others were taken by their parents when they were two or three years old, and they have only experienced the conflict,’ says Tafilaj. ‘If we work long-term, consistently with them, we can definitely avoid future problems of radicalization and violence,’ she believes.
Another key figure in this pilot project is Sanie Gashi Mehmeti, a teacher and religious guide with more than 10 years’ experience in women’s prisons. She is one of the mualime allowed regular visits with the women. Her main task is to win the returnees’ confidence.
‘I try to build trust with them. I’m a kind of confessor who listens to what they have to say,’ she explains. ‘I don’t treat those women as terrorists. I treat them as people who made a mistake.
‘We also pray together, and I try to convey the real message of Islam, based on tolerance, peace and respect to others.’
Although Kosovo is 90 per cent Muslim, secular values are deeply rooted and religion does not directly interfere in political life. However, the influence of conservative religious currents has grown after the Kosovo War of 1998-99. Mehmeti blames Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states for this. ‘After the war, tons of books, money and a lot of Arab aid organizations came here without any control, spreading a bad idea of Islam.’
However, she also points the finger at the patriarchy. ‘In Kosovo, men decide everything. Most of the women who went to Syria were forced by their husbands. If they went with them, it doesn’t mean they went to fight. Only a few were deeply convinced of their choice, but they regretted it after seeing the atrocities Daesh committed,’ Mehmeti says, using the Arabic acronym for the terrorist group.
‘They are fragile women who got married very young, who have never studied and don’t know Islam,’ she says. ‘If they committed a crime, they have to be punished. If they didn’t, they must be left free. In both cases, they need to be helped and reintegrated into society.’
Many Kosovars worry that the returned women and children are still a threat, which can make attempts at reintegration difficult. For this reason, Tafilaj and Mehmeti both work closely with the women’s families and their neighbouring community, helping to break the social stigma against the women.
Duty of care
While acknowledging that public opinion on the issue is divided, Mensur Hoti, Kosovo’s director of public security, stresses that this is a controllable risk. ‘We know where the people are. We prosecute people who have committed crimes and we do our best to try to reintegrate them,’ he says. ‘It’s a difficult and complex programme, but it’s controlled by the state. They are our citizens, and our constitution obliges us to take care of all citizens. The alternative was doing nothing and leaving them inside a camp in Syria. All those children are victims. Why should they have to pay for the sin of their parents?’
No-one suggests that reintegration will be plain sailing. A brief uneasy meeting with a returnee in Ferizaj district brings this home to me. In the garden of a modern middle-class house, an elderly woman plays with four shaven-headed children. She is the mother of Fiona (not her real name), a young Kosovar woman who joined ISIS in 2014 with her husband and her first two children. ‘I thought I would never see them again,’ Fiona’s mother says. ‘When they came back I was so happy. We didn’t know the government was repatriating them.’
Fiona’s mother wears a colourful shirt. But not Fiona. She appears from the living room wearing a black niqab that covers her completely. She doesn’t take it off even at home, and she doesn’t want to speak with journalists.
‘My children are fine. I’m fine. Please go away,’ she shouts in English as she ushers her kids inside.
As her daughter leaves, Fiona’s mother sighs deeply and a tear falls from her eye. ‘I’m trying to help as much as I can, but I don’t know how to help more. I only hope that one day everything will come back as before.’