There’s a little boy staring up at us with wide eyes and raised eyebrows, who stops us in our tracks as we walk through al-Hol camp in north-east Syria. Just beyond him, soft, lilting voices sing what might appear to be nursery rhymes.
Yet, all is not what it appears to be. The high-pitched ‘choir’ are singing songs for the so-called Islamic State. And the little boy is looking up at us clutching a rock – he wants to throw it. ‘Infidels, infidels!’ he says. He thinks we are the enemy – his elders, the wives of IS fighters, have taught him to fear us. It shocks me more than I expect.
Last month, I spent nearly two weeks in Syria to speak to displaced ‘IS brides’ along with their young families, now being held in two camps. I was there for a BBC documentary, which aired this week. It’s seven months since Donald Trump declared that IS had been defeated, and four months since the ‘caliphate’ supposedly fell with Baghouz, their last remaining territory, on 23 March: on paper, the West won. But the region (this part of Syria is now under US-backed Kurdish control) is still incredibly hostile and unpredictable. In Syria and all over the world, there are many rumoured sleeper cells – groups of underground IS fighters who are currently inactive.
The mass surrender also spawned a new crisis: how to deal with the tens of thousands of former fighters, what to do with their families, and what this all means for a generation of unanchored, uneducated children; the collateral damage of a truly horrifying war.
The residual hostility was difficult to ignore in the camps I visited and, at times, I was fearful. The entrance to one camp, al-Hol – a beaten chain-link fence – was constantly populated by scores of women who would surround me as I stepped over the threshold. Recently, a female security guard was stabbed to death, so my team had armed guards and we took stab vests. In al-Hol, many of the women have come from Baghouz, the last IS stronghold, and were seriously loyal to the very end. Their hatred for the West – and for me, I assume – is something I’d never seen before. Occasionally, an IS flag is raised over the tents stretching out to the horizon. Some women point their index fingers in the air – a symbolic gesture hijacked by the group.
While we are there, we spend around four hours at a time in the bases, finding women to give us some insight into what it was really like living within IS. Many of them insist they didn’t see anything violent or bad, that they simply cooked and cleaned and raised children. But, having met Yazidi women – systematically targeted by IS and often attacked by women serving them – I find this both quite unbelievable and frustrating.
There are women from more than 50 nations living in these huge camps – at least six are British, I’m told, including Shamima Begum, the woman who sparked national controversy in February when she appealed to the Government to let her come home. In response, the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid stripped her of her citizenship. ‘If you back terror, there must be consequences,’ he said at the time. Critics said stripping Shamima of her citizenship was ‘shameful’ and, since her claim to Bangladeshi nationality through her mother was rejected, rendering Shamima stateless, also illegal under international law.
I spoke to a Canadian woman, Kimberly, 46, who is now sharing a tent with Shamima. And like her, Kimberly says she was ‘brainwashed’ by the Islamic State, and shows little remorse for travelling to Syria. Crucially for me, Kimberly takes no responsibility whatsoever for the decisions she made to leave her children and stand with IS. The Canadian says that Shamima will barely come out of her tent after losing her third baby recently. When I speak to Shamima’s Dutch husband (who is jarringly articulate and protective) on a visit to the prison in Syria where he is being held, he says he believes they should be allowed home.
And herein lies the issue: whether any of these people – those who turned their backs on democracy to join IS – should now be allowed democratic rights. The scale of the problem – the sheer numbers involved, and the complexity of it – is enormous. There are so many displaced people here, from obliterated parts of Syria and Iraq. In many respects it feels like they’ve been left to rot. Aside from Kurdish people on the ground, there is no urgency in the West to take our share of the responsibility for those who travelled to join IS from our countries.
I understand that the general feeling on the ground back in the UK is that they’ve made their decision. These people hate us, so why should we take them back? I understand that people are frightened, too. Because we’ve witnessed the atrocities at the Manchester Ariana Grande concert and at London Bridge. We’ve seen it. But what I would really like for people to take from this documentary is that there are children – some with British parents, who I met – who have, through no fault of their own, found themselves in the middle of a war. In the UK, they would have had school, sanitation, good living conditions and food. Now all are uneducated, some are illiterate, some are dying of bronchitis or are malnourished.
The question we must ask is, what will happen if we ignore the problem? We will raise an entire generation who are not only lost, uneducated, neglected; but who have witnessed their parents being tortured or killed or both and see us as the enemy. To leave them is to create another generation of ideologically confused and angry adults. Even if you can’t see that caring for these kids is the right thing to do from a human perspective, even if you don’t think it’s the right thing to do morally, I believe it’s the right thing to do in terms of our security.
The little boy who stared up at us and clutched a rock is not the enemy, but he needs help and care to realise that neither are we. My producer, a white European lady who speaks perfect Arabic, asked him to put the rock down. Very gently, she told him: ‘It’s OK, it’s OK, do not throw it. Do not throw the rock at us. We are all the same.’ And, slowly, he did.
‘Panorama: Stacey Meets the IS Brides’ will air on BBC One at 8.30pm this evening