“We just want to get out of here. […] They can’t condemn us for taking care of our household and our children in Islamic State.” So say Yolanda Martínez, Luna Fernández and Lubna Miludi, three Spanish citizens who traveled with their husbands to Syria in 2014 and who have survived the collapse of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) caliphate in its last stronghold in Baghouz, an oasis on the eastern border of Syria with Iraq.
They are speaking to EL PAÍS in a cabin inside the Syrian camp of Al Hol, where they are being held in dangerous and unsanitary conditions together with another 73,000 people, 92% of whom are women and children. The three Spaniards are taking care of 15 minors. The husband of one of them, who is also Spanish, is being held prisoner in a Kurdish jail. The other two are dead. A total of 19 Spaniards are known to have joined the caliphate, or been born under it, and have survived its collapse.
The women claim that their husbands tricked them into coming to Syria
The Madrid natives Yolanda Martínez (34) and Luna Fernández (32) have four children each. Fernández is currently pregnant with her fifth child and is taking care of another four children, who she says are from a “Moroccan couple resident in Spain who died in the inferno that was Baghouz.” Both express their desire to return to Spain. “If Spain can get me out, I want to get out of here. But they can’t separate me from my children!” Fernández exclaims. Martínez shares her concern
Lubna Miluda, of Moroccan origin, is the third Spanish citizen at the camp, and she is here with three offspring. In the prisons guarded by Kurdish militia and the allied forces from the international coalition, there is one Spanish prisoner. His name is Omar el Harshi, originally from Morocco and married to Martínez. The latter says that he surrendered a month ago. Her religious sisters, as Martínez refers to her two fellow countrywomen, are widows after their Moroccan-born jihadist husbands – one of whom had Spanish nationality – died during the conflict.
All three claim that their husbands tricked them into coming to Syria, that they were promised a vacation or a new life in Turkey five years ago, then were forced to cross over illegally in the middle of the night into Syrian territory controlled by ISIS. The three women are devoted Muslims with 10 years of marriage behind them. The two Madrileñas are converts and every Friday they used to go to pray at the M-30 mosque in Madrid, a place that Lubna says she would also go to “from time to time.” Neither one of the three has studies beyond high school.
They say that their husbands were “mere employees of Islamic State, and were never in combat,” and do not equate “terrorism with the Islamic State.” They are wearing muddy hiking boots and dusty pants that stick out from beneath the black abayas they wear to cover their bodies. “We wear these because we wanted to,” they say defiantly about their niqabs, the full veils that cover their faces. At one point they were planning to leave the caliphate, but were told they would have to do so without their children. None of them tried it.
They have spent little more than a month in captivity in this camp, which has been transformed into a female mini-caliphate where, mirroring what happened in the ranks of the male ISIS mujahedeen, the more radical jihadist women are trying to take control of the place. They reside in the furthest section of the camp. Among the tens of thousands of figures dressed in black, there is only one in colorful clothes and without a niqab. “I’m now part of the kufar [infidels] because I only wear a headscarf,” sobs Geilan Su, originally from Trinidad, as she shows the bruises she was left with after being beaten and punished by the more recalcitrant jihadists.
A number of armed female Kurdish militia, wearing colored headscarves, guard the foreign jihadists, who jeer at them or throw stones at them from the other side of the fence to shouts of “Askari!” (“soldier” in Arabic). “When our sisters were on the other side, in their camps and jails, their husbands decapitated them and raped them. And now we have to put up with them as well,” mutters one of the uniformed women. A total of 17,000 female combatants formed part of the allied militias that have fought ISIS in the northeast of Syria in the last five years.
They told me that my husband had become a martyr, but I have never even seen photos of his body
ISIS wife Lubna Miludi, 40
There are as many as 10,000 foreigners confined with their children in one of the fenced areas of this camp, where 65% of the residents are minors. The remainder are Syrians and Iraqis. As their husbands did in the caliphate, they move around in groups of nationalities, with the Tunisians being the most violent. “If you go in there you risk being beaten or stabbed,” warns one of the guards stationed at the entrance. Kurdish militias have sent new reinforcements to the camp to contain what seems like a pressure cooker that is about to blow. “They have started to move the Europeans to Roj,” whispers a Belgian jihadist, who prefers not to give her name. “There is less violence there and here the North Africans and the Kazakhstanis won’t leave us in peace.”
“The jihadists surrendered or died in Baghouz, but these women have not given up,” says one of the uniformed men, whose face is covered with a balaclava and whose index finger never leaves the trigger of his rifle. “They only left Baghouz because their emir [Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi] asked them to,” he explains. Just 10 days ago, Kurdish security forces had to repel a riot by radicals by firing on them, leaving one female jihadist dead and eight injured. As well as the violence, life at the camp is marked by extremely dire conditions, as the United Nations has warned.
Whether from illness, battle wounds or simple malnutrition due to a lack of food, 126 minors have died here in the last three months. More than half of the 40,000 children in the camp were born, stateless, during the five years that the caliphate reigned.
Gangs of youngsters aged between six and 12 manage to squeeze between the fences and are in charge of the food that gets smuggled in the camps. At least 350 of them have arrived unaccompanied, according to the UN. They drag wheelbarrows made out of UN tarpaulins with products that could have come from anywhere. Inside one of these carts, a militiaman finds an alcohol-free beer that he brandishes mockingly before the hundred or so women who huddle behind the wire fence.
The young Spanish women say that there are no more Spaniards in the camp, and that no one from the Spanish government has been in touch with them. Administrators of the Al Hol camp don’t even have a record that these three Spaniards are here at all, the head of the camp has confirmed to EL PAÍS. The Kurdish militias that are allied with the international coalition have requested that each country take charge of its own nationals. It’s a debate that Spain has joined, and the government is currently weighing whether or not to repatriate these citizens.
Of the estimated 1,200 European women and children here, “only France has repatriated four minors,” explains the head of Al Hol. In order to find the three Spaniards, it is necessary to head out to the last stretch of the camp, where the foreigners who are more radicalized than the Syrians and Iraqis are to be found. They receive visitors with stones, insults and shoves. “We can’t deal with them, but at the end of the day we all came to the Islamic State because we wanted to,” admits Rashida, a 34-year-old French-Algerian woman who guides us to the Spanish women.
1. The arrival in the caliphate
“I never would have come to Syria of my own free will”
“Why do you want to speak to the Spanish women? Are you going to get us out of here?” The question is posed by a fearful voice speaking in Arabic from among a sea of figures in black. “I want to get out of here,” repeats Lubna Miluda, here eyes open wide and her breath coming short. This 40-year-old Spanish national was born in Rabat, Morocco and she is the mother of three children. Visibly traumatized after surviving weeks of bombing and fighting in Baghouz – the last stronghold of the caliphate in the east of Syria – this woman chokes on her own words and switches between the past and present as she speaks. She was the first of the three Spanish women in the Al Hol camp to be widowed. Just like her “religious sisters,” as she refers to her companions, she says that she was tricked into coming to Syria by her husband, the jihadist Navid Sanati, also a native of Morocco who had Spanish citizenship.
All of it is horrible, Syria and this camp… it’s not a place for children
ISIS wife Lubna Miludi, 40
“Two and a half years ago they told me that my husband had become a martyr, but I have never seen his body or even photos of it,” she nervously explains. In 2014, she says her husband offered her a trip to Turkey. She was delighted, given that she loves that country. But once in Turkey, Miludi tells the same story as her companions: all of a sudden, without prior warning, her husband informed her that she was in the lands of the caliphate. “I never would have gone of my own accord because I knew that there was a war there from seeing it on TV.” She used to live in Madrid and would go “from time to time” to Friday prayers at the M-30 mosque, and before getting married she says that she worked at a pharmacy. Unlike her companions at the camp, she says that although she was born to a Muslim family, she never wore the niqab until she arrived in the caliphate. In the camp, taking the garment off can cost you a beating from the more radical occupants.
Many of the most radical women in the camp were part of the Jansa, the female unit of the ISIS morality police in charge of patrolling the streets, reprimanding the women who don’t respect the rigurous dress codes and torturing anyone who infringed them.
Before suggesting the trip to Turkey, her husband told her that he wanted to move to Mauritania “to study the Koran.” It is a country that has been battered by jihadist terrorism. “My family and the police in Spain were very surprised that my husband joined ISIS because he had everything: money, family and work. He was an architect,” she explains, switching between Spanish and Arabic as she speaks. Like the other jihadist women, she claims that her husband “did not fight.” “Those that are going to fight disappear for two weeks to get training, and then you don’t see them again because they die as martyrs,” she adds. In the eyes of Miludi, her husband was a “mere official” who occupied an “administrative position” in ISIS.
She arrived in the caliphate via Raqa, the entry point for all of the foreign families who answered the call of the self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi to repopulate a territory of 100,000 square kilometers between Syria and Iraq. No sooner had they entered into Syria, the women and their children were separated from the jihadists. “We arrived and they took away my husband without saying anything to me, and they stuck me and my children in a mafada,” a foster home for families of ISIS jihadists.
Following the procedures of the caliphate, the women were kept there for a month while the men were indoctrinated and awaited a destination, a job and a house in the caliphate. Miludi says that she has not heard of, nor has she ever seen, the Yazidi women who were kidnapped and enslaved by the jihadists, of whom more than 3,000 are still disappeared since the defeat of the caliphate. “After a month without news of my husband, he returned and told me that we were moving to the outskirts of Aleppo,” where ISIS was still active.
The day that they told her about the death of her husband, Miludi says that she contacted her mother-in-law in a bid to get out of there. “I asked her to send me $20,000 to pay a trafficker to get us out of there, but she didn’t.” For the last few years she has been “the widow of an ISIS martyr” and has followed the remnants of the population of the caliphate to their last stronghold in Baghouz, in Syria. She has lived with the fear of suffering abuse by men, “above all in Baghouz,” but states that they didn’t marry her to another mujaheddin as is customary with ISIS widows.
“All of it is horrible, Syria and this camp… it’s not a place for children.” Her only hope, she says, is that Allah will light up the way for her to leave the camp, “just as he did to get us out of Baghouz alive.” “I want to go back,” she repeats, without stating whether she means to Spain or Morocco. Confused, she calls again on her mother-in-law to send her money so that she can get out of Syria via a smuggler, without perhaps realizing that the Al Hol camp is guarded by armed militia and Kurdish militia. “My family didn’t know anything, I swear to God. They don’t even know that my husband has died. I need to get out of here!”
2. Daily life in the caliphate
“The Spanish justice system can’t send me to prison for taking care of my home and my children”
Growing personally “as a Muslim” and “taking care of my family” were the duties of Yolanda Martínez, a converted Spaniard and de facto citizen of ISIS for the last five years. Speaking for this interview with EL PAÍS inside a cabin in the Al Hol camp, the 34-year-old tells the story of a peaceful life under the caliphate. “When my husband arrived home, thanks to God, the table was set and the children neat and tidy,” she explains with a sweet, unhurried voice. A pair of rectangular glasses sit atop her niqab, covering blue eyes. Pale hands gesticulate from underneath her abaya with each of her answers. “I arrived here knowing nothing,” she explains. “But I was very happy because my husband had promised me a trip to Turkey, and we bought the return tickets from Morocco.”
My husband had promised me a trip to Turkey
ISIS wife Yolanda Martínez, 34
But her husband, the jihadist Omar el Harshi, a Moroccan-born citizen of Spain, had other plans for the family. Shortly after arriving in Istanbul, he took them to a city in the south of Turkey on the border with Syria. One night, they entered the lands of the caliphate by car.
Born in the upscale Salamanca neighborhood of Madrid, Martínez finished her high school studies in art. She wanted to be a painter like her mother. She first found work distributing flyers, and then as a clerk at the Spanish department store El Corte Inglés. At 22, she married the man who would become the father of her four children, who are now aged between four months and 10 years. “I was always the ugly duckling of my family, and when my husband introduced me to Islam, I realized I carried the religion inside me.” That was when she made the personal decision, she underscores, to start wearing a niqab. In Spain she attracted lots of looks on the street, so she says she felt “happy” when they moved to Morocco, “a Muslim country where I went more unnoticed with the niqab.”
The three Spaniards are taking care of 15 minors
El Harshi worked as a plasterer, but with the economic crisis they went to live in her parents’ house for long periods of time. “My father is very sexist and didn’t approve of my conversion or anything else, so it was all very tense,” she says, after emphasizing the respect for women in the heart of the jihadist kingdom. After a period in Morocco, from where they made a number of journeys to and from the Spanish exclave city of Ceuta, in North Africa – El Harshi’s home city – they traveled to Turkey in May 2014. Once in Syria, the family moved to Shadadi, a place on the banks of the Euphrates River and a well-known conservative heartland in northeastern Syria. “They gave us a home and my husband a job at the ISIS courts, running errands. We finally had a stable economic situation,” she explains.
In nearly five years of life in the caliphate, she claims that she never saw a beheading or a public execution. “I just took care of my house and my children, I never went out, and what’s more I don’t speak Arabic. However, I was able to live in accordance with the precepts of Islam.” They had no television either, as they are banned in jihadist lands. She says that her husband never fought. “How was he going to fight if every day he left early to work and came back home late?” However, according to a 2014 judicial report from Spain’s High Court, the Audiencia Nacional, her husband is considered to be an “operational leader” of a network that recruited jihadists at the M-30 mosque in Madrid, “carrying out an executive role in the organization, being the person in charge of deciding how and when the members of the group would travel.” Every Friday, Martínez would go to pray at midday in that mosque, along with other Spanish converts.
During the last fighting between Kurdish-Arabic militia allied with the coalition and the remnants of the ISIS mujahedeen in the Syrian town of Baghouz, El Harshi surrendered on March 1 along with his family. According to his wife, he was disenchanted by the members of ISIS who had betrayed the caliphate and the faithful like themselves, “with their sins and bad behavior.” But still she insists that the foundation of Islamic State is good.” El Harshi was jailed and she was taken to the camp along with her children. “I haven’t done anything bad. If in Spain the law truly judges people with clarity, why would they imprison a woman who has suffered so much, and who has been at home with her children?”
3. The collapse of the caliphate
“Baghouz was hell”
The road that Luna Fernández traveled to arrive in the caliphate is one that is plagued with blows, as is evidenced from the eyes that peep out from her niqab, which appear to belong to a 50-year-old rather than a woman who says she is 32. Walking through the Al Hol camp in which she is being held, her pregnant belly can be seen protruding from underneath her abaya. “I’m five months pregnant… well, I think it’s five or six, I still haven’t seen a doctor,” she mumbles. She arrived in the caliphate with her jihadist husband and two young children, and left Baghouz a widow with eight children under her care, four of which are her own, and with a fifth on the way.
At the age of 16 she met her future husband, Mohamed el Amin, a Moroccan national resident in Spain. “He showed me that Islam is the truth, and I converted,” she explains. When she became an adult they got married, and after 14 years together she was widowed three months ago in Baghouz. “He went to a house with some other men and they were hit by a bomb there.” Two weeks later, a Moroccan couple resident in Spain, who she identified as Hana and Mohamed Selmán, also died in the fighting, leaving behind four children. Fernández has taken them into her care so that she can “take them to their grandmother, who lives in Spain.”
This is a man-to-man war, women and children have nothing to do with it
ISIS wife Luna Fernández, 32
As the Kurdish-Arabic militia allied with the coalition advanced, she and her children continued their journey assisted by another converted Spaniard, Yolanda Martínez, and her husband. According to the UN, a total of 350 unaccompanied minors have arrived at Al Hol.
“Baghouz was hell. I was very scared,” she explains, nervously pinching at her skin. Protected by trenches that were dug out by the jihadists and covered with blankets, Fernández and the eight children survived the air raids and the bullets that whistled over their heads. They barely had a tin of sardines per family for three days. She is highly critical of the coalition fighter jets. “This is a man-to-man war, women and children have nothing to do with it.” But she says nothing when questioned about the laws of the caliphate or why the mujaheddin took them with them as human shields. “I’m a Muslim and I am not going to disown my religion. As many countries make their laws, Allah has made a law and He knows, we don’t know.” She claims that her husband never fought in ISIS, “he was just a treasurer in Beit el Mal,” she says, alluding to the body in charge of ISIS’s finances. “My husband was a good, trustworthy man, which is why they gave him that position.”
She admits that the caliphate has done “bad things,” such as those combatants who “disguise themselves with a beard and a rifle and say that they are Muslims but just rob or punish innocents.” Or those women who come from Kazakhstan or “all the countries ending in -tan,” who were very aggressive toward her during the times of the caliphate and who continue to be so in the camp where they are being held. “I saw with my own eyes the other day a woman punch another in the nose when they were waiting in line to go to the market.” Fernández has never worked and, after marrying so young, never got further than her high school studies.
At the Al Hol camp there are 73,000 people, 92% of whom are women and children
She says that she has no other family in Spain apart from her husband’s. “My father is Moroccan but he abandoned me at the age of four and I grew up in a foster center in the Madrid region.” Since then she has only seen him “a couple of times.” As for her mother, who is from Madrid, she says that she has not seen her since 2013, when she moved to Egypt for a year with her husband and two children. There she gave birth to a third daughter, Meriam, who died shortly after because “we couldn’t pay for her heart operation.”
In 2014, her husband suggested moving to a “city in the south of Turkey where Muslims could live well and cheaply.” The young woman tells the story of how she found herself running through the trees until suddenly they stopped and she was able catch her breath. “‘You’re in Syria!’ my husband told me.” At that time, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi had still not proclaimed the caliphate, but when he did so, Fernández and his family moved to a village next to the oil fields of Al Omar, on the eastern banks of the south of the Euphrates. The biggest fields in Syria, they became the key source of income for the terrorist group.
Now she just wants to get out of the camp with her children, in peace and live as a good Muslim. Still in a visible state of shock, the young woman seems puzzled to hear the terms “terrorist group” or “trials.” I didn’t come here voluntarily, I was brought here.” She claims that her husband brought her there with good intentions, but once inside, leaving the caliphate meant being separated from her children. She was the first Spanish woman who managed to cross the last jihadist stronghold into the control of Kurdish militia. She did so five weeks ago in Baghouz, as a “widow of a martyr and with the orphans of another one.” She left the last camp of the jihadist resistance to go live in a tent and another camp, one where she is being held captive, together with the last survivors of the caliphate village.
English version by Simon Hunter.