By Heather Murdock
AL-HOL CAMP, SYRIA — “I pray my children will follow their father’s path,” said Intesar Mohammed, surrounded by three of her four children in a muddy, trash-strewn tent in northern Syria.
Her husband was an Islamic State militant who was killed in 2018. Her fourth child is being held by security forces, accused of being a militant himself.
Internationally-backed Syrian forces are in the throws of what they believe is their last battle to take back IS territories in Syria, declaring on Sunday that IS’s window of time to surrender has expired.
But as the fight continues, the humanitarian crisis is growing, as tens of thousands of IS wives, widows and children struggle to survive in harsh, unprepared camps.
More than 12,000 people have evacuated the last battle zone of Baghuz in recent days, raising the population of the al-Hol camp to 65,000 people — far more than it was prepared to receive.
Neither the military nor the aid community anticipated that Baghuz, or the nearby tiny plot of land IS is still fighting for, could hold this many people.
Also surprising is the level of devotion many families still express for IS, a group almost universally condemned by the outside world. Men are taken to detention centers for investigation as they evacuate, while women and children are taken to the camps.
“I hope God will send relief soon, and the [Islamic State] will be victorious,” Intesar Mohammed declared, as other women and her children nod along. “There were bombs and war in there, but we were happy.”
Camp at 'breaking point'
At least 100 people — almost all small children — have died in recent days traveling out of the war zone or in the al-Hol camp itself, according to the International Rescue Committee.
Those deaths could be “the tip of the iceberg,” the IRC said. Hundreds more children are suffering from acute malnutrition and trauma in a crisis that has strained the camp to the “the breaking point.” To safely shelter new arrivals, the camp needs 5,000 more tents.
Even before the most recent influx of people, life was harsh in al-Hol. Families were crowded into leaking tents without insulation or heat, as winter temperatures dropped below freezing. It was difficult to find a mother without at least one sick child.
“You can hear him,” said Umm Mohammed, a mother of five, holding up her youngest child — a wheezing infant. Mats placed on the dirt floor are covered in mud as the rain subsides after an hour-long storm. “Can you ask them to bring us a tarp to cover the leaks in the tent?”
Without more funding and faster implementation of programs, the camp could face an even larger disaster, said Mazen Shekhe, a camp official.
“We are in the emergency situation right now, because we have a lot of people come from a lot of parts which was under control from ISIS,” he said, sitting in a small office heated by a tin wood stove.
The process of procuring essential aid items is slow, Shekhe added.
“It can take a month, and often they bring less than we asked for,” he explained. “For example, if we ask for 1,000 tents, they will bring 500.”
The displaced families crowded into al-Hol are not leaving anytime soon.
Many of the Syrian and Iraqi families are from far away regions, having retreated with IS for years as the militants slowly lost the land they once held. As they moved, cities, towns and villages were flattened by coalition bombs.
Many now are homeless or fear retaliation if they try to rebuild.
The wives and children of foreign fighters, hailing from dozens of countries, are held in separate sections of al-Hol and in another camp. Most countries have so far expressed little interest in taking back their citizens. Morocco is an exception — the country has recently received nationals from the camps, according to Bali.
Other foreign IS wives are petitioning their governments to return, even if the consequence is jail. The children, many born in areas formerly held by IS, are often left in legal limbo, with no clear path to citizenship.
For some children in al-Hol, the only nationality they identify with is Islamic State.
“They protected us,” said Mohammed, 12, near crates of vegetables he and his friends are selling. “[Kurdish forces] were shooting at us, but they [IS] kept us safe.”
It was not clear if Mohammed knew that the same forces that attacked Baghuz were supporting the camp in which they are now staying.
For aid workers, providing immediate needs is far more critical than analyzing the danger that continued extremism may pose to the camp. Humanitarian aid, said Shekhe, may ease extremism as camp residents realize they are not being held by an enemy.
“Everyone will be allowed to go home, but people’s whose houses are destroyed will stay here,” he said. “We will not force anyone.”