Caliphate wives share their stories year after ISIS defeat: Reporter's Notebook

ABC News' James Longman spoke with women left in the wake of the conflict.

February 19, 2020, 5:03 AM

In a cold corner of northwest Iraq, Magboula Bajo is still homeless. She's Yazidi -- part of a community enslaved and tortured by ISIS.

She was taken from her home, kept as a slave for two years.

"They killed them all in front of our eyes: my father, uncles, our relatives, my father's uncles," she recalled. "They blindfolded the youths and tied their hands and took them near to the river. We heard them being shot."

Magboula feels like she's been forgotten by the world. Her people still live in freezing refugee camps, waiting for their lives to start again.

ISIS victims have yet to find peace, and many of those who joined ISIS have yet to see justice.

As I wait outside her tent, I can hear the distinct north American accent of Kimberly Polman, the U.S.-Canadian woman who joined ISIS five years ago.

I can hear her laughing and preparing it so that we can come inside to talk. "I had no idea you guys were coming!"

I am at Roj camp in northeast Syria, where about 2,000 Western European ISIS women and their children are being kept.

Polman shares a tent with Shamima Begum, the British 20-year-old who joined ISIS when she was just 15. Next door to them is Hoda Mothana, who lives with her 2-year-old son, Adam. All three are trying to return to their home countries. Begum and Mothana have had their appeals rejected, while Polman is still in limbo with both Canadian and U.S. authorities.

Roj is a much better camp than Hawl, where more than 65,000 live in often-appalling conditions. In Hawl, entire areas are no-go for aid agencies because the ISIS radicalism is so entrenched, effectively forming a small ISIS town where more than half the inhabitants are children.

In Roj, radicalization is still a problem, but perhaps easier to manage with smaller numbers.

Both camps represent a major issue for the Kurds, who have been left to guard their own tormentors while the international community drags its feet in finding a solution.

Inside the tent, I'm shocked to discover fairy lights and hearts hanging from tent hooks.

"We're preparing for Valentine's day," a smiling Polman told me. I'm immediately aware of her efforts to seem "normal" and -- crucially -- different from the other women in the camp. "We're baking a cake tonight, and some of the other women are coming 'round for coffee. You've got to try and stay sane."

I feel like this is code for, "'I am like you, can you believe this?'"

The truth is, I can't. The tent is like no other I've ever seen in Syria. While Magboula deals with cold, damp, dirty living conditions -- often cramped with multiple people -- Polman and Begum's is like a minimum-security prison. They have satellite TV, heating and electricity. Polman has knitted cushions for the other women bearing the flags of their home states, and a homemade sign reads, "First I Drink Coffee, Then I Do The Things." I could be in any regular sitting room in the U.S. or U.K.

Polman is confident and talks a lot. She blames her decision to come to Syria in 2015 on a husband she met online when she was particularly vulnerable.

"He was a really vibrant, very alive, very knowledgeable, very relaxed kind of human being," she told me. "Certainly not what you would have expected If you think of the word 'terrorist' -- he did not incite fear in you at all. And the truth is, is that, I was at a really low point and I probably should have been living closer to my family. I should have had a different support system."

She said she didn't see any of the horrific propaganda released at the time. And she said she traveled before some of the more brutal terror attacks in Europe had transpired, like at the Bataclan or the truck attack in Nice. But this is often a refrain of those who joined ISIS, and it's not an argument that holds up to scrutiny. She's a bright woman, and has sought to rationalize her situation -- certainly to convince others.

But I think also to try and convince herself.

She does not believe she or the other women, Mothana, Begum and nine or so others from Germany and Holland, are anything like the majority of the ISIS wives in the camp.

"Some of them celebrated when Baghdadi died, because he wasn't radical enough for them," said Begum, referring to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in an October raid.

Polman said she believes they're in danger. "There's kitchen knives galore here," she added.

The issue of radicalization is certainly a serious one, and with so many children in both the Hol and Roj camps, a new generation of extremists has the potential to grow. "I've seen a child chop the head off a doll," Polman warned.

Both Polman and Begum repeatedly refer to ISIS as "they" -- a point I make to them. People at home, I tell them, will see you as ISIS. You joined this group, you left your countries. Perhaps this is the punishment you deserve.

"I think that's a very dangerous way of thinking," Polman said. "These people put me in prison, too. They tried to kill me, too. You have to realize that we all have different stories."

I get the sense, though, that they have not thought much about women like Magboula, and her story.

"How do you think the Yazidis feel?" she said. "ISIS established a bazaar for selling Yazidi girls in Raqqa. It was called Girls Bazaar, so whoever needed a girl he could go there and buy. It was very hard for us to be treated like that. Every girl had her picture and name on her neck in that bazaar being bought and sold. Their prices were also written. Some of the girls were rented for one day."

And she holds the wives responsible too, although the western ISIS women we met deny knowing any of this.

"They are also the wives of ISIS members," Magboula said. "They treated us worse than their husbands did to us. Those ISIS women were holding Yazidi girls for their husbands to rape them and torture them. They are ISIS wives. We want them to be punished too."

Hoda Mothana, who was born in New Jersey, has an extra layer of complexity to her story: Her son Adam, 2, is paying the price for his mother's sins. The boy's father was an ISIS fighter she said she was forced to marry. He died in the fighting. Now she wants to send Adam back to the U.S. without her.

"Will you apologize to him, when he's older?" I ask. She tells me she will, of course. She's conflicted. She regrets coming to ISIS, but also said that if she hadn't, she never would have had her son.

"He doesn't know that children have two parents," she said. "Someday, I will have to tell him who his father was."

With all three women, I get a pervading sense of victimhood. I try and explain who the true victims of ISIS are: families destroyed, women raped and executed or enslaved, gay people thrown from roofs, thousands of others rendered homeless. These are arguments they've heard before, but even now, one year on, I don't sense them truly registering.

Cut off from the outside world, it may be that they can only reflect on their time in ISIS through their own experiences. They hated it, they told me. They wanted to get out. Polman said she was raped multiple times. They seem incapable of understanding the true magnitude of what ISIS has done, and the fact that going there -- even contemplating joining such a group -- lent a legitimacy to its actions, and that the group must pay for its crimes.

Mothana and Begum were very young when they joined. There is a sense of naivety about them. Both talk about a "truth" about their time in Syria that the public has yet to understand. Polman is older, and knows how to explain away her crimes. She may be an arch manipulator, or genuinely repentant. But I confess I don't understand how someone so obviously bright could have been lured so easily to a place like Syria. She said she doesn't either.

I tell them that when I sit down with friends, the reaction is "on what planet do these people think they are on, to expect to be able to come home?"

Polman said she understands such a reaction, but asks that people try and take a balanced view.

One woman with an intriguing take is Judy, the Kurdish administrator in charge of both camps. She's young and smiley, and knows all the women by their first names. The Kurds are a people that suffered most from ISIS' terror campaign. For every westerner we saw marched out in an orange jumpsuit and executed, 10 more Kurds were meeting the same fate when ISIS was at its height. I asked her how she feels about guarding the women who lent the terror group their support.

"It's hard, because we suffered a lot," she told me. "But they are human beings, too. I just need to do my job as best I can."

And that I guess is the paradox here: Western countries are largely washing their hands of the issues because public opinion is so against anything that looks like forgiveness. But the security implications are huge, and the burden being borne by the Kurds is even greater. In the camps, escapes are thought to take place almost daily. And any radicalization that may have been a problem when ISIS finally fell a year ago is only deeper now.

'You were here last year'

The men are kept in a prison a few hours away. In a large, open room described to me as a clinic, about 300 lie on camp beds side by side. The smell is potent, and among the crowd one man looks up.

"I remember you," he said. "You were here last year."

Yes, I said, to which he replied: "You remember my face, or because I'm a terrorist"

Both, I said.

It's Zaid abed al Hamed, a 35-year-old from Trinidad and Tobago. I remember the scars on his face and his willingness to talk. Like all the men, he denies fighting, but claimed to want a solution.

"You either put everyone outside on the wall and shoot them in the head -- the world will be happy there are no terrorists anymore, so there's a big solution -- or, you try them," he said.

Lirim Sylejmani, 44, sits next to him. He's a U.S.-Kosovan who joined ISIS in 2015.

We go into an adjacent room to talk. He is relaxed, almost nonchalant about his time in ISIS. He said he regrets it, but I don't sense remorse.

"I have regrets, and I don't have regrets," he told me, shrugging.

He joined with his wife and two daughters, and told me he didn't fight. He painted a picture of poverty and hunger, of a dream that turned into a nightmare. But I get the sense that had he found riches and glory, his "regret," may not have been quite so strong.

He talked about "making Hijra" to ISIS. I stop him. "Hijra is a religious term -- It would suggest you believed, you still believe -- that ISIS was a legitimate religious state."

"Well, it was," he replied, unable to see my point. "When you say 'ISIS,' it's like 'Islamic State.' For me, it's a place ruled under Sharia law. I wanted to live under Islamic law."

"Somebody cheats and admits that, or he has four witnesses," he continued, "he's going to be stoned for it. That's the way it is -- there's nothing for me to agree or not agree. I just go blindly by Sharia. I don't have that much knowledge, but I fully support it."

I asked him if gay people should die.

"Is it in Sharia?" he replied. "You should do an interview with somebody -- I don't have that much knowledge, as I said. But I do support Sharia fully, blindly I will say. Whatever it says there, I support it."

How could you follow something blindly but not really understand it very well? I asked. "I'm just having a hard time following your logic because if you say you believe Sharia, but at the same time don't really know what Sharia is, both of those things can't be true at the same time."

"They are both true," he said. "You don't have to know to believe something."

Sylejmani is a symptom of a larger problem: one of thousands of men who fought for ISIS, but whose minds are still fertile ground for radicalization. There are some westerners, but the majority are from across the region. Along with the women and children who lived and were born in the Islamic State, they are part of a security -- and to some extent, a moral -- issue that's not going away. And if the victims of ISIS are going to see any justice, these men and women must go through some kind of process.

Magboula wants an international tribunal set up in Syria, and life in prison for the perpetrators. "We Yazidi survivors, we will all attend the sessions of the court and we will sign the judgement being issued," she said.

As he waits for resolution, Sylejmani said he feels like he's being mistreated.

"We're being kept in there like cattle," he told me. "You don't know what tomorrow is going to bring. Is that all right? Is that any better than ISIS?"

Well, I replied, I think if this were ISIS, you'd all be dead by now.

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