AL-HOL CAMP, Syria — The killings have taken on a creeping sense of inevitability, guards say. Nobody admits hearing the killings, nor does anyone know who they are.
On a recent morning, officials inside al-Hol detention camp said it was still too dangerous to try recovering the latest pair of corpses discovered overnight. A tired camp guard sat in an office chair with her shirt and messy ponytail, after having slept for the night.
Since January, officials report, more than 70 people have been killed inside northeast Syria’s al-Hol camp, which houses 62,000 family members of Islamic State fighters and others detained during the collapse of its self-declared caliphate more than two years ago.
Al-Hol has become an ever more dangerous and desperate place. The rise of religious militancy threatens those not so religious. Hard-line women are frequently blamed for killings. They use the fragility of security to enforce strictures and settle scores. According to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, security sweeps that confiscate weapons such as knives, handguns and other weapons have not made a difference at the camp. Tensions are high between captors and captives.
Mohamed Bashir, a supervisor for some of the guards, furrowed his brow as he ticked off recent attacks on his fingers: Ambushes against troops. Aid workers were attacked with rocks. In July, a gold shop was vandalized just outside of his office at the market’s edge. The camp’s women often require money to purchase provisions or to pay smugglers for their escape.
“They took gold; they took dollars,” Bashir said, wearily placing a hand to his temple.
Hours later, another person was killed on the edge of the same market, local media reported, providing no other details.
In the swirling dust, there’s little left of the dreams once harbored by many of these detainees — Syrians, Iraqis and other foreigners from dozens of countries around the world — but vengeance and fear and a desperate wish to go home.
‘We can’t cope with them here’
Al-Hol was not built for this. It opened in the 1990s as a small camp for displaced Iraqis.
But as the final battle raged between the U.S.-backed forces and defenders of the Islamic State’s caliphate in early 2019, and captured militants were carted off to prison, their families were brought here. Within weeks, the camp population was 55,000, and a humanitarian disaster was unfolding.
As spring turned to summer that year, aid workers struggled to cope and some of the camp’s most radical women started trying to reimpose the Islamic State’s rules on the families around them. The Iraqis now account for nearly half of the camp’s inhabitants.
Women who removed their black face coverings were tried in kangaroo courts inside the tents. Children in the camp showed signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome. They received very little support psychologically despite being exposed to terror inside and outside the Islamic State.
“What are we meant to do?” asked a 52-year-old Iraqi woman, who did not share her name. Her black abaya was covered with two handbags that contained personal papers. “You cannot just leave us here, and hope we die,” she said.
Other women on the market street were Syrian, and from all corners of the country.
“We need these people back home. Bashir said, shuffled through the pile of ID papers on his desk. “We can’t deal with them here.”
A precarious repatriation
Most foreign governments have done little to bring their nationals home from al-Hol camp.
But efforts are underway by the Kurdish-led local authority and Arab tribes in this part of Syria to reduce the temperature inside the camp by sending Syrians home. Local tribesmen have vouched in favor of the returning Syrians and guaranteed that they would be allowed to return home.
“No one else has the power to do this,” said tribal leader Sheikh Mohamed Turki al-Swiyan, interviewed in the northern city of Raqqa with a family he had helped to leave the camp. “Presidents are elected and removed. The princes are able to take arms and fight each other. Only the tribes here are constants.”
But the process is riddled with problems. Officials claim that some tribal leaders sponsored people they did not know, or who were from other communities, to receive payments from their families. Some of these returnees, however, have disappeared.
Many of the former detainees are coming back to communities still reeling from the Islamic State’s brutal rule and, in many cases, to neighborhoods battered by the war.
Members of three families that had returned to Raqqa, once the Islamic State’s capital, described lives of destitution and ostracized isolation, saying their neighbors ignored or taunted them. Local mothers are cautious about allowing their children to play with returnees. Now, neighbors who used to share meals with each other are afraid to open their doors.
“They should have provided us with help when we came back,” said Fatima Mustafa, 47, sitting on the floor of her family’s spartan home. Many returnees find themselves deeper in debt because they don’t have work.
“The neighbors saw that we were just women without our men. Mustafa stated, “Surely they should’ve given us assistance.”
Elsewhere in the city, an older woman, Umm Shaima, whose daughter had returned from al-Hol, twisted her fingers between nervous hands as she spoke. As her granddaughters waited in silence, she stated that they could say whatever they wanted.
Residents of Raqqa interviewed nearby had little sympathy. Mustafa Hamed asked, “What are they expecting?” as he showed journalists around his house. The ceiling had suffered severe damage in an airstrike by the U.S. coalition during its fight against militants. As Janna, his seven-year old daughter played beneath it, a wire ignited and the ceiling began to sag dangerously.
Near the city’s main hospital, where the militants had once garrisoned, Hassan Mustafa shrugged when asked about the returnees. They killed people, and we are back giving everything we can to rebuild. You think we have time to think about them?”
His brother Ali agreed. He said, “They should return to their camp.” “No one wants them here.”
‘She just wanted to see Iraq again’
The Iraqi government says it is trying to bring home its nationals held in al-Hol. But the initiative is so politically fraught in Iraq that the first major operation to repatriate them, earlier this summer, transferred fewer than 400 people, according to Iraqi officials.
Among those who had hoped to join them was Warda Obeid, 60, a grandmother from Iraq’s sprawling desert province of Anbar. Her family stated that her health was worsening over the waiting period. First, her diabetes got worse. The doctors diagnosed her with a heart disease. The medicine was not readily available. Last month, she died.
Obeid was laid to rest on a rocky outcrop of land overlooking the camp. Under the watchful eyes of a camp guard, her family dug the tomb.
Her body arrived on the back of a truck, wrapped in a fleece blanket.
“She just wanted to see Iraq again,” said her 50-year old nephew Saken, as his brothers and cousins dug the pit for her. She was exhausted. She wanted to go home.”
On the horizon, a storm appeared to gather out of nowhere and before long, it was whipping up desert sand as the family dug faster and more frantically. The camp soon became buried.
Saken shook his head, hand on hip. He said “This place …”,” and he walked off. As the dust cloud got closer, it was able to clearly see against the gray slate sky. A young man cursed the family for not digging further.
“We can’t stay here,” Obeid sighed. “There must be a solution.”
Mustafa al-Ali contributed to this report.