Tolerance

After hellish years under ISIS 'caliphate', Ukraine woman hopes for new start

By AFP

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Alime Abbasova speaks to AFP minutes before departing from a sanatorium in the village of Kozyn outside Kyiv, where she had been quarantined before travelling to the town of Kremenchuk where her husband's relatives live, on January 16. [Genya Savilov/AFP]

KOZYN, Ukraine -- Six years after she left Ukraine to follow her husband, and promises of a dignified life in Syria under the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), Alime Abbasova arrived home, hopeful for a fresh start.

Abbasova's journey took her from the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Russia, to the so-called "caliphate", and then, after the group's defeat, to camps housing ISIS family members and sympathisers overseen by Kurdish authorities.

"You know what they say: we all make mistakes," the 37-year-old mother-of-five said, following her return on New Year's Day. "What happened is now behind us, thank God."

At a Soviet-era spa in central Ukraine where she was in quarantine and making plans for the future, Abbasova said: "Now I only hope for the best."

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A man carries a child as he walks with women and children, ahead of a Syrian Kurdish internal security services (Asayesh) member, towards trucks during the release of persons suspected of being related to ISIS fighters from al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, on January 19. [Delil Souleiman/AFP]

President Volodymyr Zelensky publicly welcomed Abbasova and another returnee home last month.

"Ukraine will always bring home all of its citizens, no matter who they are and wherever they get into trouble," he said.

ISIS is a 'trap'

The ex-Soviet country is home to hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority, mostly living in Crimea, who opposed Russia's 2014 takeover of the peninsula and fled, fearing political persecution.

Abbasova said she and her husband were lured to ISIS-controlled territory by one of his friends, who promised him he could continue his work repairing shoes in the so-called "caliphate".

"I didn't want to be left without a husband. I had two children at that time," she said, of her decision to follow.

Echoing many returnees and ISIS-linked detainees, she said she quickly became disillusioned with life in Syria and was "disappointed" by the group's brutal interpretation of Islam.

But there was no way out, she said, describing ISIS as a "trap" where "all roads closed".

"If you tried to escape, they could shoot you in the back."

In the four years that she and her husband spent in Syria, Abbasova said they were never called to take up arms by the group's leadership.

But that claim did not resonate with the Kurdish forces that accepted their surrender in 2019 and separated the husband and wife in captivity.

"It was the last time I saw my husband," said Abbasova, who took charge of their children.

She said she spent nearly two years in the Kurdish-run camps, al-Hol and Roj, where tens of thousands of relatives of ISIS fighters and sympathisers have been held since the 2019 defeat of ISIS.

'Went through hell'

She described life in the sprawling tent cities -- where the UN recently reported a spate of murders -- as "very difficult".

The camps are home to at least 10 more Ukrainian women and some 30 children that Tatar community leaders are working to return to Ukraine.

Refat Chubarov, a community leader who spearheaded release efforts in 2019 following pleas from family members, described negotiations involving the foreign ministry, the Red Cross and US diplomats.

He said that "special services were already engaged in this" process too.

He made clear however that neither he nor Ukrainian officials were seeking to fly home men who voluntarily travelled to Syria.

Chubarov said he had urged the two women who were returned to Ukraine to start again and "grab onto life".

"They might be more successful than those around them, because they saw what many others did not see, they went through hell," he said he had told them.

Abbasova has few other options, since the life she left behind six years ago is all but gone. She said she planned to go to Kremenchuk in central Ukraine, where her husband's family was awaiting her and the children.

With slim hopes of seeing her husband again, Abbasova said her focus was now on her five children -- three sons and two daughters, aged between 2 and 14.

"I want to take care of my children," Abbasova said. "They need to be raised."

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