Marc Lopez and his wife have four grandchildren, aged between two and ten, who have been detained with their mother in a camp in north-east Syria for nearly three years. There are around eighty French women and two hundred children detained in camps in Rojava, the Kurdish-controlled region near the Iraqi border.
All the women, alleged to have joined Islamic State, are wanted on an international arrest warrant issued by French magistrates. On 21 February, a dozen of them began a hunger strike ‘to protest against the stubborn refusal of the French authorities to organise their repatriation and the repatriation of their children’, according to a statement issued by their solicitors, Marie Dosé and Ludovic Rivière. They say the women ‘are only asking for one thing: to be put on trial for what they have done’. Most European women have now been moved from the huge al-Hawl camp to the smaller camps of Roj 1 and Roj 2.
Since IS lost its stronghold in Baghuz in March 2019, France has repatriated only 35 children, on a case-by-case basis, most of them either orphans or children whose mothers accepted a separation. A group repatriation was planned two years ago, but put on hold after a leak to the press. According to a recent poll, a majority in France oppose the repatriation of ‘children of jihadists’. The Kurdish administration, which is not recognised internationally, cannot try the women. Iraq has refused to prosecute Europeans for crimes not committed on its territory.
At the end of February, two French MPs and two MEPs went to Northern Iraq with lawyers from Avocats Sans Frontières, intending to travel to Syria and visit the Roj camps. But they were stopped at the frontier by Kurdish officials and allowed to cross only to have lunch with Rojava’s co-secretary of foreign relations, Abdulkarim Omar. ‘He told us their relations with France were too important to let us do something we are not allowed to do,’ one of the MPs, Frédérique Dumas, said at a press conference this week.
Last December, Dosé and Rivière were also prevented from crossing the Iraqi-Syrian border to meet the women they represent in the Roj camps. Several other European delegations, however, from countries such as Belgium or Finland, have been able to visit Roj.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, along with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, provides aid in the camps. ‘Colleagues say the situation on the ground is terrible, and worse in al-Hawl,’ the ICRC’s Lucile Marbeau says. ‘The Roj camps hold a few thousand people, whereas al-Hawl is like a city, with more than 62,000 people. Two-thirds of them are children, with a majority of under-fives. Many children were born there, others have died. Their deaths were preventable. The camp is overcrowded and doesn’t meet international standards in terms of access to food, water, healthcare and education.’ At the field hospital in al-Hawl, children and adults are routinely treated for respiratory diseases, burns linked to the use of kerosene heaters, and malnutrition.
Pascale Descamps, who lives in Boulogne-sur-Mer, has been on hunger strike for more than thirty days. She is calling for the repatriation of her daughter, held in Roj with her four children, on health grounds. They were first detained in al-Hawl, before spending months in prison and being transferred to Roj. ‘My daughter called me in November to tell me she was sick,’ Descamps says. ‘She is losing blood and keeps passing out. She was taken to the hospital in Qamishli where she underwent a colonoscopy without anaesthesia. She was told she has a tumour in the colon and they would rather not operate her. The children are scared. They’re having nightmares. They’re seeing their mother waste away.’ Descamps’s lawyer says his client hasn’t heard from the French authorities since her hunger strike started.
Hussam Hammoud, a Syrian journalist, visited al-Hawl in 2019. ‘I saw big tents, women on the ground, kids covered in dirt,’ he says. ‘I saw NGO workers acting very rudely towards these women, throwing water bottles at them … There were sick children not receiving medical care. Women were begging us to help them. I am not for these people’ – with alleged ties to IS – ‘but treating them like this doesn’t help. It only increases the hatred they feel towards the whole world.’ According to Hammoud, there are rising security concerns in the camps. ‘In al-Hawl, IS can do whatever they want,’ he says. ‘They can kill someone, and smuggle detainees out.’
In October 2019, David De Pas, the co-ordinator of the 12 investigative judges responsible for pursuing terrorists, called for the repatriation of the detained women, arguing that their indefinite detention posed a threat. In May 2020, thirteen French women escaped from Syrian camps. One of them was Hayat Boumedienne, the wife of Amedy Coulibaly, who murdered four people in a Kosher supermarket in Paris in 2015, having killed a police officer the day before.
At the end of last year, Germany and Finland announced they would repatriate five women and eighteen children. On 8 February, the UN called on 57 states, including France and Britain, to repatriate women and children from Syrian camps. The UK Supreme Court ruled this week that Shamima Begum, who left to join IS when she was 15, could not return to the UK to challenge the government’s decision to strip her of her citizenship.
‘What these women and children are experiencing looks like some sort of archaic revenge, where children are made to suffer for their parents’ faults,’ Marc Lopez says. He worries about the consequences of their indefinite detention: ‘In the camp, there are women who have expressed remorse and women who still support IS, and a lot of women who oscillate between the two positions, because they are well aware that their country doesn’t want them.’ He says the children keep asking when they can leave.
Campaigners and lawyers realise that the decision to repatriate has to come from the Elysée. ‘The president has to take responsibility,’ Dumas says. ‘We have to stop with the lies and the lack of transparency. These women cannot be put on trial over there. They were radicalised in France. It is our responsibility that French citizens left for Syria.’ As Lopez says, ‘we have a short window for the repatriation to take place, before the presidential election gets too close.’ (France goes to the polls in April 2022.) ‘They need to come back now, before the summer.’