Tue, 26 May 2020

The Women Who Came Home

23 Jun 2019, 23:45 GMT+10

Freshly returned from Syria to Kazakhstan, 24-year-old Zarina says she is taking one day at a time and has no clear plan for the future.

The widowed mother of two sons born in Syria -- where she spent five years married to an Islamic State (IS) fighter -- spends most of her days in shopping centers and parks in her hometown of Aqtobe, in western Kazakhstan.

Zarina, who doesn't want to disclose her full name for "family reasons," was among hundreds of Kazakh citizens repatriated from Syria this year in a special operation called Zhusan.

"I was afraid to return, I thought I'd be arrested -- but in a refugee camp in Syria I heard that Kazakhstan will take back its citizens," Zarina said.

"I am grateful that my country took us back, gave us clothes and shoes, and is providing psychological support," Zarina told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.

Like the rest of the returnees from Syria, Zarina and her children spent a month in a special center in the city of Aqtau before being allowed to reunite with her relatives.

The stint in the Aqtau facility is the first part of an elaborate rehabilitation and reintegration program designed for those who returned to Kazakhstan after living under the extremist IS militants.

The reintegration process is expected to last for years under the strict control of local authorities and security services.

Zarina';s two sons were born in Syria.

The center in Aqtau, where the returnees are placed upon their arrival, is off limits to the media, the public, and even the relatives of the returnees.

But officials familiar with the rehabilitation program told RFE/RL that in Aqtau the returnees undergo medical tests and receive treatment or surgeries they require.

Back To Normal Life

The center also employs specially trained psychologists and religious figures, who conduct meetings and consultations with the returnees.

Meanwhile, children attend special classes with teachers and child-psychology specialists, while adults also face background checks and interviews by security services.

Those cleared by security services to return to normal life are allowed to move back to their home regions within several weeks and register with local authorities.

Dozens of others have been transferred to detention centers to face terrorism-related charges.

Operation Zhusan (which means sagebrush) took place in three rounds between January and May and brought home a total of 516 Kazakh citizens, including 357 children, according to official figures.

The government said 47 people returned in the first round in January and another 231 Kazakhs were flown home from Syria in the second round in early May.

The third and final round took place at the end of May with 238 women and children brought back.

The government says there won't be any more such operations in the future. It is not known if there are any more Kazakh nationals left in Syria or Iraq, the two countries within which Islamic State controlled swathes of territory until collapsing under attack from U.S.-led forces in late March.

In July 2018, Kazakhstan's National Security Committee said more than 800 Kazakh nationals had left for Syria and Iraq since 2013 to join IS.

A lot of those fighters and their families were killed in air strikes and fighting since IS first acquired territory in 2014.

Many Kazakh fighters and women also became disillusioned and returned home long before the Zhusan operation began.

Still A Security Threat?

At least 27 people, including five women, who returned to Kazakhstan as part of the Zhusan operation have been arrested on terrorism-related charges.

Erlan Karin, an adviser to Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, says one of the most frequently asked questions about the returnees is whether they will pose a security threat in the future.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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