Friday 22 March 2019

Tired and afraid, the jihadi bride laments her fate

Shamima Begum says she just cares about her son
Shamima Begum says she just cares about her son

Raf Sanchez

A hundred miles from the tarpaulin tent that Shamima Begum now calls home, the caliphate she once crossed the world to join was in its death throes.

A dwindling band of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant fighters were surrounded by advancing Kurdish forces and facing annihilation beneath American and British airstrikes.

But the 19-year-old from east London was indifferent to the end of the jihadist territory. She was worried instead about finding baby formula for her week-old son, Jarrah.

"I don't really care what happens to Islamic State. That's why I left," Ms Begum told reporters. "I just care about my son."

The young woman who once symbolised Isil's ability to lure young adherents from the West today cuts a despondent figure.

If she reintroduced herself last week with a certain bravado - boasting of being unfazed at seeing severed heads - she now looks exhausted and frightened. In the last seven days she had gained a son but lost her UK citizenship. She seemed unsure what to do about either.

"I'm just trying to survive here," she said. "I don't know what's going on. I don't have a phone, I don't have internet. What am I supposed to do if I don't have any information?"

Despite being cut off from the world, she was aware of the attention her case had garnered and compared it to the frenzy when she and two other schoolgirls from Bethnal Green first left for the Islamic State in 2015.

"It's like it was four years ago, it's nothing new to me," she said.

She was sorry she had allowed herself to be publicly identified, sparking a public furore which she blamed for the loss of her British citizenship. "I regret speaking to the media. I wish I had stayed low and found a different way to contact my family."

Her more immediate priority was reaching her husband, a 27-year-old Dutch Isil fighter named Yago Riedijk. The young couple agreed on their son's name shortly before they left Isil territory and surrendered to the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Riedjik is now in a Kurdish prison and Begum is trying to contact him through the Red Cross. "I don't know if he knows our son is born," she said.

Begum is the most well-known of the 45,000 residents of al-Hol, a sprawling camp where Kurdish forces are sending women and children who emerge from the last fragment of Isil's caliphate.

Families from 47 nations are living in fields of white tents supplied by the UN. Two other British women are in the camp, according to Kurdish officials, and around a dozen more are expected to arrive in coming days.

The women, once united under the black banner of Isil, have now splintered into tribes along language lines.

"For our own self-preservation, people are sticking with their own groups," one Canadian Isil wife told reporters. "You put women under these conditions and you could have something explosive no matter where you are."

The foreigners' section where Begum is living is dominated by Russian speakers from across the former Soviet Union. They are the most assertive and a crowd of women has gathered at the section gate to shout their demands to the one harried Kurdish guard who speaks Russian.

Begum's tent is in an anglophone corner at the edge of the foreigners' area. Her neighbours are from the US, Trinidad, and the Seychelles. She gestured warily towards the busy centre of the section. "Over there is too exposed for me and my child."

The women tend to refer to each other by Arabic titles and often do not know each other's real names. Begum is known as Umm Saraya, meaning mother of Saraya, her baby girl who died inside the caliphate.

While some of the foreigners claimed to completely disavow Isil, others were eager to replicate its fundamentalist rules. A trio of Westerners grudgingly veiled their faces after being screamed at by another woman, who accused them of immodesty.

The foreigners are a vulnerable minority within the camp as a whole, where Syrian and Iraqi are the majority. When they venture into the muddy market of the main camp, it is often under the escort of female Kurdish guards armed with Kalashnikovs.

The contrast is striking between the Isil women in their black niqabs and the female Kurdish fighters in green fatigues, who patrol the camp with face and hair uncovered.

One Iraqi Isil wife stabbed another to death with a kitchen knife, according to a Kurdish official. They had apparently quarrelled over the legacy of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the caliphate who is now the world's most-wanted fugitive - if he is still alive.

The camp echoed with the cries of children, many of whom were born in the caliphate and have no formal citizenship papers. Five orphans sat on a bench outside the camp administrator's office, all wheezing with sickness. Their mother had been killed in an airstrike and they were waiting for their uncle to adopt them and add them to the 15 children he already has. "It's not easy, we need God's help," the uncle said.

An Iraqi woman named Hadeel Shadhan sat on the opposite bench, one son being breastfed under the folds of her abaya while another had fallen asleep against her side. His little feet were swollen from the long walk out of Isil territory.

Like Begum, Shadhan is 19 years old, a mother, and a refugee of the Isil. Yet while the British woman said she no longer cared about the fate of the caliphate, the Iraqi was mourning its downfall. She praised Baghdadi's leadership and defended the jihadists' widespread rape and murder of Yazidi and Kurdish women.

"Only God knows what will happen," she said. "But I think the caliphate will return and the war will continue. I hope the Islamic State will come back and I hope there will be justice."

Telegraph.co.uk

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