By: Erkina Asanbaeva and Salabat Erketaeva
A Kyrgyzstani Ramaz Sariev has been waiting for his daughters from action area in the Middle East for 6 years. They left for study to Egypt when they were 16 and 17 years old, and were found in Syria in a month.
– My daughters are 22 and 23 years old now, they have two children. They left to Egypt for study. However, we wonder how they got to Syria. Then my wife went to Syria to take them back.
When I learned their real location, I managed to contact them. We communicated via video call, and then they got into a military camp. Their passports were seized in Syria. Our authorities could help them, make new documents to them and get their citizens back from war.
Now the government has formed a board that works over the issue of return of the Kyrgyzstanis from the camps in Syria and Iraq. According to vice prime minister Altynai Omurbekova, the board consists of representatives of state authorities, and the officials count on advisory assistance from international organisations.
“The government is already considering this issue under the supervision of vice prime minister Zhenish Razakov. I can say we have absolutely reliable data about the persons placed in the camps of Syria and Iraq, and their numbers. We are searching for their relatives. We speak about women and children who are located in those Middle East countries,” said Omurbekova in the interview to CABAR.asia.
However, the government does not publicise the exact number of Kyrgyzstanis in the camps of Iraq and Syria. According to the State National Security Committee, nearly 850 citizens have gone to the Middle East as of this April. Allegedly, there are up to 30 Kyrgyz women and three times more children in the camps of Syria and Iraq. State authorities don’t provide other information about the citizens of Kyrgyzstan located in those countries.
However, neighbouring republics of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan are actively returning their citizens back home, and they have started this process four years ago. Kyrgyzstan, unfortunately, has nothing to boast of in this regard.
“Most regrettably, according to our information, many women are placed in the rebel group camps, some in the camps of the Western coalition and Kurdish groups. This fact complicates the task for the state. It would be easier to rescue women and children if they were in the Syrian camps for refugees controlled by government forces.”
Speaking about the return of the Kyrgyzstanis from the action area, both officials and experts first mean women and children. Other Central Asian states pursue the same policy.
In early May, Kazakhstan evacuated 231 citizens from Syria, including 156 children, mainly pre-schoolers. It was a part of the operation Zhussan, when 47 people returned home this January: 30 children, 11 women and six men.
According to independent researcher and analyst of CABAR.asia, Nurbek Bekmurzaev, Kazakhstan is the most advanced country in terms of reintegration of its citizens who got back from military areas of Syria and Iraq. This is the only state in the region that has established several rehabilitation centres for the “returnees”.
“Such camps make it possible for the Kazakhstan authorities to return not only children, but also adults. I also want to say that despite such centres the authorities of Kazakhstan are being very careful and have returned not so many adults back. They are probably trying to approve their system before mass returns, which is unlikely to happen,” Bekmurzaev said.
In late April, Tajikistan evacuated 84 children from Iraq prisons. As to the adults, the country pursues the amnesty course for its citizens who will come back and repent.
“The point is there has been discourse about their return to the home country avoiding prisons and punishment. But the authorities of Tajikistan didn’t care about opening rehabilitation centres for adults. As they didn’t know what to do with the adults, they decided not to return them on a massive scale. Things are easier with children. Most probably, they will be returned to their relatives or sent to orphan houses. It’s all logical and easy,” analyst said.
In this regard, Kyrgyzstan follows the path of clamping down regarding the return of its citizens from Iraq and Syria, Bekmurzaev said. The country has already some experience of work with returnees. However, it was a partial return operation, rather a “hunt” for those who managed to come back home from the action area.
In 2015, the police detained 44 persons who came back to Kyrgyzstan. Eight of them were convicted for participation in combat training, organisation of terrorist attacks or distribution of Islamic extremist ideas. The country’s authorities, according to Bekmurzaev, are pursuing the policy of exclusion of citizens who left for Syria and Iraq.
Prison at home
A relative of a Kyrgyzstani Gulmira Nurdaeva left for Syria back in 2014. Nothing has been heard from him since then. His family has managed to contact him only after he got into a Kurdish camp for refugees Al Hol in the northeast of Syria.
“He repents so much and is asking for help. They live in tough conditions in the camp. We are asking everyone: please help us return our relatives back home. Yes, they may have made a mistake, but they repent and are ready to carry punishment according to the law. But back home only,” Nurdaeva said.
Kyrgyzstan has a controversial opinion about the return of the adults – both men and women. Deputy of parliament and member of the committee for international affairs, defence and security, Irina Karamushkina, said it was useless to return them from the action area. According to her, some of them could be really dangerous people who are proficient in combat skills.
“I would say the following about the return of these citizens back home: we have built a special prison for those convicted for terrorism and extremism. It cost a lot of money. The budget doesn’t have money for the construction of rehabilitation centres or other special institutions,” Karamushkina said.
According to Bekmurzaev, the only thing that the citizens of Kyrgyzstan can expect upon coming back home is a high security penal colony. He noted that even despite the rehabilitation system in place, it is unclear whether such centres would be beneficial as expected:
“The global practice of working with the returnees from hot spots is too short to provide feedback on positive and failing approaches. Many things depend on local context, as well.”
According to him, the civil society is not active in this regard. It is only the relatives of people who left for the Middle East who ask the president for help. But even if the leader of Kyrgyzstan decides to assist them in return, there would be officials and some part of the population who would be against this idea and do their best to hinder the process,” Bekmurzaev said.