GROZNY, Russia – Every day, Belant Zulgayeva gets a knot in her throat watching her grandchildren play their violent games, what she calls their “little war.” They talk very little, but they run around, hide and, occasionally, slam one another to the ground with a ferocity that would shock Westerners otherwise accustomed to boys being boys.
Zulgayeva is on the front line of a different kind of struggle: an effort by the Russian government to bring home and care for Russian children like her three grandchildren, who were raised by ISIS militants.
As the U.S.-led coalition and Syrian government forces captured cities that had been held by ISIS, they found among the ruins a grim human wreckage of the organization’s once successful recruitment drive: hundreds and perhaps thousands of children born to or brought with the men and women who had flocked to Syria to support the terrorist group.
While Russia, which has so far returned 71 children and 26 women since August, may seem surprisingly lenient in its policy, its actions reflect a hardheaded security calculus: better to bring children back to their grandparents now than have them grow up in camps and possibly return as radicalized adults.
“What should we do, leave them there so somebody will recruit them?” said Ziyad Sabsabi, the Russian senator who runs the government-backed program. “Yes, these children saw terrible things, but when we put them in a different environment, with their grandparents, they change quickly.”
European governments have shown little sympathy toward adult males who volunteered to join ISIS. Rory Stewart, the British international development minister, for example, told the BBC that “the only way of dealing with them will be, in almost every case, to kill them.”
But most European countries, including Britain, have taken a softer approach to repatriating most of the women and the estimated 1,000 children of militants from the European Union who fought in Syria. France has placed most of the 66 minors who have returned so far in foster or adoptive homes. Some have joined relatives. A few older ones, who were combatants, have been incarcerated.
Thousands stuck in camps
Analysts estimate that as many as 5,000 family members of foreign terrorist recruits are now marooned in camps and orphanages in Iraq and Syria. Russia and Georgia are in the forefront of countries helping family members to return, said Liesbeth van der Heide, co-author of “Children of the Caliphate,” a study published last summer by the International Center for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague.
As Sabsabi acknowledged, many, if not most, of the returning children were exposed to unspeakable acts of macabre violence, including roles in execution videos. Many children were desensitized to violence through ceaseless indoctrination, paramilitary training and participation in various other crimes.
When ISIS left, Hadizha, 8, was found like flotsam in a Mosul street. Her grandmother identified her from a photograph posted by an aid group. She was lying in a gutter, her arm and chin bandaged from burns.
What became of her mother, two brothers and a sister is unclear, said the grandmother, Zura, identified only by her first name to protect the child’s privacy. She cares for Hadizha in a small village in Chechnya.
“I gently asked her, ‘What happened?’ but she doesn’t want to say anything,” Zura said. “I want to hope they are alive, to latch onto something. But she is certain. She says they were shot, but that she waved her hands and said in Arabic, ‘Don’t shoot,’ and saved herself in that way.”
While clearly troubled, Hadizha hardly seems to pose any risks. She spends her days curled up on a couch, her eyes distant and angry, watching cartoons on a big-screen TV. “She doesn’t need anything else,” her grandmother said. “She is silent.”
Others have fared better. Adlan, 9, left for Syria with his mother and father and two siblings but returned alone, delivered by Russians working with the repatriation program.
With ISIS, he said, he attended school, rode bikes and played tag with other Russian-speaking children. During the battle for Mosul, something exploded in his house, he said. He survived but the rest of the family was killed. “He said he saw his mother and brother and sisters, and they were sleeping,” said his Chechen grandfather, Eli, identified only by his first name to protect the child’s privacy.
Asked by a child psychologist to draw a picture with crayons, Adlan drew a house and flowers, deemed to be a good sign. “I think it will pass. He is still young and has a child’s memory,” Eli said.
Women from Muslim areas of Russia sometimes traveled to Syria or Iraq with their husbands, and sometimes in search of a husband, said Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, director of the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Center, adding that they present a different set of resettlement issues.
“Women were not in the battlefield, but that does not mean that they were not radicalized, that they were not supporters of this terrorist organization and its very ugly ideology,” Sokiryanskaya said. “There were many very radical women joining.”
Hava Beitermurzayeva, now 22, slipped away in 2015 from her parents’ home in the village of Gekhi in Chechnya to marry an ISIS soldier she had met online, and she wound up living in Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria.
She said in an interview that she spent most of her time cloistered at home with a new son. ISIS fighters, she added, enforced religious rules and staged public executions, by beheading or stoning, for crimes such as adultery. “The passersby could stop and watch,” Beitermurzayeva said.
Back at home now, she seems remarkably untroubled by her experiences and still enthusiastic about the caliphate, though, as she says, it was not God’s will to work out this time. “Everything that happened to me was determined by God,” she said. “If I were to regret it, I would be unhappy with the fate that God gave me.”