After Turkey attacks Syria, detained IS women await 'deliverance'

Delil Souleiman
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A French woman held at Al-Hol camp holds a child by the hand

A French woman held at Al-Hol camp holds a child by the hand (AFP Photo/Delil SOULEIMAN)

Al-Hol Camp (Syria) (AFP) - In a dusty camp in northeastern Syria, Umm Osama says she hopes a deadly Turkish offensive against her Kurdish jailers will allow Islamic State group supporters like her to escape.

"If the Turkish army attacks the camp, we will leave," said the 25-year-old Syrian woman inside the camp of Al-Hol.

"Now the Kurds are weak, we hope for the caliphate to be proclaimed again," she said, before the announcement late Thursday of a suspension of the offensive.

Umm Osama is one of thousands of alleged IS family members held in camps by Syria's Kurds, after they expelled the extremist group from its last patch of territory in March.

After years of leading the US-backed battle against the jihadists, the Kurds also hold thousands of suspected IS male fighters in separate jails.

But a Turkish cross-border attack against Kurdish-led forces since last week has sparked international fears that their guards would be called up to the front, allowing for a mass jihadist breakout.

More than 70,000 people, mostly women and children, live in Al-Hol. Among them are thousands suspected of supporting IS, from Syria, Iraq and foreign countries including Belgium and France.

Inside the encampment, Kurdish security forces patrol between the tents, a gun slung over their shoulder, after an increase in escape attempts in recent days.

Laundry hangs on clothing lines strung up between the canvas dwellings, while barefoot children play in the dirt.

- 'Brothers will save us' -

Hanan Hassan, a 35-year-old woman from the Iraqi city of Mosul, said she hopes to leave soon.

"We've been told our brothers will come to save us soon and we will go back to an Islamic caliphate," she said, appearing to refer to fellow jihadists.

"We're waiting for deliverance," she said, adding she would head to Turkey as soon as she was free.

In a recording released last month, elusive IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi urged followers to free detained jihadists.

"We trust in the decisions of our caliph," Hassan said, referring to Baghdadi.

In a special fenced-off section of the camp for foreigners, security is tight, with cameras surveying the movements of residents from its edges.

A woman pushed a stroller past guards manning its entrance and rushed inside away from journalists, two children in tow.

Many inside refused to talk to the AFP team, with one French woman explaining she and others had received instructions from IS on their mobile phones via Telegram not to speak to the media.

Another woman, entirely engulfed in black cloth, held up a gloved hand in front of her face.

"I don't want to talk," she said in classical Arabic, then accented English.

A woman who claimed she was from Belgium said the group's female religious police did not want her to talk.

"But the situation in the camp is dire," she added.

"We're waiting for a chance to leave."

IS declared a "caliphate" across large swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014, before Kurdish-led fighters declared their territorial defeat this spring.

But US President Donald Trump this month ordered the withdrawal of US troops who had been helping the Kurds fight remaining IS sleeper cells, leaving them exposed to a Turkish attack.

- 'Out of control'? -

Since the start of Turkey's assault on October 9, the Kurds say hundreds of women and children have escaped from another camp in a town called Ain Issa near the border.

Several other reports have emerged of IS-linked men escaping jails.

Layla Razkar, a security official at Al-Hol camp, said attacks on security guards and escape attempts had increased since last week.

"Since Baghdadi's call for women to be freed from the camps and since the Turkish attack, their hopes are up they'll get out," she told AFP inside her office.

She said protests had increased over the past week since aid organisations withdrew, and detained women were receiving orders from outside to carry out attacks.

"The number of security guards inside the camp has decreased since the Turkish offensive," Razkar said.

"We're scared the situation inside the camp will get out of control."

But among the detainees, a French mother of four who gave her name as Umm Sufyan claimed she would rather stay in the camp.

If Al-Hol was bombarded, "I'd prefer to take my children somewhere safe," said the 32-year-old from Toulouse.

But she said she would have no idea where to go.

"I can't rely on France. It won't take us back," she said.

She said she feared ending up in jail and having her children taken away from her.

"I haven't been mistreated here. I will stay," she said.