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Conditions Deteriorate At Syrian Camp Where ISIS Families Are Held

NOEL KING, HOST:

The desperate voices of people in a camp in Syria are distinctly Western voices. Their accents are Australian, Canadian and British. Thousands of foreign family members, the wives and kids of ISIS fighters, are being held in these huge camps in Syria. They're being kept alongside tens of thousands of local detainees. The so-called Islamic State was defeated early this year, and these families have no idea what's going to happen to them.

NPR's Jane Arraf went to meet them, and she found a camp where conditions are deteriorating.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: It's a cold, rainy winter day, and there are children here digging trenches. They and their mothers are trying to keep puddles of water away from their tents. Some of the women have been here for more than two years. Normally in a camp for displaced families, the children would be playing, begging visitors to take their pictures. Most of these children are silent, suspicious of strangers, terrified of photos. The most forlorn stand almost motionless with lifeless eyes. They look out over a horizon with nothing but rows of white tents pitched on a muddy field.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: This is the foreigners section of al-Hol camp. It's home to 11,000 women and children from more than 30 countries - women who came joyfully, believing they were fulfilling the will of God; women forced or tricked by their husbands into coming. And in a part of the camp known as Australia Street, outside a tent where the roof is sagging from the rain, there's a group of women who want me to know they don't belong here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, my God. No, look at my tent. Oh, my God, man. There's water in my tent, dude. Yeah, this is why we should go to our countries. The kids get sick like this, you know? And they get very bad bronchitis from all the cold that hits the tent, the water. It's very bad.

ARRAF: The Australian woman doesn't want to give her name, but they invite me in. A 3-year-old girl named Fatima (ph) leads the way.

FATIMA: Me - me Fatima.

ARRAF: Hi, Fatima.

FATIMA: Fatima.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Fatima, you want to lead this lady inside? You want to let her stay in the rain?

FATIMA: No.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Say come inside. Fatima, say come in.

ARRAF: We're going through, like, this interconnected tunnel of tents. And there's no light in here. It's very dim. It's almost like an apartment building made of plastic.

Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hi.

ARRAF: How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm OK.

ARRAF: Inside, it's like no tent I've seen. There's a lacy cream-colored blanket draped from the ceiling. There are soft cushions and a group of small children trying on costume jewelry from a plastic jewelry box.

ADAM: Me name Adam (ph).

ARRAF: Adam (ph) was born in the ISIS caliphate. His mother says he's a British citizen. He just turned 3. As rain pounds the tent, his mother, Wajda (ph), says she was born and raised in the United Kingdom. She was badly wounded in an airstrike in Syria. She sits in the corner next to a metal brace for her leg. Neurological damage leaves her struggling to talk.

WAJDA: Because of my injury, I can't speak very well. My brain - I forget people's names. My legs can't walk straight. At night, it's so scary. Wind - so scary - could fall down on me and my son.

ARRAF: She thinks her husband died in the attack she was wounded in.

WAJDA: I really want to go back to my mom and my dad and my four brothers. I love them a lot. I wish I could spend time with them.

ARRAF: Across from her, there's a Canadian woman who doesn't want to give her name. She's hoping Canada will bring her back with her children.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I didn't really know what I was getting myself into. So it was - I came because of my husband, and I ended up being stuck. You know? We're not a threat at all. We're just moms, and we're trying to take care of our kids.

ARRAF: But you were living in the Islamic State. So they do see you as a threat. Right?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: But not everybody is the same. Everybody's story is different. So it should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. I am not a threat.

ARRAF: There's a South African woman in her early 50s - Khadija Laher (ph). She says she traveled to Syria to try to find her brother and his children.

KHADIJA LAHER: My brother left with his family. I came after them, not realizing that once you're in, you cannot get out.

ARRAF: Inside, the women are dressed in regular clothes, the Australian woman in a low-cut purple top. But outside, they all wear long cloaks and cover their faces. They say if they don't, there are women in the camp who will label them infidels. Some women have been killed. One was cut into pieces.

We walk through the camp, past barking dogs we're told bite.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

ARRAF: Everyone here is trying to keep their tents from collapsing.

This is not a camp that's made for bad weather. The tents here really flimsy. Some of them are canvas, but most of them are plastic covered with sheets that have the U.N. Refugee Agency logo on them. And you can see some of them starting to cave in from the water pooled on the top.

Conditions are getting worse and more dangerous. There's a shortage of tents. And if you have money, it's easy to get smuggled out of here to Turkey. There's only a metal fence and a fraction of the number of guards they used to have. Sometimes the camp staff have been attacked.

We go to the part of the camp with the most fervent ISIS followers. There, the women walk away from us, but a French woman passing through does stop. She doesn't want to give her name. She says her infant daughter starved to death under ISIS. But she says she'd rather stay here with her 3-year-old son than go back to France.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: They say that - just go to jail, and they will take my son because they don't like Islams (ph). They hate us. They don't like the way I dress. Yeah, we don't have an option anyway. We're just dying here. Are we dying here with our kids, or are we dying alone in jail? I'd rather stay here with my son, even if it's in the water.

ARRAF: All of the women who will talk to us say they never fought for ISIS. It's impossible to tell and difficult to imagine what will happen to this generation of young children born in the ISIS caliphate.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, at al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIBRARY TAPES AND HOSHIKO YAMANE'S "SHELTER I") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.