Magda left for the self-proclaimed caliphate six years ago. To this day she remains in Syria, but is now in a camp filled with the families of members of the Islamic State. She wants to return home to Poland. These Syrian camps have been inhabited for years by women who cannot return home. Paweł Pieniążek and Alyona Savchuk tell the story of Magda exclusively for Zaborona.
I hate the Islamic State because they lied to me, but I blame myself for being in this situation. My mother reported my case to various Polish authorities, wrote statements, but they did nothing. At first they said they were looking into the situation, but then they stopped answering. In the meantime, I am still here. I know it was my choice, but I don’t want to die here. I want to go home.
Magda, originally from Warsaw, was a teenager when she traveled to the Syrian territory controlled by the Islamic State. She settled in the self-proclaimed Caliphate shortly after its proclamation and remained there until almost the last day of its existence. ISIS was defeated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (Kurdish and Arab militias) with the support of an international coalition led by the United States in late March 2019.
For the past year and a half Magda has lived in the al-Hawl refugee camp in eastern Syria. Until recently, the camp was home to 65,000 people, more than two-thirds of whom were children. 25,000 were Syrians (local authorities are gradually releasing them), 30,000 were Iraqis, and 10,000 were citizens of other countries. Most of the residents of the camp are families of members of the Islamic State.
Magda has been in Syria for six years, and her daughter was also born there. You can only communicate with her via messenger, but Magda can’t always write because an official phone is not permitted in the camp. However, it is relatively easy for women to hide it, because they are covered from head to toe.
We are all going crazy, we argue a lot. The children are not being brought up properly and they have no classes. We are exhausted. Living in a prison is very exhausting. You wouldn’t believe it, but I dream of seeing trees, or touching grass.
The Prison Camp
Al-Hawl has existed since 1991, but it became famous in March 2017. From that time its population suddenly increased almost sevenfold. The International Committee of the Red Cross described the situation in the camp as “apocalyptic”. It was disorganized and overcrowded, with very limited access to health care, leading to the spread of disease. The children in the camp had no education and no psychological help, although many residents had experienced traumatic experiences and lived through the worst moments of the war. That is why al-Hawl is often called the bomb that, when it explodes, will feed into other extremist groups around the world.
Al-Hawl is located in the desert. It is very hot during the summer. During the winter – especially at night – there are extremely cold winds which are sometimes accompanied by sandstorms. It is more like a prison than a camp. It is guarded by barbed wire and hundreds of armed guards. Residents cannot leave al-Hawl, and entry for outsiders is on a person-to-person basis. This strictness is also imposed by the residents of the camp, or rather, by some of them.
The camp administration supplies food to the women there, but Magda and one of the Ukrainians there say they did not eat the ready-made meals because they noticed the mice had gotten to them first. They take only uncooked rice, porridge, oil and sugar, which are brought to them every two months, as well as bread, which is delivered daily. Milk, eggs, fruits, vegetables and sweets are available to those who have money. Where to get them in the camp? Some of the women work in shops and restaurants, or help others with childcare and cleaning. Above all, however, support is provided by families who send money to the camp through Hawala, an informal money transfer system popular in parts of Asia and Africa.
The camp is divided into two groups: followers of the Islamic State who are ready to die for it, and those women who hate it. I belong to the latter. We do not wait for our so-called brothers to come to liberate us and re-create the state.
A large number of women living in the camp are waiting for the return of the Caliphate. They believe in the Islamic State and support its actions. The camp guards find themselves under attack; last year a photo was published of one of the armed assailants with a knife stabbed to the handle in his back. There were also killings, and tents set on fire. Proponents of the caliphate are trying to apply the same rules in the camp as in Islamic-controlled areas – through violence and fear.
The Kurdish administration, which runs northeastern Syria, acknowledges that al-Hawl is a huge burden for it – mainly for financial reasons, but also because it does not guarantee the safety of its residents. Especially since many foreign countries whose citizens are in the camp are in no hurry to take them home or simply refuse to do so. This puts the Kurdish administration in a difficult position and leaves the problem unresolved.
You should know that if you don’t hear anything from me, it means that the Kurds took me to another camp, Roj. We call it a black hole. There are no conditions for conversation. We are prisoners, so they do with us what they want.
In the morning I receive a message from one of the Ukrainian women. During the night, the camp guards took away two of her fellow citizens with children. The woman was frightened and sought help everywhere, sending messages via the Internet. These people tend to end up in the much smaller Roj camp in northeastern Syria, about 130 km from al-Hawl.
Since August, Europeans linked to the Islamic State have been gradually deported to Roj. In this way, the authorities want to solve the problem of overpopulation in al-Hawl, as well as security issues.
The path to Islam
I lived in an orphanage for five years. I studied at a technical college, but there was little practice there, so I went to a vocational school to become a hairdresser. I had an internship in the salon. I liked it. I have manual skills, maybe I inherited them from my mother.
Magda grew up in poverty, so she says she was not surprised to see it in Syria. She grew up in a family of alcoholics in one of the districts of Warsaw. Her father died of a ruptured liver when she was 14. After that, she lived in an orphanage for five years. There were also Muslim children in the orphanage who sparked Magda’s interest in Islam, although she had previously been an unbeliever. She claims that it changed her life, and she would not exchange her faith for anything in the world.
Two years before leaving for Syria, Magda met her boyfriend. He would come to the orphanage to visit with the foreigners and Muslims who lived there. He was a native of one of the countries of the former Soviet Union, but also spoke Polish. He studied mechanics and Thai boxing. Magda recalls that he showed her “another world”. She was terribly in love with him.
Magda’s boyfriend was also an unbeliever when they met, until she gave him the Qur’an to read. From then on, he started praying, going to the mosque and saying that he would not go to her because it was a sin.
He did not tell anyone that he wanted to go to Syria. He told me that he was going to Germany, buying a car there, bringing it to Poland and selling it at a profit. I believed him. I laughed, thought he was joking, so I said, ‘Go on then. As you wish!’ He replied that he was not joking, and then did not answer for two days.
One day he received a call from an acquaintance who was in Syria. He said that it was good there and that Muslims lived there according to the Qur’an and Islam. Magda’s boyfriend decided to go to Syria. Magda was afraid she would never see him again. She had never left Poland before in her life, and Syria seemed out of reach to her. She had no money to get there, but she was determined – so she sold everything she owned and went.
Her boyfriend left in May 2014, when the Islamic State already controlled al-Raqqa in northern Syria and quickly seized even more territory. The self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of a caliphate. Magda arrived in Syria in September when the Islamic State was launching an offensive on the Kurdish city of Kobani in northern Syria. At that time, volunteers from all over the world were coming to the country – around 40,000 people. They came from different parts of the world, had different education and social backgrounds.
Magda claims that she did not know that she was going to the Islamic State. It wasn’t until she was there that she understood the reality of her situation.
I did not want to be a member of a terrorist group. Neither I nor my husband ever killed anyone. I didn’t even know there was a war going on in Syria. I didn’t think too much about what kind of country it was. I thought I would be in a place like Egypt or the Caucasus, where I would live in peace in the hijab. I would have followed him to the end of the world, perhaps even if I had known about the air strikes.
She flew unhindered to Turkey and reached the Syrian border. There she was transported across the border and placed in a center for unmarried women. Her boyfriend took her as his bride.
Magda claims that her husband was not a fighter, and they just lived together. On the outskirts of al-Raqqa, she lived for almost three years in a high-rise building. Magda liked the rules. According to her, no one insulted her, there was no alcohol, no cigarettes, no drugs, no naked women. She had to spend time taking care of the house, preparing food for her husband and guests, as well as visiting friends, the park, restaurants. At first, she says, it was a lot of fun.
More than once the bombs fell close. Windows, doors and everything else went flying. There were times when I cried and panicked, and other times when I did not feel fear. Sometimes we went down into the basement and it felt like that was it. I fear basements more than death. It’s better when a rocket falls. You don’t hear it, it just explodes and you die right away, rather than being suffocated and crushed to death underneath four floors, with broken arms and legs…
The end of the Islamic State
After the victorious battle of Kobani, Kurdish and Arab militias gradually tightened the ring around al-Raqqa. With the support of aircraft, they moved forward. In June 2017, they reached the city. The Islamic State defended itself until October, but was unable to cope with the destructive power of the bombs dropped from the planes. After losing Mosul that year, it suffered another painful defeat. The caliphate was coming to an end.
The situation in al-Raqqa was becoming increasingly dangerous for the rest of the civilians, and the caliphate’s fighters were preparing to defend themselves. Magda and her husband had to leave the city before the siege. She argues that once it became clear that this was inevitable, there was no point in staying, for it was certain death if they did.
They left for al-Shahil in the province of Deir ez-Zur in eastern Syria, which is 160 km from al-Raqqa. It was in Deir ez-Zur that there were still remnants of the caliphate. There were few houses there, so Magda rarely went outside. She prayed for peace and was actually able to rest for four months. Then the air raids resumed as Syrian democratic forces attacked Deir ez-Zur from the north, and government troops from the west.
He died in my arms. I gave him first aid. I told him to testify that Allah is the only God. He did so and died. I’m just glad I gave birth to and raised his daughter.
Magda and her husband went to al-Mayadin, which was gradually being approached by government troops. There, in the city, her husband was wounded during an air strike and later died. Magda was left with nothing, a lonely woman with a one-year-old daughter in a collapsing caliphate. She tried to settle somewhere until she finally found herself in the center for the widows of the Islamic State. She received enough money from them, about $800, so she could live a normal life. But the caliphate was waning, and the militants and their families were gradually relocated to al-Baghuz Faukani in eastern Syria. It was difficult to escape from the caliphate. If a fugitive is caught, it can even lead to death. So Magda could only remain in this ever-shrinking territory.
In Baguz, those who had the strength dug a shelter. I dug something that reached my back, so it was calmer. Children cried and starved to death, snipers fired daily, and adults and children fell. The famine was worse than the gunshots. There was nothing left, so we ate grass and hay with beetles.
The battle for al-Baghuz Fawkani was perhaps one of the most remarkable battles of the Syrian war. Although it is a small town and the Syrian Democratic Forces had the support of large powers, the confrontation lasted a month and a half. There were more than 60,000 people in this small area. Near the village stood rows of houses that seemed to be made of everything at hand. To the very end, the Islamic State also demonstrated its characteristic organization. According to the Associated Press, they continued to operate even when there was no food or money.
As the battle drew to a close, the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Islamic State agreed on safe passage for women and children. Magda took the opportunity. For four days she traveled to al-Hawl, where she remains to this day.
I do not regret that I went to Syria. I would be more sorry if I had stayed in Poland and did not go to my husband, because thanks to him I have a wonderful daughter. Now I am afraid for her future. I would like it to be the best possible one, but in harmony with Islam.
Magda knows that returning to Poland can be fraught with trouble – interrogations and even imprisonment. However, she is not afraid of this, because she can leave her daughter with her mother-in-law or her mother, who stopped drinking seven years ago. Magda doesn’t think she’s ever been a threat to anyone nor that this should change.
You can’t just leave camp. There are two ways: official and corrupt. According to the first, it is the state that stands up for its citizens. Some of them did so and went home. Those who cannot count on the support of their country pay the right people to illegally escape from the camp and then from Syria. This usually requires a lot of money. The cost of releasing one woman with three children ranges from 10 to 15 thousand dollars. Where to get the money for it? From the community that donated them, or, according to a Sunday Times investigation, through organized fundraising on the Internet, as Islamic State supporters in various European countries have done. Some women loyal to the caliphate can also count on the help of the Islamic State. Magda has nowhere to take the money and sees less and less chances for herself to return.
What would she like to do if she leaves Syria? The prospect of it is so far away that she does not even think about it. She is convinced that it will be difficult for her to find herself after spending years in Syria. If she can, she will go to her uncle, who lives in one of the countries of the European Union.
Magda’s identity has been changed for her safety.