A South African woman who has been held captive by Kurdish authorities in Syria since November 2018 is pleading with the government to facilitate her repatriation.
In December 2014, Khadija’s youngest brother left for Syria with his two small children. She was unwilling to disclose her surname for fear of jeopardising the safety of her family in South Africa.
“This traumatised the family, so I decided to follow him and convince him to return, leaving my teenage sons, business, my home, my beloved country and a very special grandson,” she said in an interview with the Mail & Guardian conducted through an official from Reprieve, a United States charity of investigators, lawyers and campaigners fighting for justice.
Khadija has been trapped in Syria since 2015, when she went there to try to rescue three young family members living under the Islamic State (IS). Her brother died in a bombing in 2017.
She is among an estimated 17 South Africans who have been detained for years in camps in northeast Syria as IS suspects, and their family members, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). These include four women and 13 children, one just two years old.
“I remember thinking my nightmare had ended but it had just begun,” she says.
Khatija spent the first two years in al-Hol, a refugee camp on the southern outskirts of the town of al-Hawl in northern Syria, close to the Syria-Iraq border, which holds people displaced from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The UN, Reprieve and HRW have documented the appalling conditions at al-Hol.
“They are held in horrific conditions made even more life-threatening by recent Turkish air strikes against the Kurdish-led forces who guard them.
“None of these South Africans has been charged with a crime. The South African government should resume its aborted efforts to bring them back,” HRW said in December.
It said hundreds of detainees had died in al-Hol and Roj, the two camps in north-east Syria holding thousands of foreign women and children for alleged IS links.
In May, Khadija told HRW her aim was to bring home her two nieces and a nephew, the children of a brother who had joined IS. But when she arrived in Syria, her brother refused to let the children go.
“The next thing I knew, I was out on the street in Syria, with no Arabic,” Khadija said.
She survived by moving in with the widows of IS fighters, cleaning and caring for their children.
When she finally managed to flee the IS in 2018, she was picked up in north-east Syria by the Syrian Democratic Forces. She was held first in a prison, then in al-Hol and finally at Roj.
Khatija says the two years she spent at al-Hol camp were “nothing but horror”.
“During the first month, I watched a tent burn with a baby inside who died and witnessed mothers running with dying babies. Our friends’ son, who was eight years old, was shot dead by a soldier.”
When Khatija, her family and all the other South African refugees were moved to Roj in October 2019, they were told it was a rehabilitation camp, she says.
“We were excited about having a TV and electricity but we still live in a tent with a dangerous gas stove. We are now practically living on the oil field, which is aggravating my asthma, and my nieces also developed asthma due to the dust storms in al-Hol.”
Khatija says she has been separated from her family during her detention at Roj.
“While here, I have got Covid three times and it is very scary as there is no proper medical assistance.”
For close to two years, she has not been able to talk to her family in South Africa.
“There is no proper contact with family as phones are illegal. I haven’t spoken to my sons for almost two years. When you speak to your family, it makes it worse. When you don’t speak with them, it also makes it worse. It is depressing when [people from] other countries leave and I’m still here.”
Khatija says she has multiple sclerosis and Graves’ disease, an immune system disorder. She is visually impaired and walks with a crutch. While in the camp, as well as asthma, she developed ulcers, hypertension, high blood pressure and cholesterol.
“It’s extremely difficult here for disabled people or sick people. We have a fear that the tent is going to fall on us. When the wind blows, the whole thing moves. I had it before — it fell on me. Luckily, that side of the tent fell down and this side stayed up. You have to go up and fix the tent.
“The season is changing, so there will be scorpions, spiders and snakes. If you get bitten, to get to the hospital in time, for a sick or disabled person, is extremely hard.
“It’s very difficult to do anything, so you just stay in the tent. I wish I had a bed, though. My sister-in-law and her daughter are also sick.
“Please, we are only women and children. We are sickly, please bring us home,” she pleads.
“The saddest moment for me was watching the faces of the children when they were told that we are not going home. It was cancelled. They were astounded as they had seen others walk from their tents and not come back and we were returning. The children have stopped asking when we are going home.”
The South African women and children are among an estimated 11 000 foreigners detained in the al-Hol and Roj camps, the majority of which are children.
In 2021, South Africa tried to repatriate its citizens but the deal collapsed at the last minute.
“We were packed and ready to go,” another South African woman in Roj said. “But we waited and waited and no one came for us.”
Reprieve believes there are about four South African women and 14 children unlawfully detained in camps in north-east Syria.
“None have been charged with a crime. Their detention is widely accepted to be unlawful,” the organisation said.
According to Reprieve, the South African government sent a team to Syria in November 2021 to repatriate the detainees, but failed to do so, reportedly as the result of a diplomatic error.
“They remain imprisoned without trial in life-threatening conditions more than a year later. The UN has found conditions to constitute inhuman or degrading treatment and conditions have got so bad that they recently found that they may violate the right to life.”
Khatija’s message to the South African government is clear: “Why are we still here when you have been promising to get us back since 2020?
“I’m sick and I’m old. I constantly have this fear that I may not get to go back [home]. I know it’s not a rational idea but, you know, up to that point, I had hope.
“After that, the hope is gone and then you feel like you aren’t going to make it out of here. I can’t see that positivity anymore. And my fear is, if I die here, they are going to put me in a grave that’s … unmarked.
“I never thought about things like this until that happened. I just thought, in your head, your government comes, and you go home.
“My government came, and I didn’t go home. So your thinking changes,” she says.
Khatija says other countries have sent money to organisations which bought blankets for the women and clothing for the children.
“South Africa does nothing here. It’s not even men, we are just four women.”
Reprieve’s head of the Syria and Iraq detention project, Katherine Cornett, says the organisation has visited Roj many times and has met the South African women and children.
Cornett says they were being “imprisoned in conditions that are widely acknowledged to be catastrophic”, without adequate food, water or medical care. They live in tents that are freezing in winter and dangerously hot in summer.
“A child reportedly dies roughly every three days in these camps, including from preventable illnesses and tent fires,” she says.
“We are aware of South African citizens in detention who are gravely ill and we are deeply concerned about their well-being if they are not repatriated soon.”At the time of writing, the department of international relations and cooperation had not responded to the M&G’s questions.