Bringing the Children of Tajik IS Fighters Home

Oisha was only 14 when her father uprooted the whole family from their home in Tajikistan and took them to Iraq so that he could join Islamic State (IS).

The teenage girl was then married off to another IS fighter.

After the city of Mosul was recaptured last year, Oisha and her two younger brothers and sister were found by Iraqi officials. Their parents fate, and that of Oisha’s husband, remains unknown.

In April, Oisha’s three siblings were brought back to Tajikistan, but Oisha – by then heavily pregnant - could not fly. After giving birth in late June, a Baghdad court in granted permission for Oisha and her baby to leave Iraq and return to Dushanbe.

Gulbahor Aslanova, Oisha’s aunt, said that Oisha and her baby were settling back into life in Tajikistan and receiving support from government agencies.

 “They live in Dushanbe with me; their health and behaviour are good, like everyone else’s. All the children’s documents are ready and [her siblings] plan to go to school already in September,” Aslamova[A1]  said.

A dozen or so Tajik children whose parents were killed or detained fighting with IS in Iraq and Syria have been brought home, but the fate of many others remains unclear.

According to the Tajik ministry of internal affairs, fighters heading to the middle east took around 400 women and children with them.

It is believed that about 30 Tajik women are in prison in Iraq. Some have already been convicted of being married to an IS fighter, while others are still awaiting trial. Most are young women with children.

Claudia Azzolini, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) mission in Tajikistan, said that the main obstacle preventing the return of these children is determining their true identity.

“[The mothers] are afraid to state their real names,” she explained. “We try to find their relatives, we try to talk them. Also, in most cases, children were born not in their respective country, but in other states, and either cannot speak their mother tongue or speak it very poorly. Their nationality cannot be determined by their appearance.”

Since Tajikistan has no diplomatic missions to either Iraq or Syria, the process of repatriating children is being carried out by the Tajik embassy in Kuwait.

Rajabmoh Habibullozoda, the head of the Tajik office for children’s rights, confirmed that the Iraqi authorities had begun criminal proceedings against a number of detained wives of Tajik IS militants.

Habibullozoda said that, as far as she knew, Iraqi law did not prevent the return of Tajik children to their homeland, but that this was dependant on confirming their nationality.

“As this is not an easy task, it will, of course, take some time,” she continued. “Some of their children were born there and, unfortunately, they do not have any documents proving their identity. The embassy of Tajikistan in Kuwait is working to establish the identity of the children, prepare documents and return them to their homeland.”

Azzolini said that in Iraq, very young children were kept with their mothers in prison.

“Children over the age of three are not allowed to stay with their mothers in prison,” she continued. “According to Iraqi law, the decision on returning children to Tajikistan is taken by a court.... with the consent of the convicted mother. If the child is over three and the mother refuses to grant permission to arrange the child’s return to Tajikistan, the competent authority in Iraq places the child in a children's home. Of course, the search for the child’s relatives continues in Tajikistan, who are asked if it’s possible for them to host the child. If the relatives are not found, the child is taken to a foster home in Tajikistan,” Azzolini concluded.

Children’s rights experts stress the importance of working closely with children returning from conflict zones to help them reintegrate into normal life.

Tajik psychologist Mahmudshosh Kabirov said that professional care was vital in such cases.

“Otherwise, it will be difficult for children to adapt back into society, and they will either suffer from mental problems or become hostile to [their fellow] Tajiks,” Kabirov said.

Habibullozoda said that her department followed up with all returnees to ensure that they were supported. She acknowledged that they often found themselves living in very difficult circumstances.

 “It’s necessary to raise the issue of the protection of their rights and freedoms and provide them with access to all the rights other children have access to,” she said.

Most of the returning children were taken in by family members, Habibullozoda continued.

 "Now they live in a quiet environment.  We are in constant contact with the local authorities where the children live. Together with them, we are trying to ensure that these children enjoy all the rights that every child in Tajikistan should have…they are still small, and may not understand [the effects of war], but so it will not affect their health in the future, we recruit experienced psychologists to work with them.”

ICRC psychologist Bhava Paudwal, who has been working with the child returnees in Tajikistan, said that tact and sensitivity were key.

He recalled the case of one 11-year-old girl, Maryam, who told him that she did not like when people around her asked a lot of questions.

"Only psychologists have the competence to question these children,” Paudwal said. “They are not very pleasant questions like ‘what did you see there’ or ‘what was happening there’. Now we have to support them to be ordinary children and keep them away from anything that can hurt them.”