Thousands of foreign ‘IS’ supporters are held in Kurdish camps in Syria. Most European countries refuse to repatriate them, but Kosovo is bringing its citizens home. DW met with one female returnee under house arrest.
Mensur Hoti chain smokes. In a cafe in the Kosovar capital, Pristina, the country’s director of public security reveals the secret operation that took place in the early morning hours of April 20. Hoti was responsible then when a chartered plane landed in Pristina under cover of darkness. On board: 110 Kosovar citizens — returnees from the so-called Islamic State (IS), who had last lived as prisoners in Kurdish camps in northern Syria. Not even the relatives of the returnees knew anything.
Return from Syria at night
Coordinating the complex logistics of the repatriation left him sleepless for days, Hoti recalls, taking a sip from his coffee cup. His country has no official relations with the Kurdish contingent of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which controls a large area in northern Syria. US forces, which are allied with the Kurdish-led military coalition and have stationed troops in the area, made Kosovo’s repatriation of the former IS adherents possible.
The Pristina airport was shut down to the public when the 32 women, 74 children and four men were brought back to Kosovo in April and transported on dimmed buses shortly thereafter. Men were sent to the high-security prison Podujeve; women and children for medical and psychological examination in the Vranidol arrival center.
“We should have in mind that in the last months they suffered a lot. They were in the camps with a lot of problems: No food, no hygiene, and other issues,” Hoti reports. But the hardest part of working with the IS returnees, he says, is still ahead for Europe’s youngest state: “The ideology part — it will be a challenging process to deal with all of them.”
The caliphate of the mind
This becomes clear at the meeting with Vlora. Like the other Kosovo returnees, she has been back home for almost half a year. Vlora is an assumed name — she cannot reveal her real one. Like all other returnees, she is under surveillance and remains under house arrest on her parents’ farm in a small Kosovar farming village. She sits in the shade of an oak tree as roosters crow, a cat roams around, and sunflowers sway in the wind. The scene looks idyllic. But the broken windows of her parents’ house bear witness to poverty.
The other women in the family wear airy, colorful skirts. But not Vlora. All you can see of her is what is visible under a narrow slit for her eyes. The rest of the slight 22-year-old disappears under a black veil that covers her from head to toe. During the conversation, she constantly rubs her hands.
For five years Vlora lived in the terrorist “caliphate.” She does not want to take off her full veil, the niqab, even at home. Religion still plays a big role in her life, she says, as her two-year-old child trudges around the garden with too-big shoes. The family asks DW to keep the child’s sex secret to avoid the public drawing conclusions.