Every day, Belant Zulgayeva gets a knot in her throat watching her grandchildren play their violent games, what she calls their “little war.” They talk very little, but they run around, hide and, occasionally, slam one another to the ground with a disturbing ferocity.
Zulgayeva is on the front line of a different kind of struggle: an effort by the Russian government to bring home and care for Russian children like her three grandchildren, who were raised by Islamist militants in the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
As the U.S.-led coalition and Syrian government forces captured cities that had been held by the Islamic State, they found among the ruins a grim human wreckage of the organization’s once successful recruitment drive: hundreds and perhaps thousands of children born to or brought with the men and women who had flocked to Syria in support of the Islamic State.
While Russia, which has so far returned 71 children and 26 women since August, may seem surprisingly lenient in its policy, its actions reflect a hardheaded security calculus: better to bring children back to their grandparents now than have them grow up in camps and possibly return as radicalized adults.
“What should we do, leave them there so somebody will recruit them?” said Ziyad Sabsabi, the Russian senator who runs the government-backed program. “Yes, these children saw terrible things, but when we put them in a different environment, with their grandparents, they change quickly.”
European governments have shown little sympathy toward adult males who volunteered to join the militant group. Rory Stewart, the British international development minister, for example, told the BBC that, “the only way of dealing with them will be, in almost every case, to kill them.”
But most European countries, including Britain, have taken a softer approach to repatriating most of the women and the estimated 1,000 children of militants from the European Union who fought in Syria. France has placed most of the 66 minors who have returned so far from the Islamic State in foster or adoptive homes. Some have joined relatives. A few older ones, who were combatants, have been incarcerated.
Analysts estimate that as many as 5,000 family members of foreign terrorist recruits are now marooned in camps and orphanages in Iraq and Syria. Russia and Georgia are in the forefront of countries helping family members to return, said Liesbeth van der Heide, co-author of “Children of the Caliphate,” a study published in summer by the International Center for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague.
As Sabsabi acknowledged, many, if not most, of the returning children were exposed to unspeakable acts of macabre violence, including roles in execution videos. Many children were desensitized to violence through ceaseless indoctrination, paramilitary training and participation in various other crimes.
Germany’s domestic intelligence chief, Hans-Georg Maassen, told Reuters the children of the Islamic State were “brainwashed,” and that “we have to consider that these children could be living time bombs.”
That is not an easy view to take of Bilal, 4, a little Russian boy with a mop of sandy blond hair and spindly arms who during the summer became the first child returned to Russia from Islamic-State controlled territory.
He makes car noises and pushes a toy around the kitchen table in his grandmother’s apartment in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. He says little about his time in Iraq, says his grandmother, Rosa Murtazayeva, but it is obvious he remains touchingly attached to his father, Hasan.
With U.S.-backed forces closing in, father and son survived like hunted animals in basements in Mosul, which the Islamic State controlled for three years. Bilal recalls little but the boiled potatoes they survived on. “I was with papa,” Bilal said. “There were no other boys.”
After they were captured, his father vanished into Iraqi prisons. Emaciated and filthy when he was found, Bilal is now outwardly fine. Murtazayeva said he is sociable at kindergarten and has many friends.
That is not always the case. Even months after returning, some children remain grimly silent, despite various therapies and pampering from their grandparents.
When the Islamic State tide went out, Hadizha, 8, was found like flotsam in a Mosul street. Her grandmother identified her from a photograph posted by an aid group. She was lying in a gutter, her arm and chin bandaged from burns.
What became of her mother, two brothers and a sister is unclear, said the grandmother, Zura, identified only by her first name to protect the child’s privacy. She cares for Hadizha in a small village in Chechnya.
“I gently asked her, ‘What happened?’ but she doesn’t want to say anything,” Zura said. “I want to hope they are alive, to latch onto something. But she is certain. She says they were shot, but that she waved her hands and said in Arabic, ‘Don’t shoot,’ and saved herself in that way.”
While clearly troubled, Hadizha hardly seems to pose any risks. She spends her days curled up on a couch, her eyes distant and angry, watching cartoons on a big-screen television. “She doesn’t need anything else,” her grandmother said. “She is silent.”
Others have fared better. Adlan, 9, left for Syria with his mother and father and two siblings but returned alone, delivered by Russians working with the repatriation program.
In the Islamic State, he said, he attended school, rode bikes and played tag with other Russian-speaking children. During the battle for Mosul, something exploded in his house, he said. He survived but the rest of the family was killed. “He said he saw his mother and brother and sisters, and they were sleeping,” said his Chechen grandfather, Eli, identified only by his first name to protect the child’s privacy.
Asked by a child psychologist to draw a picture with crayons, Adlan drew a house and flowers, deemed to be a good sign. “I think it will pass. He is still young and has a child’s memory,” Eli said.
Women from Muslim areas of Russia sometimes traveled to Syria or Iraq with their husbands, and sometimes in search of a husband, said Ekaterina L. Sokiryanskaya, director of the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Center, adding that they present a different set of resettlement issues.
“Women were not in the battlefield, but that does not mean that they were not radicalized, that they were not supporters of this terrorist organization and its very ugly ideology,” Sokiryanskaya said. “There were many very radical women joining.”
Hava Beitermurzayeva, now 22, slipped away in 2015 from her parents’ home in the village of Gekhi in Chechnya to marry an Islamic State soldier she had met online, and she wound up living in Raqqa, the capital of the militant group’s caliphate in Syria.
She said in an interview that she spent most of her time cloistered at home, with a new son. The Islamic State militants, she added, enforced religious rules and staged public executions, by beheading or stoning, for crimes such as adultery.
“The passers-by could stop and watch,” Beitermurzayeva said, though she says she never did herself.
Back at home now, she seems remarkably untroubled by her experiences and still enthusiastic about the caliphate, though, as she says, it was not God’s will to work out this time. “Everything that happened to me was determined by God,” she said. “If I were to regret it, I would be unhappy with the fate that God gave me.”
At first, Hamzat, 6, and his younger brothers, the boys who battle each other in their grandmother’s living room, talked very little when they moved in with her in Dachu-Borzoi, a village in the Caucasus Mountains in Chechnya. They just played their war games. But with time, they mellowed, Zulgayeva said.
They had been living in Tal Afar, Iraq, when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces surrounded the city. Their father died in the fighting. After a bomb flattened a neighboring house, their mother, Fatima, decided to get out with the three boys and their baby sister.
But Hamzat and his brothers, Malik, 4, and Abdullah, 5, became separated from her at a checkpoint. She remains detained in Iraq, while the Russian government returned the boys and their baby sister, Halima, who turned 1 this month.
“It’s a miracle they all made it back alive,” Zulgayeva said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.Every day, Belant Zulgayeva gets a knot in her throat watching her grandchildren play their violent games, what she calls their “little war.” They talk very little, but they run around, hide and, occasionally, slam one another to the ground with a disturbing ferocity. Read Full Story