AMMAN- In partnership with tribal leaders in eastern Syria, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA) has issued “tribal sponsorships” to release 1,122 women and children from al-Hol camp in July 2019.
Al-Hol is a refugee camp close to the Syria-Iraq border in al-Hasaka governorate, which houses tens of thousands of Syrians and foreigners who were living in ISIS-controlled territory prior to the announcement of their final defeat in March 2019, by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led force supported by the US-led “Global Coalition Against Daesh.”
Visitation of al-Hol, as well as residents’ ability to leave, is restricted out of fear that there are ISIS sleeper cells within the camp’s residents.
Tribal sponsorships began to be used following the Arab tribal forum in Ayn Issa, May 2019, which convened Arab tribal leaders with Kurdish officials and military leaders.
Per the ‘Ayn Issa’ agreement, those who want to leave al-Hol and surrounding camps administered by the AA must first obtain a tribal sponsorship, which is a guarantee from a tribal leader in the relevant resettlement area that the released person is not a security risk.
This is not the first time the AA has asked for tribal or personal sponsorships. Last year, it gave internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the city of Raqqa a deadline to find a sponsor from the city, otherwise, it would transfer them to the nearby Ayn Issa refugee camp.
Women and children started to be released from al-Hol in July 2019 in four convoys, according to the Director of AA Office for Displaced people, Shiekhmoos al-Ahmad. “The first convoy left for al-Tabqa city [west of Raqqa] on July 3, and it [carried] 800 women and children,” he told Syria Direct.
“The second convoy left for the countryside of eastern Deir ez-Zour on July 11 and was estimated [to carry] 51 families, made up of 196 women and children. The third convoy left for the city of Manbij on July 23 and was estimated [to carry] 126 women and children.”
“The idea of releasing Syrian women and children [from the camp] is old, however it was [brought up again] on May 3 in a meeting with eastern Syria tribal and societal leaders during the [Arab] forum. The [idea] was based on the request of sheikhs and tribal leaders [who make up] local relations councils in east Syria to release women and children to liberated areas of northeast Syria,” al-Ahmad added.
“There was a strategy [developed] by the forum for tribes and notables of eastern Syria in cooperation with civil authorities to help those women to reintegrate into society,” he said.
“New convoys are coming out of the camp during Eid al-Adha, [carrying] those who have tribal sponsorship,” al-Ahmad added.
According to a representative from the AA, who talked to Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to talk to the media, requests for tribal sponsorships have been filed “through sheikhs and tribal leaders who have knowledge of their tribe. Then, they present lists of names” to the AA.
In the case of the camp residents who do not have a tribal affiliation, they file their requests “through local councils which prepare lists of names after receiving documents that prove the identity of those that submitted the request. They then turn them to the [AA] to verify the documents and later turn the documents over to al-Hol camp administration. A security investigation is done to ensure that the individual is not involved in criminal activities before returning them to liberated areas [controlled by SDF].”
To release a camp resident, according to a tribal sheikh who spoke to Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity, the SDF requires a certificate of good conduct and behavior from a local council in the region. The resident also needs to have been born in one of three eastern governorates—Deir ez-Zour, al-Hasaka and ar-Raqqa—and needs to give the SDF a property deed, as well as a utility bill issued before 2011.
Leaving no Syrian in the camp
Al-Hol is home to about 73,000 displaced people— of which 94 percent are women and children— who are in dire need and have limited access to health care, according to Doctors Without Borders.
As the number of Syrians in al-Hol camp exceeding 30,000, according to al-Ahmad, the AA “will release as many civilians as possible to areas that have been liberated [from ISIS].”
Tribal leaders confirmed to Syria Direct that they secured the release of other camp residents during Eid al-Adha, which started on Sunday, July 11.
“We released 1800 people from areas all over Syria,” Jamil Mahmoud al-Hafl al-A’akeedi, a leader in the al-A’akeedi tribe and member of the Arab forum, told Syria Direct. “We have released around 600 people from Deir ez-Zour, the majority of them women and children.”
“There are around 600 families that will be released during or after Eid,” al-A’akeedi said, emphasizing that they would not abandon people and work on releasing all of the Syrians in the camp. He admitted, however, that the latter goal would take some time.
“[As for] the non-Syrians in the camp, specifically the Iraqis, [they] are the responsibility of the [International] Coalition, which is working to find a solution for [that problem],” he added.
According to al-A’akeedi, “two committees have been formed. The first is tasked with addressing the issue of men who were detained due to joining Daesh [ISIS]. Some of them were forced to join [ ISIS]. Thus, we are working to release those who don’t have blood on their hands.”
“The second committee’s mission is to address the issue of our displaced townspeople in the camps to release them.”
He added that: “The first committee released more than 200 men who did not have blood on their hands, [some of them] joined [ISIS], whereas others did not, but were [living] within the region [controlled by ISIS].”
Al-A’akeedi stressed that there would not be “details or names provided,” about the released people, because of “fear of exposing [them] to danger or extortion” from those who seek revenge from ISIS.
Women: exceptional victims
Mona, a woman from the al-Shamiyah area of eastern Deir ez-Zour, left al-Hol with her child as part of the second convoy after spending about five months in the camp.
Her release came after several months of waiting, she told Syria Direct. “My father had applied for tribal sponsorship from one of the tribal sheikhs in al-Shamiyah area.”
Mona emphasized that after the government forces took control of the area west of the Euphrates, she was forced to flee with her husband “towards Al-Shaafah, and from there to al-Baghouz where Daesh was forcing the men to enlist [in their forces] at the time.”
While her husband was killed in al-Baghouz, Mona and her child “were driven to al-Hol camp, in which we spent five months until we left through the tribal sponsorship,” she recalled.
“I lived through difficult days in the camp because of the [living] conditions there and the lack of communication with my family. I was alone with my daughter. The situation was miserable and difficult.”
Activist Wissam al-Arabi pointed out that: “Some women were members of ISIS, but there were those who were forced to marry ISIS fighters during its occupation of eastern Syria. There are also some fighters who were forced to join ISIS. The wife was [then] forced to join her husband as she has children and is unable to oppose her husband.”
Furthermore, women who have been released from al-Hol fear that they will face discrimination, violence, or harassment from other Syrians. “Society’s view is very difficult, and I have suffered from it,” Mona said.
However, she has hope that she can overcome this stigma with the support of her family and relatives.
Bassam al-Ahmad, a Syrian legal activist, told Syria Direct that there is “a negative stereotype of those who released from al-Hol,” which has prompted officials “not to reveal their details to prevent them from being exposed to violence or [efforts] to enact revenge against them.”
He warned against “abusing civilians who were in ISIS-controlled areas,” and emphasized the role of local civil society in helping those released from al-Hol re-integrate into society.
This report is part of Syria Direct’s Connecting Communities through Professional Engagement Project in partnership with the Australian Embassy to Jordan's Direct Aid Program.
The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Will Christou