GROZNY, Russia -- The Russian government is in the midst of an effort to return and care for Russian children who were raised by militants in the Islamic State, mainly in Syria.
As the U.S.-led coalition and Syrian government forces captured cities that had been held by the extremists, 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.
Russia, which has returned 71 children and 26 women since August, has determined that it's best for security to get children back to their grandparents now rather 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."
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 last 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.
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 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.
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.
A Section on 02/25/2018
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