Chechen mothers’ agony over fate of Islamic State daughters

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We did not expect to meet so many people.

Dressed in brightly-coloured headscarfs and winter coats, they crowded into a poorly lit meeting room in city of Grozny, in the Russian state of Chechnya.

They were, for the most part, mothers and grandmothers, and they brought hundreds of photographs of their relatives with them.

These women clung to the photos with unmistakable intensity and we soon realised why. They do not know where the people in the pictures are – nor whether they are still alive.

But they know why their loved ones left home.

Their daughters married men who were members of Islamic State and travelled with them to Syria and Iraq.

Their grandchildren were also dragged to these war-torn lands – or born into jihadi families during the conflict.

Chechen mothers hold photographs of their missing family after they married IS fighters Chechen mothers' agony over fate of Islamic State daughters Chechen mothers’ agony over fate of Islamic State daughters skynews chechnya islamic state 4131473
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Chechen mothers hold photographs of missing relatives after they married IS fighters

For many people in that dusty room, the whole thing was simply unbearable.

“The uncertainty is the hardest thing,” said Khamkoeva Zarema – whose daughter and three children travelled to Syria in 2014.

“The fact that she has been there for three years without me, without help from her parents, brothers or sisters. She is all alone and I am going crazy here. I can’t do anything.”

But Ms Zarema did attend the meeting – an act of courage in itself.

For years, residents of Chechnya and other parts of Russia have kept their family members’ links with Islamic State secret.

Many fear the police – and their daughters – may be subject to prosecution under Russia’s anti-terror laws if they return.

With IS now largely defeated however, the need for information is so pressing, so overwhelming in fact that hundreds of Russian families have come forward seeking assistance.

For the most part they have turned to a woman called Kheda Saratova, who happens to run the only human rights organisation in Chechnya.

“Don’t be afraid. It is ok if they are in contact with you, it’s very good. Please don’t be scared,” she said as she tried to reassure them at the meeting.

Many of the women have not heard from their daughters for months Chechen mothers' agony over fate of Islamic State daughters Chechen mothers’ agony over fate of Islamic State daughters skynews chechnya islamic state 4131477
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Many of the women have not heard from their daughters for months

Few families in Russia have been in contact with relatives in Syria and Iraq – the phone calls, pictures and videos have dried up in recent months.

We spoke to Malika Inorkaeva who lives in Grozny. Her daughter said she was going on holiday with her husband in 2015 – but he joined IS and they journeyed to Iraq.

She said: “July 10th was the last day my daughter contacted me. It was the day Mosul was conquered. We had no chance to talk.

“She just texted, ‘Mom, are you there?’ and the connection was lost.”

It has been estimated that 40,000 people lost their lives in the battle for Iraq’s second largest city and dead bodies still lie under the rubble.

There were survivors but those with links to IS have been put in special prison camps.

One camp in a town called Tal Keif currently holds 1,400 foreign nationals – one third women and two thirds children.

“Not having her near me is very frustrating,” said a tearful Mrs Inorkaeva.

“I have cancer – it is stage three. I’m afraid I won’t live to see her. I have so little time. Knowing this gives me such pain.”

We spoke to dozens of people at the meeting but quickly realised that Russian families rarely mention their sons – the men who went to fight for IS.

In fact, only one woman mentioned to us that her son was missing.

Sitting in an overcrowded office after the meeting, I asked Kheda Saratova about it.

She said: “It is mostly because they have been killed. Secondly, because it is harder to deal with men.

“But to be honest I don’t want to protect those who took a gun and went to kill other people.”

Where there is sympathy, it is generally reserved for the children of jihadi families and here, the Chechen government has lent a hand.

It has used several private jets over the past couple of months to fly 21 Russian youngsters back from Iraq.

By contrast, officials in the nation’s capital, Moscow, have shown little interest, says Ms Saratova.

Some 600 families have now contacted the Chechen human rights activist and armed with their photographs and memories they are pleading for help.

They used to whisper about their loved ones but now they need to know.



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