‘Daesh brides’ open up in Syria camp documentary

“Okay, um… My name’s Shamima. I’m from the UK. I’m 19.”

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Spoken with a nervous laugh, the introduction to a room full of women and restless babies could be the start of any young mothers’ support group.

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But the speaker is Shamima Begum, the teenage “Daesh bride” who left Britain for Syria in 2015 to join Daesh, and whose desire to return sparked a right-wing press frenzy that saw her stripped of her citizenship.

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The footage is captured in ‘The Return: Life After ISIS’, a documentary premiering Wednesday at the online Texas-based South By Southwest festival.

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Spanish director Alba Sotorra got rare, extensive access to Begum and other Western women over several months in Syria’s Kurdish-run Roj camp, where they remain following the so-called caliphate’s collapse in 2019.

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“I would say to the people in the UK, give me a second chance because I was still young when I left,” Begum tells the filmmakers.

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“I just want them to put aside everything they’ve heard about me in the media,” she adds.

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Begum left her London home aged just 15 to travel to Syria with two school friends, and married an IS fighter.

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She was “found” by British journalists, heavily pregnant at another Syrian camp, in February 2019 – and her apparent lack of remorse in initial interviews drew outrage.

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But Begum and fellow Westerners including US-born Hoda Muthana strike a very different and apologetic tone in Sotorra’s film.

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The documentary follows “workshop” sessions in which the women write letters to their younger selves expressing regret about their departures for Syria, and plant a tree to remember their loved ones.

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“It was known that Syria was a warzone and I still travelled into it with my own children – now how I did this I really don’t know looking back,” says one Western woman.

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Begum recalls feeling like an “outsider” in London who wanted to “help the Syrians,” but claims on arrival she quickly realised Daesh were “trapping people” to boost the so-called caliphate’s numbers and “look good for the (propaganda) videos.”

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‘A mistake’

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Sotorra, the director, gained camp access thanks to Kurdish fighters she had followed in Syria for her previous film.

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She set out to document the Kurdish women’s sacrifices in running a camp filled with their former enemies’ wives and children, but soon pivoted to the Western women.

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“I will never be able to understand how a woman from the West can take this decision of leaving everything behind to join a group that is committing the atrocities that [Daesh] is committing,” Sotorra told AFP.

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“I do understand now how you can make a mistake.”

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On Sotorra’s arrival in March 2019, the women – fresh from a warzone – were “somehow blocked… not thinking and not feeling.”

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“Shamima was a piece of ice when I met her,” Sotorra told AFP.

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“She lost the kid when I was there… it took a while to be able to cry,” she recalled.

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“I think it’s just surviving, you need to protect yourself to survive.”

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Another factor is the enduring presence of “small but very powerful” groups of even “more radicalised women” who remain loyal to Daesh and exert pressure on their campmates.

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“We had (other) women who joined in the beginning, and then they received pressure from other women so they stopped coming,” said Sotorra.

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In the film, Begum claims she “had no choice but to say certain things” to journalists “because I lived in fear of these women coming to my tent one day and killing me and killing my baby.”

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‘Took them a while’

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The question of what can and should be done with these women – and their children – plagues Western governments, sowing divisions among allies.

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Last month, Britain’s Supreme Court rejected Begum’s bid to return to challenge a decision stripping her citizenship on national security grounds.

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How much the women knew about – and abetted – Daesh’s rapes, tortures and beheadings may never be known.

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In the documentary, Begum denies she “knew about” or “supported these crimes,” dismissing claims she could have been in IS’s feared morality police as a naive “15-year-old with no Islamic knowledge” who did not even “speak the language.”

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“I never even had a parking ticket back in my own country before… I never harmed anybody, I never killed anybody, I never did anything,” says Canadian Kimberly Polman.

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An incredulous Kurdish woman points out that “maybe your husband killed my cousin.”

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Sotorra believes the women could be useful back home in preventing the same mistake in future generations, and points to the cruelty of raising young children in this environment.

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“It took them a while to realise that they have responsibility for (their) choice… they cannot just think ‘Okay, I regret, I go back, as if nothing has happened,'” she said.

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“No, it’s not about this… you have to accept the consequences.”

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