Conflicts & War

Kazakh woman repatriated from Syria hopes to forget ISIS nightmare

By Kulpash Konyrova

Nur-Sultan, Mar 31 (efe-epa).- “It was an infinitely long four years that I want to forget,” Sabinella Ayazbayeva said about the time she spent in the hands of Islamic State before her return to Kazakhstan from Syria as part of the government’s Operation Zhusan, which has overseen the repatriation of more than 600 Kazakhs.

“We saw bombings, dead bodies, houses in ruins, shooting, we saw it all with our own eyes …,” she told Efe by video conference from her hometown of Karaganda in central Kazakhstan.

Ayazbayeva, now 30, reluctantly accompanied her husband, Merei, to Syria in 2014. He joined ISIS and was killed three years later in an airstrike.

Raised in a secular environment, she never had any interest in radical Islam.

After finishing school, Ayazbayeva enrolled in law school, but soon met and fell in love with Merei, who became radicalized a few years after their wedding.

In 2014, Sabinella and Merei sold their home to move to Syria. She was hesitant, but finally agreed after he threatened to go without her and take the couple’s three children.

The youngest child was just 18 months when they undertook the long journey across Azerbaijan and Georgia to Turkey, from where they entered Syria.

Once there, Merei began 40 days of military training with ISIS and Sabinella realized she was trapped.

She gave birth to two more children in Syria. With no doctors or nurses, she had only the other ISIS wives to help.

Sabinella lived in several Syrian cities, including Raqqa, which endured heavy aerial bombardment by the anti-ISIS forces, and recalls the panic she felt when the children went out to play after seeing a neighbor’s home destroyed.

On one occasion, a bomb fell near the room where her children were sleeping. “I was paralyzed with terror for a few minutes,” she said.

One day, Merei did not come home. He had been killed in an airstrike, she was told.

The small amount of aid she received from ISIS for some months after Merei’s death “was not enough to live on.”

“I would go out to pick mushrooms and plants to make soups,” she recounted, adding that several women she knew were killed by snipers while foraging.

“It was not a life, it was a long nightmare,” Sabinella said of the period when her only solace came in once-a-month conversations were her mother in Kazakhstan via the internet.

To return to her country, Sabinella set out in 2019 from Al-Baghuz with other women and children on a journey of more than 400 km (249 mi) – the last 6 km on foot – to a refugee camp in northeastern Syria.

More than three-quarters of the 62,000 refugees in the Al-Hol camp were foreign nationals, virtually all of them wives, widows and children of ISIS fighters.

Sabinella and her brood spent two months at Al-Hol before Kazakh authorities transferred them Ayn Issa, a town in northern Raqqa province controlled by Kurdish forces. From there they were flown to the Kazakh city of Aktau on the Caspian Sea.

“Until the last moment, I couldn’t believe I was going back to Kazakhstan,” Ayazbayeva said.

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