Al Hol-camp in corona times: "I hope one day they will let us go"

There are still some thirty Dutch women and ninety children of IS-fighters jailed in Northeast-Syria. Last month, the Dutch High Council gave the final ruling: the Dutch state doesn’t have to bring them back home. ‘I want to return to the Netherlands but it’s impossible, even more so during corona.”

Header picture by Y. Boechat (VOA) - Syria Camp Housing Hardcore IS Families Spiraling 'Out of Control', Public Domain,

Some time ago, Annemiek (not her real name) said, there were rumours about a special arrangement that would be introduced in the camp. Women suspected of having contracted the coronavirus could be put in isolation there. But she never heard about it again. There are no face masks, the water from the tap is sometimes brown and never enough to regularly wash hands. Despite that, Annemiek (32) said: “I am not that afraid of the coronavirus. Hardly anybody from outside the camp comes here so I hope it stays outside.”

Annemiek has been locked up in Al Holcamp, the camp in the northeast of Syria where women of ISISfighters and their children have been kept for almost one and a half years. The camp is under the control of the local Kurdish authorities and is being guarded by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-Arab group that did most of the fighting against ISIS in Syria. According to the last figures of the AIVD (the Dutch intelligence agency), there are thirty Dutch women and ninety Dutch children among them. 

Ever since ISIS lost its last bit of territory in Syria, in March last year, the local authorities and European governments have been bickering about the return of the foreign women to their countries of origin. The Netherlands has always categorically refused the return, officially because it would be too dangerous to go and get the women, but in fact because it is deemed politically too controversial.

Since the mothers and children cannot be separated, this would mean that the mothers would also return home. 

A group of 23 women, among whom Annemiek, decided to go to court. The case caused a lot of debate when a court in The Hague ruled that the Dutch government had an ‘obligation to make an effort’ to return 56 children to the Netherlands. Since the mothers and children cannot be separated, this would mean that the mothers would also return home. A few weeks later, a higher court ruled differently: the government is free to decide its own policy and even though it’s true that the conditions in the camp are ‘deplorable’, the government is not obliged to go and take the children away from there.

The women subsequently went to the highest court for a final verdict.In late June, this court decided against the women: the government does not have to make an effort to let them return. Shortly before this decision, a group of Dutch women reportedly escaped from Al Hol-camp. They rented a house in the region of Idlib, daily De Telegraaf reported. Annemiek said that she was still in the camp and was not among those who escaped. 

But even if the ruling of the highest court had been better for the women, actually getting them out of the camp would have been close to impossible due to the corona crisis. This also seems to be the motivation behind the ruling of the court in Rotterdam in another case, that of Ilhan B. from the city of Gouda, who is jailed in another camp in Northeast-Syria. She demanded that she be allowed to attend the trial against her in the Netherlands and the court agreed to the request. However, the court now gave the government an extension of six months to actually fetch her from Syria because there is a ‘temporary impossibility’ to go and get her. 

Al Hol-camp is at the red pin. Qamislo is the 'sister city' of Nusaybin on the Turkish side of the borde, and not mentioned on this map. Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, is called Arbil here.

The road to Al Hol-camp is closed. Both the airport of Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, from where the journey to Northeast-Sryia Syria commences, as the border between the Kurdistan Region and Syria are closed. While the situation in the camp has only become more dire, said Raperin Hasan, the co-leader of the Ministry of Health of what is officially called the Autonomous Region of North and Northeast Syria: “For now, the virus has not been detected in the camp, but we do seriously worry. The hygiene conditions in the camp are not good. In summer, there are always more diseases and people with weakened health face more serious consequences when they get Covid-19.”

That the camp is still virus free is due to the drastic measures that the local authorities took at the beginning of the crisis. The borders were closed for people. Not only the Semalka border crossing with the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, but also the checkpoints between the autonomous north-eastern region and the rest of Syria, which is mostly under the control of the Syrian army of President Assad. The border with Turkey had – on Turkey’s initiative – been closed already years earlier. As well, a strict lockdown was imposed. 

“Not all women believed that the virus was a real danger"

The measures applied to Al Holcamp as well: it was sealed off from the outside. For the women inside, that was in practice not such a big inconvenience, as they were not allowed to leave the camp anyway, but visits by foreign journalists and the occasional NGO became impossible, and leaving the camp for medical reasons is now only allowed in the most urgent cases. Raperin Hasan said that initially there was some anger about that among the inmates of the camp: “Not all women believed that the virus was a real danger and thought we used the virus to impose extra restrictions on them.”

The authorities had no choice but to impose such strict rules. They were cornered: aid can only with difficulty reach the region. The Syrian President has twice allowed some medical goods to land at the airport in Qamislo, the biggest city in the northeast where the Syrian army, along with the airport, also controls a few streets in the city centre. In the beginning of the corona crisis, in April, some tests were sent, but it took weeks before the results made it back from the Syrian capital of Damascus to the north-eastern region. It remains entirely unclear how many coronavirus infections there are now in Northeast-Syria. 

International aid organisations could help relieve the situation but they don’t get the opportunity to do so. The border crossing that are not in the hands of the Assadregime cannot be used due to restrictions imposed by the UN Security Council. In 2014, the World Health Organisation designated four border crossings to give access to the areas in the country that were outside Assad’s reach. One of those four, the Al-Yarubiyah crossing, has been deleted from the list for reasons that are not clear, while that is in fact the crossing that could offer some solace. Some aid is coming in via the crossing between the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and Syria, in the north close to the Turkish border, but that’s not enough: the Kurdistan Region has medical shortages itself and has set restrictions on the amount of goods that may leave the region. Raperin Hasan of the Health Ministry: “Besides that, there has been a world-wide race to get certified face masks and it’s been hard for us to obtain them.”

From time to time, Turkey closes the taps, causing a water shortage in the Hasake region, where also Al Holcamp is located. 

Hasan confirms the observation by Dutch woman Annemiek that there are no sealed areas in Al Holcamp where possible infected women can be placed in isolation. She said: “We don’t have the material to build such a ward and we lack the proper medical equipment.” Annemiek remarked something else as well: “At the beginning of the corona crisis”, she said, “the guards and the people who delivered goods to the camps were wearing face masks, but not any more.” Hasan confirms: “Only medical personnel are allowed to use face masks.”

The lack of clean drinking water is another story. There was already a lack of water points in Al Holcamp, but since last October the situation has deteriorated. That was the month that Turkey invaded the region because it considers the autonomous administration as a threat to its security. The Turkish army and its local affiliates not only occupied two cities but also took control over a water distribution facility. This facility provides some half a million people with water. From time to time, Turkey closes the taps, causing a water shortage in the Hasake region, where also Al Holcamp is located. The hygiene in the camp then gets even worse. 

In the camp, Annemiek is mainly in touch with three other Dutch women. She said: “Corona is not really a topic we talk about. But that might change when a new outbreak starts.” Then she added: “Sometimes I hope the virus will come here and that the soldiers can then no longer handle the situation and will open the gates for us.” What would she do in that case? “I want to go back to the Netherlands. I have talked about this with journalists and with the AIVD, but it doesn’t happen. We have to independently go to a Dutch embassy or consulate, for example in Turkey, but that is impossible, especially during corona.” She is not very worried about her family in the Netherlands: “I am only in touch with my mother and younger brother and they are both healthy.”

For the administrators of the Autonomous Region of North and Northeast Syria, the situation around the outbreak of the coronavirus and the impossibility of setting up the necessary medical facilities and getting sufficient medical goods, is yet another reason to plea for international recognition. The international community’s policy has always been to keep Syria intact as one country. Even though the Autonomous Region has no intentions to break away from Syria, the fear that the country will fall apart when the Autonomous Region is recognized, is big. 

For the local authorities it would help if they had a seat at the table during talks about the future of Syria, but because of pressure from Turkey, which would prefer to occupy the whole region, this wish has not materialized. That was a problem already before the corona crisis started, but now public health is also in danger. Dutch women and children suffer from the consequences as well. Annemiek: “I hope that one day, they are fed up with us and let us go.”

The Dutch version of this story was published in Wordt Vervolgd, the monthly magazine of the Dutch branch of Amnesty International.