“We were told that Syria is the sacred land”, recalls Asel, a 32-year-old Kazakh woman. “If we died there in battle, we would immediately go to heaven and become martyrs”.
In 2014 Asel was one of around 150 people who left Kazakhstan to join the ISIL terrorist network, also known by the Arabic term Da’esh, in Syria, along with her husband and her son. She was pregnant at the time.
Asel grew up in an “average” Kazakh family in the north of Kazakhstan, where religious influence was not as strong as in the south. After graduating from the College of Transport and Communications, she moved to the capital, Nur-Sultan, formerly known as Astana, in 2013.
Once there, she became an adherent of a strict form of Islam, and married a man with similar views, who convinced her that they should relocate to Syria: “we were attracted because we believed that no one would have to work on the sacred land , that we would receive financial benefits on a monthly basis, and that houses and property from the ‘liberated’ cities and towns would be ours”.
The following year they traveled to Syria, via a route that took them through Belarus and Turkey. However, as hostilities intensified, their dream turned sour, and their money and food quickly ran out.
In total, Asel lived in Syria for about five years, moving with her husband from one place to another. During this time, she gave birth to her second son, whilst her husband married two more women from Kazakhstan, who also bore him children.
But one day, she says, her husband did not return home: he was killed by a bomb that hit the building where he was working. Now left a widow, Asel and her children, decided to return to their homeland.
The family had heard on the grapevine that the Government of Kazakhstan was organizing flights for those wishing to return home. Despite fears that she could be sent to prison, Asel realized that, if they remained in Syria, they would struggle to survive the increasingly difficult conditions.
At great risk to her life, Asel, together with women from Dagestan in the Russian Federation, Turkey, and even from European countries, reached the notorious Al-Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria.
Conditions at the camp, which houses over 60,000 refugees, have frequently been condemned as extremely harsh. The families of former Da’esh fighters are kept in a separate, guarded compound, following reported outbreaks of violence between them and others at the facility.
Asel says that she was very lucky to spend just two months at Al-Hol, but those 60 days, combined with the hardships of the previous five years, were enough to underline the urgent need to get her and her sons out of Syria.
‘Zhusan’, the smell of home
Thanks to the Kazakh initiative, Asel succeeded in returning home. She and her sons were flown to the city of Aktau, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, and spent a month in a rehabilitation centre, alongside others in a similar situation.
After a medical examination, psychologists, theologians, and religious scholars worked with the family, and her children attended temporary schools and kindergartens. After the end of the probationary period, they were sent to stay with relatives in their hometown.
Today Asel is settled in Kazakhstan. She found new love, remarried, and her two boys, now aged eight and five, are flourishing.
Asel’s eventual return was made possible as a result of Operation Zhusan. Zhusan is a Kazakh word meaning “bitter wormwood”, the smell of which, many Kazakhstanis associate with their homeland.
2022 marks three years since the start of Operation Zhusan. According to the National Security Committee of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 37 men, 157 women and 413 children – 34 of them orphans – have been repatriated so far.
Out of this total, 31 men and 18 women were convicted for participating in ISIL activities.
The success of the operation has, according to the Government, been closely monitored by several countries accepting the return of former foreign fighters and their families – including Austria, Germany, Uzbekistan, Ukraine and even the Republic of Maldives – as well as the UN, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Parliament.
According to an expert on radicalization interviewed by UN News, there are three main reasons for the outflow of young Kazakhs to Syria in 2013-2014. The first, according to Alim Shaumetov, the director of the Akniet rehabilitation center based in Nur-Sultan, is religious illiteracy, which made them defenseless against those preaching extremist religious ideology.
“They were not able to oppose the very competent work of these recruiting preachers” he says. “Religious extremist ideology is a joint work of political leaders, psychologists and theologians, who planted these ideas in their minds, after which they were ready to sacrifice their lives for other people’s ideas”.
Another important factor, according to Mr. Shaumetov, was a law on freedom of religion and religious associations, adopted in the first years of Kazakhstan’s independence.
“Borders were opened, young people went abroad to religious institutions, and fell into the hands of false preachers”, he explains. “And when they returned, they began spreading their dangerous ideology here”.
The third reason, paradoxically, is the World Wide Web, and the huge flow of information the Internet provides. Young people looked online for answers to their questions, and solutions to the problems they had to face in life and, via religious sites and social networks, “self-radicalization” took place.
“Therefore, there was a mass exodus of our young people to Syria and Iraq, which is why they ended up in someone else’s war”.
Akniet employees engage former foreign fighters and their families in educational and information sessions, a process that, says Mr. Shaumatov, results in around 95 per cent of them abandoning radical ideology.
Some return to secular life, whilst others convert to more moderate forms of Islam. “Our work continues,” he said.