Kosovo is trying to reintegrate ISIL returnees. Will it work?

In April, 110 Kosovars – mostly women and children – returned on a US military aircraft from a Syrian camp.

ISIL returnees in Kosovo
Two young Kosovar girls walk inside the compound of a detention centre near Pristina where they and 72 other children were held after returning [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

Ferizaj, Kosovo – Laura Hyseni, a young green-eyed mother of four was a child when the war broke out in Kosovo in the spring of 1999, a conflict that forced her and her family to flee to neighbouring Macedonia, seeking refuge.

Fifteen years later, she found herself in another war unfolding thousands of miles away – moving from one ISIL stronghold to the next in Syria and Iraq, from Raqqa to Mosul.

Today, Hyseni, now 25, is under house arrest for three months in her parents’ house in Ferizaj, Kosovo’s third largest city.

She returned to Kosovo from Syria on April 20 along with her two sons and two daughters – part of a group of 32 women and 74 children who came back on a US military aircraft that flew directly from Syria to Kosovo. 

Four male fighters also returned on the plane and were arrested immediately at Pristina’s airport. 

The 110 Kosovars were taken from the sprawling al-Hol displacement camp in the Hassakeh province of northeastern Syria, following the fall of Baghouz, the last stronghold of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group).

Hyseni barely survived the battle of Baghouz before being taken to the Kurdish-run camp. Her daughter’s face still bears the wounds caused by an explosion in March in the Syrian town.

 ISIL returnees in Kosovo
Children brought back from Syria on April 20, 2019, play at a detention centre near Pristina [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

She travelled to Syria in 2014 with her husband and two sons. Three months after arriving in the war zone, her husband was killed in Aleppo.

The young widow says she was forced to remarry another fighter, an Albanian with whom she had a daughter. But shortly after giving birth, he too was killed and she remarried again. She gave birth to another daughter last year – her third husband surrendered during the battle of Baghouz and remains in a Syrian prison.

“It is a long and a painful story. I don’t know where to start,” Hyseni said from her parents’ living room. “I would never imagine [that I would go to Syria].”

When she found out that she was coming back to Kosovo with her children, she said: “It was like a dream, we couldn’t believe that we would come back.”

 ISIL returnees in Kosovo
Laura Hyseni’s son Omer holds a bird that his family in Ferizaj bought for him and his three siblings when they returned from Syria. Omer spent the last five years in Syria, where his father was killed in 2014 [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

Unlike other European nations, who have refused to bring their citizens home from Syria or have revoked their citizenship, the Kosovo government already had a plan in place to repatriate its citizens from the battlefield. The plan was made possible with the assistance of the US military and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). 

“With this repatriation, Kosovo has set an important example for all members of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and the international community to follow,” the US Embassy in Pristina said in a statement the day they returned.

An estimated 400 Kosovars, including women and children, travelled to Syria in the last five years. Most were men who joined to fight with ISIL and brought their wives. 

There are still close to 100 fighters, women and children in Syria, according to Kosovo government officials. Around 120 were killed over the years.

Although Hyseni is grateful to the US and her government for bringing them back, she does not want to be associated with terrorism.

“I’m not a terrorist,” she said. “My children and I are victims.”

Hyseni and the 31 other women are currently being investigated by the Kosovo Police and have received free legal counsel. 

While one of her relatives told Al Jazeera she travelled to Syria voluntarily, as reported in local media, Hyseni said she thought her husband was taking the family on holiday to Turkey.

 ISIL returnees in Kosovo
Dr Valbona Tafilaj, a psychiatrist, is the coordinator for health and mental health under the government’s rehabilitation and reintegration programme for women and children who recently returned from Syria [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera] 

Kimete Krasniqi is representing another woman who returned in April. She says her client, whose husband was killed fighting in Syria, is relieved that her son is finally safe and no longer living in a war zone.

Krasniqi’s client is under investigation for participation in an army outside of Kosovo, a criminal offence which can result in up to 15 years in jail, and participation in a terrorist group, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

She says her client is maintaining her innocence, saying she didn’t know her husband was taking her to Syria, thinking instead – like Hyseni – that they were going to Turkey for a holiday.

When ISIL started losing territory in 2017, the Kosovo government began preparing to bring citizens home including providing medical help, psychiatric treatment and counselling, housing, social services, special education, and reintegration.

From the initial psychotherapy sessions that we've done with children and with the women, of course you can clearly see signs of PTSD.

by Valbona Tafilaj, psychiatrist

“These are our people who until 2004/5, they were very moderate and secular like all our society.

“Then they were infected by this ideology that was imported from the Middle East and I think there is still a lot in common – tradition, culture, language, background and history and many aspects – that I think makes the reintegration and rehabilitation process easier than in many countries [compared to Europe, where fighters were usually second or third generation immigrants],” said Fatos Makolli, the new national coordinator for countering terrorism and violent extremism, a department under the prime minister’s office.

Makolli and his team want ISIL returnees to reintegrate back into society and denounce all forms of violence.

“You cannot assume that the deradicalisation process will be fully successful but still, managing to disengage people from using violence is an achievement,” he said.

 ISIL returnees in Kosovo
Sebajdin Basha with his grandson Abdullah in eastern Kosovo. Abdullah is among the 74 children who were brought back to Kosovo from Syria, where both his parents died, on April 20 [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

Elsewhere in Kosovo, other families are coping with the loss of their sons and daughters who died in Syria as they care for the orphaned children they left behind.

In a remote village in eastern Kosovo, near the border with Serbia, unemployed Sebajdin Basha, 52, and his wife, Shpresa, 50, look after their two orphaned grandchildren who returned in April. 

One of them, two-year-old Aishe, was born in Syria. Basha says his four-year-old grandson Abdullah asks for his mother often and lingers near his father’s clothes for comfort.

The children’s mother Filloreta was killed on March 3, 2019, during the battle of Baghouz. Their father Enis was killed in 2017.

Basha cries as he remembers the last day he saw his son. 

To this day, he doesn’t understand why his only son would take his family to a warzone and had asked him many times before he was killed, “Why did you do this to us?”

He said: “My son was not like this, he changed so fast. They [his son and his wife] just finished their studies.”

Looking ahead, the government has said it wants to provide counselling to women and children.

Valbona Tafilaj is the coordinating doctor for health and mental health under the government’s rehabilitation and reintegration programme for women and children in their homes.

“[From] the initial psychotherapy sessions that we’ve done with children and with the women, of course you can clearly see signs of PTSD,” she said from her office at the University Clinical Centre of Kosovo.

“Usually, the first visible signs of PTSD start to become notable after six months and it can take up to five years. This will be a long process that we have to deal with.”

 ISIL returnees in Kosovo
Shpresa Basha holds a photo of her son, Enis, who was killed in Aleppo, Syria in 2017 [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]

Hyseni’s brother Gazmend told Al Jazeera: “When she wakes up, she still thinks she’s there.”

The Islamic Community of Kosovo, which includes imams and female preachers, are also prepared to support the returnees.

Sanije Mehmeti, 37, is one of two female preachers, known as “mualime” in Kosovo.

“I didn’t imagine that a day would come in my work as a female preacher to deal with women who misunderstood the religion,” she said. 

She and her fellow female preacher will travel across the country to work with the women in their homes, “an extraordinary responsibility”,” she said. “Society should be more understanding.”

While the group of 32 women await their trial in the coming months, women like Hyseni hope they can move on from their years spent in Syria and Iraq.

“I would like the children to start school and have a normal life,” Hyseni said. “I would like to work and to live a normal life like the others.”

 ISIL returnees in Kosovo
Sanije Mehmeti, a Muslim preacher from Kosovo, will soon work with a group of recently returned women as part of a new government rehabilitation and reintegration programme [Valerie Plesch/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera