(NPR) – Thousands of Russian Muslim men joined the Islamic State and brought their families with them to Iraq and Syria. But now that ISIS has lost most of its territory – and with many of those Russian fighters now dead – the Russian government is desperately searching for their lost wives and children.
Hundreds if not thousands of children born or brought to the region by their families are missing or being held prisoner along with their mothers. Those who have been rescued face challenges reintegrating into Russian life, officials say.
It’s almost as if these Russian women and children in the Middle East have fallen into a black hole, says Tim Whewell of the BBC. He says the only names known were discovered in December when voice messages were smuggled out of an Iraqi prison.
“Iraq, for example, has provided no lists of any kind either of the dead people from IS families, or simply of the missing or of the ones that are in jail,” he tells Here & Now’s Lisa Mullins. “The one thing we do know is that 1,400 foreign women and children, foreign ISIS women and children, were said to be in a jail in Iraq.”
The Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, the Russian republic where most of the foreign fighters came from, is spearheading an effort to bring these women and children home. Ramzan Kadyrov says between 70 and 120 children are still in orphanages in Mosul, while almost 400 may still remain in Iraq and Syria, according to Anna Kuznetsova, the country’s children’s rights commissioner.
Experts have struggled to determine how many ISIS orphans are still in Syria and Iraq. Thousands of children were likely born to foreign fighters in addition to those brought to the region by their parents.
Children born into the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate face a life of uncertainty as they lack any officially recognized identification papers. Human Rights Watch notes that Iraq has struggled with the problem of stateless children since the days of al-Qaida, when there were more than 520 documented cases of stateless children born to these fighters.