In the summer of 2014, Danisch Farooqi says he received a phone call from his ex-wife informing him that she had taken their daughter, Aaliya, to Turkey. In a panic, he tried to get her back to Germany, he says, but within days his daughter was in Syria and her mother had married an ISIS fighter.
“I don’t even know what my daughter has experienced and seen in those five years,” Farooqi told CNN, tearing up at the thought. “Once you finally find your daughter, you then hope for the help of the German government to get her back. And there is none. It’s devastating. It’s frustrating. And I’m really very angry.”
The defeat of ISIS has stranded tens of thousands of ISIS followers – including Aaliya, now eight years old – in Kurdish-run camps in northern Syria, but the German government has been slow to repatriate German citizens.
Earlier this week, Farooqi organized a public protest by family members, believed to be the first of its kind in the country, outside the Foreign Ministry in Berlin to demand the German government do more to repatriate its citizens, especially children, stranded in Syria. Several dozen protesters carried placards with photos of their daughters, sons and grandchildren.
Germany’s Foreign Ministry would not confirm to CNN how many German nationals are now in the camps but only a handful of children born to ISIS followers have been brought back to Germany and placed with relatives. In a statement to CNN, the Foreign Ministry insists that it is “virtually impossible” to provide assistance to any of them.
The statement reads: “Although the Federal Foreign Office is aware of cases of German nationals who are supposed to be in custody in northern Syria, the Federal Foreign Office has no information on this subject. In Syria, after the closure of the Embassy of Damascus, consular assistance is still virtually impossible. For Syria there has long been a travel warning. Irrespective of this, the Federal Government, in consultation with its partners, is also examining possible options to enable German nationals, above all children, even in humanitarian cases, to be repatriated to Germany.”
Germany is not the only country dealing with this problem. Thousands of men and women across Europe joined ISIS. France, the UK and other countries are grappling with how to deal with ISIS returnees.
For those captured in Iraq, there is an existing Iraqi court system to process former ISIS members and try them as members of the terrorist organization. Some German nationals, including wives of ISIS fighters, have already been prosecuted there and are currently serving time in Iraqi prisons. In some of those cases, the children of German citizens have been brought back to live with their extended family.
But in the Syrian territory controlled by Kurdish forces, there is no recognized legal system to prosecute ISIS members. As a consequence, Kurdish tent camps have swelled with the number of captured ISIS fighters and their families.
Anaya Azim joined the Berlin protest, to get her sister and her niece and nephew back. She says her sister left in 2014 for Turkey, wearing make-up and high heels, to help take care of her brother’s family living in Turkey. Weeks later, Azim says she received a photo of her sister, draped in a full-body veil, apparently living in ISIS-controlled Syrian territory.
Azim now believes her brother was “brainwashed” into joining ISIS and forced his family, including his sister, to come with him. He was killed in the fighting, but his wife, sister and the children are now in a Kurdish camp where, her sister has told her, conditions are deteriorating.
In January, the World Health Organization reported that 29 children had died in the camps, mainly from hypothermia and that severe overcrowding was leading to shortages of food, medicine and basic sanitation facilities.
“When I last spoke with my sister she was urging us to free her, I saw she had tried to cut herself. She is not the same person anymore,” she told CNN. ”I expect the German government to please help these women and children. It’s not their fault! We need to help these children – the longer they stay on, the worse it gets.”
Azim believes that Germany should provide a legal process for her sister to return and try to prove her innocence. Originally from Afghanistan, Azim and her family fled the Taliban to settle in Germany. Now, she fears her sister will only be further radicalized if left in the Syrian camps.
“We escaped war, we did not want to have anything to do with people like this,” Azim said. “A state has to protect its own citizen, to bring them back, gather evidence until they have found proof to find out who is innocent, who hasn’t done anything. I think they should be able to do that.”
One German great-grandmother who did not want to give her name, said her grand-daughter was being held at the Al-Hol camp in Kurdish controlled Syria. But she had not heard from her grand-daughter or her children in the last 37 days.
“The last time we spoke, she told me the women from different nationalities are arguing a lot at the camp about food rations. And that the tents had caught on fire from gasoline burners.” She told CNN: “They said they couldn’t take it anymore. And they needed to come home to Germany soon.”
She has never met her great-grandchildren, born in ISIS-controlled territory, but she worries that one-year old Ibrahim has a persistent rash and 3-year-old Hanifa may be malnourished.
“They say they don’t want radicalized children here but with every single day children are at this camp they may become increasingly radical,” she said. ”I just pray to God each night that I will be able to see them soon.”