By Maja Zivanovic
Some 20 women who left Serbia for the Islamic State are now stuck in camps in Syria, with no apparent effort from the Serbian state to aid their return, BIRN has learned.
The last contact was a text message a month ago. The woman said she was in a Kurdish-run camp known as Camp Roj in Syria, near the Iraqi border. Her family, in Serbia, had approached the authorities for help in getting her back, “but they all remain silent,” the woman’s mother said.
According to BIRN findings, around 20 women from Serbia are trapped in refugee camps in Syria having left their homes in or around the southern, mainly Muslim town of Novi Pazar for the Islamic State.
The government in Belgrade appears to have undertaken no special measures to facilitate their return since the collapse of the caliphate that once took in parts of both Syria and Iraq.
“We want to help our child and we will do everything necessary for her to come back,” the woman’s mother said in a telephone conversation.
BIRN agreed not to reveal the identity of the family for security reasons.
“We are a normal family, like any other,” the mother told BIRN, saying her daughter had left in December 2014.
“We addressed the local authorities [in Novi Pazar] but they all remain silent.”
The 20 Serbian women are among hundreds of other Muslims from the Balkan region who have found themselves trapped since the Islamic State’s demise, many wishing to return but struggling to get the support they need to do so from their home states.
With US support, Kosovo on Friday facilitated the return of 110 of its citizens from Syria, mainly family members of Islamic State fighters. Four were immediately arrested on suspicion of terrorism, while Kosovo Kosovo authorities have begun interviewing several women from the group under suspicion of being part of terrorist groups fighting in Syria.
A 24-year-old Bosnian citizen was also sent back to his home country from Syria in a separate deportation on March 20. He has been charged with organising a terrorist group, the illegal establishment of and association with foreign paramilitary or para-police formations, and terrorism, the Bosnian prosecution announced.
BIRN this month also identified at least 85 children born to ethnic Albanian women from Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia under the Islamic State, now stuck in a Kurdish-run camp in Syria. Their families in the Balkans are pleading with authorities for their safe return.
BIRN has tried unsuccessfully for two weeks to get any information from the Serbian Interior Ministry regarding the Serbian women in Syria.
An official in the Serbian Foreign Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the ministry knew of around 20 Serbian women in Syria, but said the camps were “under the competence” of the United Nations. “We haven’t had any contact with them [the women],” the source said.
In Novi Pazar, Esad Kundakovic, whose son died fighting in Syria in 2013 and is in touch with the families of the women still stuck in Syria, said the families needed to join forces to bring pressure on the Serbian state to act.
“Now, every family is searching for a solution on its own, through personal contacts,” said Kundakovic, who since his son’s death has worked on preventing other Serbians from travelling to fight in Syria.
“The families are ready to accept them back, they only need support from the state and the community,” he told BIRN.
“States from the Balkans are not ready to accept these people. We, as the community, are not ready.”
The authorities, he said, must also think about the children of these women born in Syria.
“First, a system must be created, laws adopted. Someone needs to start acting.”
Children ‘must be saved’
Camp Roj hosts women from around 40 different countries and more than 1,000 children born to Islamic State fighters.
They are housed in tents, four people in each, and given only basic supplies.
Serbian authorities are yet to publicly address the issue.
The only politician to speak out, in March 2018, was Muamer Zukorlic, leader of a small Bosniak party and an MP in the Serbian parliament.
At the time, he told the Tanjug news agency that he knew of 11 Serbian citizens, mainly women and children, in a camp between Syria, Turkey and Iraq, all of them from the mainly Muslim Sandzak region in Serbia.
He urged the Serbian authorities to act. The children, in particular, he said, “must be saved”.
In his statement to BIRN, Zukorlic explained that his appeal ended with no reaction by the authorities.
“In off the record contacts, I have been told that Serbian authorities can’t reach them and that that is the main issue,” he added.
Asked if he’s informed about the current number of people in the camps, Zukorlic replied negatively: “It is hard to obtain that data, as the numbers vary.”
Serbia, he added, shouldn’t be silent and insecure on this issue and needs to tackle it not through consequences, but through education and prevention. He also underlined that people in these camps have Serbian citizenship and ignoring them can’t be the solution.
BIRN also contacted the Islamic Community in Serbia, located in Novi Pazar, but a senior official said the families of the women had not approached the body for support.
In a report in September, the US State Department described levels of ISIS activity in Serbia as low.
“The main terrorism threats in Serbia remain the potential movement of money and weapons through its territory, returning foreign terrorist fighters, and [Islamist] radicalisation,” it said.
In April 2018, a court in Belgrade found seven people guilty of terrorism and of cooperation with jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq.
It jailed Abid Podbicanin, Sead Plojovic and Tefik Mujovic for 11 years, Goran Pavlovic for ten, Iznudin Crnovrcanin and Rejhan Plojovic for nine and a half years, while Ferat Kasumovic was sentenced to seven and a half years. Podbicanin, Pavlovic and Plovic are believed to be still on the run and were tried in absentia.
In a separate case in January this year, police in Novi Pazar arrested a man suspected of planning terrorist attacks in the name of ISIS.
The Novi Pazar Higher Court told BIRN the case was still in the pre-investigation phase.