I meet Amira, a young British woman in a long maroon dress. She tells me that she grew up in a close-knit family in the north of England and is very passionate about her home town. Now she is stuck in Roj with her five-year-old son.
Once they were in their tent watching the film Alvin and the Chipmunks and rain started to fall in one of the scenes. Her son’s forehead creased in puzzlement. “Mum, how come the walls are not shaking like ours do in the rain?”
“Darling, it’s a house,” she replied. “One day you’ll live in one.”
“I don’t want my child to live like this in this horrible place,” Amira tells me. “He asks me, ‘Mum, why aren’t we in our own country? I want to go to school, a nice school where we can paint and go outside.’ I want him to be educated, to go to the funfair. I used to love funfairs.”
A parliamentary report published in February said it had “received compelling evidence that British nationals, including children, were trafficked by Isis to and within Syria and Iraq”.
“The All Party Parliamentary Group on Trafficked Britons is extremely troubled by evidence indicating that, of British nationals currently detained in northeast Syria who were not born there, almost half were children at the time of travel and therefore especially likely to be victims of trafficking,” the report stated.
Maya Foa from Reprieve has carried out hundreds of interviews in the Roj camp and says she has seen striking patterns. “Isis worked as a trafficking agency, grooming teenagers and selling them on the idea they were coming to this wonderful paradise,” she says. “We can all say these women and girls made bad choices, but I’m convinced many did not know what was going on.”
In the case of Amira, that seems unarguable. She was barely out of primary school when she was taken from Britain to Syria by her family in 2014. They had been invited there for a holiday by a relative but it turned out to be a trap. After flying to Turkey, they were driven across the border to Syria and ended up in an Isis guesthouse. “I remember being sick in the car and then being scared because my mum was having a panic attack,” she says.
The guesthouse was kept locked from the outside and the only way out was to get married. Amira thought it would be “like having a friend”, but her husband was a much older Afghan man with whom she could barely communicate and who abused her.
“I never knew what Isis was,” she insists. “My husband was very controlling and jealous, so I couldn’t go out on my own.”
Eventually he was killed, but Amira says she found it impossible to escape as everyone was watched. “I didn’t ask to come here. I was never a member of Isis. I don’t understand why the British government won’t come and speak to us and at least hear my story. But it’s been four years and no one has come.”
She says to make up for all the school she has missed she tries to teach herself maths and English with books provided by NGOs.
“I’ve had a horrible time but I try to keep hopeful and positive. At night I cry myself to sleep. I try to bottle it up, to be strong, but recently it has been hard. My young years are being wasted here and those of my child. He’s growing up. He asks me, Mum, why are there guards, why do they have guns, will they come in our tents?”
Perhaps the last word should go to one of the victims of Isis. Diane Foley is the mother of Jim Foley, the American war correspondent who was kidnapped in Syria in 2012 and whose execution on video in 2014 by men in black first revealed to the world the depths of their barbarity. “Getting that call was the worst day of my life,” she says, referring to how she was informed of her son’s death by an Associated Press journalist, who was sobbing. “But it doesn’t serve anybody forcing thousands of people to live in such primitive crowded situations, many of whom may be totally innocent. We must give attention to the children who can become the next generation of haters and fighters. It’s a powder keg and we are once again making the mistake of not wanting to look at it until it becomes a huge problem.”
Read The Sunday Times Magazine’s cover story here.