A mountain village in Dagestan, July 2012. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko
The Russian republic of Dagestan has since 2009 been the epicentre of insurgent activity in the North Caucasus. Last year, however, violence diminished at an astonishing speed, and in 2014 the conflict caused 54 per cent less victims than in 2013. One reason is that hundreds of the 2,400 Russian citizens thought to be fighting in Syria left from Dagestan. The figure is an official estimate, with most joining the Islamic State (IS) or groups associated with Jabhat al-Nusra; the real number is probably higher. In addition to the jihadis, many young women and widows of insurgents also made the so-called hijra (sacred migration) into "the lands of Caliphate".
The fate of one such family became the subject of a November interview by myself, Crisis Group's Europe and Central Asia Project Director, when I met Gasan (name changed), a schoolteacher from a Dagestani mountain village. In January this year, Gasan's 36-year-old wife secretly took their two daughters aged three and 12, and resettled in a part of Syria held by IS. In this testimony, Gasan describes the extraordinary ordeal he underwent to smuggle himself into Syria, how he lived in the IS 'caliphate' for five months and what happened when he tried to find his children and bring them back.
Ekaterina Sokirianskaia: How did you meet your wife? Was she already very religious when you first met?
Gasan: We met here, in Dagestan. She had come to this village for a wedding. We lived together here for 14 years. She worked as a medical nurse. At first, she didn't know what Islam was about, she was not religious. Only two or three years later did she get interested in Islam. She asked me if she could start covering herself and I agreed. I said there was nothing bad in it.
How did she become interested in IS?
Through her younger sister. Her sister used to live in Makhachkala, Dagestan's capital. She married a fighter who was killed in 2006. She was a widow with two children, a boy and a girl. In March 2014, we moved to Makhachkala. My salary here was small; in Makhachkala I found a better-paid job in construction, and my wife was selling tea in a teashop. We lived very close to her sister's place, and the two of them started to spend a lot of time together when I was at work. We soon started to have problems. My wife accused me of drinking alcohol, of not being a proper Muslim. Soon after, she left for her parents and asked for divorce. I said, you can go, but leave our daughters to me. We have three daughters, aged three, 12, and 14. In May 2014, her sister left for Turkey. My wife was in contact with her sister by WhatsApp [a popular messaging application] all the time and her sister invited her to join her. On 31 August, she left with the girls, without notifying me. Her uncle informed me two days after they had left. One month later she sent the older daughter back, because she had a health problem.
What was your reaction?
I tried to contact her by WhatsApp but she blocked me. I told her that I would find her. She asked for a divorce. I suggested that I come to Turkey and we decide it there by Sharia [Islamic Law]. She didn't want to discuss anything. I tried to persuade her parents to give me their address in Istanbul. I knew what was going to happen, I felt it already in August when she left. I told her family, if you don't tell me their whereabouts, she will leave for Syria. You can explain things even to a drunk person; these people were sober, yet they couldn't understand what I was saying. I told her brother, if you don't want me to go, you go yourself, at least take the children back. Then in January 2015, she left to join IS with two of our girls.
How did you learn about this?
I got a message from her sister's new husband. She married him in Istanbul, he was a Dagestani. He wrote to me on WhatsApp: "I see injustice in your case, your children are here in al-Tabqah [a town near Raqqa in northern Syria], come and take them". He gave me the phone number of a contact in Turkey and this person met me at the airport in Istanbul. I slept there one night and the next day I went to Gaziantep by bus. From Gaziantep, a guide took us to the davlya [his way of saying al-Dawlat al-Islamiyya, or the Islamic State].
Gasan's journey from Dagestan to IS-held territory in Syria in January 2015. CRISIS GROUP
What was the journey like? Did he take you alone?
There was another young family as well, all the women were in niqabs [black masks that cover the face]. I think the guy was a Chechen. We crossed the border, parts of it were mined, you had to know where to go. On the other side we were met by the davlya cars, pickups, and they drove us 7-8km. They had a special house, called a maqar, where they settled us. Before that, they took my passport away.
How was life in Al-Tabqah?
Once you cross into Syria, it's like entering a different world. You see mujahidin [fighters] and arms everywhere. Women walk around in niqabs. Still, taxis and shuttle taxis work. Markets are very lively, shops are working, internet cafés as well. But they don't have an internet connection like us, you have to buy access by the megabyte. Many foreigners were around, from Africa, Tunisia, many Chechens and Dagestanis. Women are not allowed to walk alone. Schools aren't open. Local people mostly work where they used to before the time of the davlya.
While I was there it was also bombed. There were ruins, burnt cars lying around .... In Al-Tabqah, drones were bombing as well.
How did you live there?
First, I lived with another fellow for two to three months, then I lived in a mosque. When you enter Syria, you have to start following all their Sharia [Islamic law] rules and pray, otherwise the khizba [police] will get you. For example, if you don't pray on time, they can take you and punish you. I told them that I did the hijra to the Islamic State, and then applied to the Sharia court to get my children back. I was able to see my children. I took them every day for a walk in the park.
I lived in the mosque between March and September. I could not even take my clothes off once. When they make their propaganda, they promise that everything will be provided for, but they should also mention that if you don't want to fight you have to provide for your own expenses. Nobody forces you to fight, but you do have to find a way to make a living.
There is no criminality there, people don't cheat you. If anyone steals they will chop their hand off, but they have to have proof and witnesses. If children steal, they don't cut off their hands, they give a warning and talk to their parents.
If you have a problem, you can complain through your translator. But usually they say that the state is just being built, be patient, in due course we will have everything.
They do have pharmacies, but of course there is a shortage of medicines. Once I went to a pharmacy, my whole body was aching as a result of this stress. I asked a Russian-speaker to help and asked for tranquilisers. They gave me vitamins. They also have hospitals, both soldiers and civilians can use them.
What about basic conveniences?
Electricity comes and goes. People don't have television at home, that's forbidden. In the city there are big TV screens in some places, where they show sermons or religious programs. Shops have pretty much everything, but the choice is limited. They have toys for children. I bought a big doll for my younger daughter.
What is the position of women?
Women can appear in the public sphere but they have to be fully covered, in a niqab. The strips for the eyes are covered with netting and they wear gloves. They usually walk in groups. In the past, when their husbands were killed, they were all put into special places called 'the house of brides'. Women lived there together with their children. They were taken care of, had internet there. But these were big houses, they didn't like it there. So, recently their Caliph said that even if her husband is killed, his widow can stay in their flat. There are 'seniors' among the women. If you need Pampers or chocolate for children, they'll organise this.
Are children also taught to handle guns and to fight?
Yes, 12 and 13-year-old boys are driving around on their motorbikes with machine guns. Starting from this age they fight.
What happened with your children and your case?
By the time I arrived, my wife had married some Uzbek. She told the authorities that I was a murtad [apostate] and she was free to do so. This Uzbek was a fighter and they were given a flat. They have these vacant flats. They say that they have ousted the kafirs [unbelievers] and now give their flats to the new settlers.
For my Sharia case I was told to go to Raqqa [the city that the Islamic State calls its capital]. Drones were bombing Raqqa. Any time something can be dropped on your head. The judges at the court were all Arabs. They gave me a guy who translated from Russian. My wife also came to the court. I won the case and they gave me my children. They also asked the children about their choice and they said they wanted to be with me.
How did you escape?
To escape, I had to plan carefully. People are very scared of everything there, you cannot discuss anything with anyone, [let alone] that I was planning to escape. I had only one goal: to get the children out. If I managed to get them across the border, my relatives would pick them up in Turkey. If they caught me they would put me in jail, take my children, and give them to the mother. I didn't have any documents. They take your papers and don't give anything in return. There are no IDs in IS's caliphate.
At first I couldn't figure out how I had entered Syria, I didn't know in which direction to go back. Then when I worked it out, I got in a taxi and went to the border to explore. I checked how it looked and calculated the best time for our escape. I decided that I needed to get to Jarabulus by the time of the evening prayer, namaz.
I warned my older daughter one week in advance. We travelled light, I just took a 1.5 litre bottle of water. At five o'clock in the afternoon I rented a minivan because there were no cars left. I told the driver that I wanted to see my brother in a nearby village, I was afraid he would report us.
Allah helped me. We were checked at the first checkpoint and then the other two checkpoints didn't stop us. When we entered the village it was dark. The driver dropped us and left. We continued walking. I was carrying the small child in my arms. We crossed the border in the dark around 9pm on 1 September. We kept on walking. Soon we heard a Turkish armoured vehicle, Turks were approaching. I don't know if they noticed us. They were patrolling their part of the border. I heard them shout in Turkish and they even started to shoot. But I don't know if they were really trying to shoot at us or if they were shooting into the air. They were 50 meters away from us. I knew they were nervous - earlier I had heard that two mujahidin had tried to get out and killed three Turkish border policemen.
We crawled 10 metres. The girls were scared, they clung to me and cried. I tried to calm them. There was an irrigation canal nearby where we sat for another 20-25 minutes. Then, the soldiers left and we continued moving. While we crawled I lost my shoes and tore my trousers and had to continue barefoot. By 2pm we reached a village on the Turkish side. There was a combine harvester where we slept till morning. I covered the girls with straw as I could. It was cold that night, I remember I had a purse which was covered with hoar frost in the morning.
There was a mosque 50 meters from there. In the morning after the azan [call for prayer] we came up to the mosque, I took slippers from there and we continued walking. Then I caught a taxi and we went to Gaziantep. I had $50 left but I would have needed $600 to get from Gaziantep to Istanbul by taxi. In Gaziantep, I found an internet cafe and called my wife's sister. I told her that I had no money. I asked her to find someone to help me. Two men came and helped me to get to Istanbul.
In Istanbul, I again went on the internet and connected with relatives in Dagestan. I said that I had no money, no place to stay, that the girls were very tired, and I asked them to at least take the children. They gave me the number of a local council member in Dagestan. His man met me in Istanbul, I waited for him at the Russian consulate, he took me to a hotel.
At the consulate, I declared that I had lost all my documents. They requested papers from Dagestan, my passport and the girls' birth certificates. This council member was able to bring me the papers quickly, and the consulate issued new documents within half an hour. He also brought me money and new clothes. And on 9th or 10th of September we returned home.
By the time I arrived, the police knew everything. I was interrogated seven times. The younger girl is okay, she is very young, you just buy her a chocolate bar and she is happy. The older one has nightmares, wakes up at night, she gets angry if anyone speaks badly about her mother, and the younger two don't care. My wife tried to contact the children once by WhatsApp, but I told her to never disturb us again.
This post first appeared here: http://blog.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/2015/12/01/to-the-islamic-state-and-back/