Indonesia: Returnees from Syria Recount Fear, Letdown of Life in the Islamic State

Rina Chadijah
110913-ISIS-620.jpg An Indonesian woman who fled the Islamic State tells her story, in a screenshot from a video released by the Indonesian government, Sept. 13, 2017.

Two weeks before he fled the capital of the so-called Islamic State, Heru Kurnia lived the most traumatic moment of a bitterly disappointing two-year stay in Raqqa.

He saw kids kicking a human head in the street as if it were a football.

The testimony is part of a video released by the Indonesian government this week in which eight of 18 Indonesians who escaped the Islamic State (IS) in June recount their experiences.

“There’s a clock tower roundabout there. The body was leaned against it, the head was being used as a toy by kids, kicked around. … People were watching something, I went over. Dear God, a dead person treated like that,” Heru told an interviewer in Erbil, Iraq, in August.

Adults standing nearby did not stop the children, he said.

Heru said the sight made him nauseous and “unbelievably scared.”

“I told them at home, we have to be careful,” he said, apparently referring to other members of the group living in Raqqa.

The Indonesians said they travelled voluntarily to Syria in 2015, attracted by the idea of living in an Islamic country and enticed by promises of financial support.

BenarNews could not independently verify their accounts or speak with members of the group, who were taken into police custody after they arrived in Jakarta on Aug. 12.

Indonesian law does not allow for people returning from IS territory to be arrested but the government has a weeks-long “socialization” program to help them re-enter Indonesian society.

BNPT and security officials did not immediately respond to BenarNews’ request for comments about the video.

‘They were like thugs’

The 12-minute video, titled “Stories of ISIS Deportees,” was filmed in Iraq and Indonesia and uploaded to YouTube by a media unit of Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) on Sept. 11. ISIS is another acronym for the Islamic State.

Reality in Raqqa was far from the pious, prosperous caliphate depicted in IS propaganda online,  according to the video testimony.

“Almost two or three times a week there were fights, for various reasons: food, getting shoved; they were like thugs. We didn’t interact very much with them because we were afraid. They were very rough people,” Heru said of other residents in Raqqa.

Nineteen-year-old Nurshadrina Khaira Dhania recalled fights and filth in a dormitory where she stayed with other Muslim women.

“They say cleanliness is next to godliness, but oh God, the filth. And the fights – they even involved knives. So different than what they said and shared in the Internet. They liked to gossip and slander other Muslim women,” she said.

She said the family had been seduced by empty promises, including that the cost of their  journey to Syria would be reimbursed.

“They made several promises, for example, if we as Muslims had big debts we couldn’t pay, ISIS would pay them off. And as for the expense of the journey from Indonesia to Raqqa, they would reimburse it. They would pay all those costs,” she recounted.

Her father, Dwi Djoko Wiwoho – reportedly a high-ranking civil servant in Batam when he left for Syria – said that instead of educational opportunties for his daughters in the so-called caliphate, the family found men eager to marry them off.

“They said there were free schools over there but when we arrived, they were told to get married,” Djoko, 50, recalled.

“There were a lot of proposals, Daesh people even came after my youngest daughter asking when she would start menstruating, saying, let us know when she’s menstruating,” he said, using another name for IS.

IS officials were intolerant of different ways of thinking, he said.

“They were very quick to find someone blasphemous, if it didn’t fit with their understanding, they were considered apostates, non-believers, ungodly,” Djoko said.

But their conduct did not reflect the teachings of Islam, according to Difansa Rachmani, 31. "They were just after power, treasure and women,” she said.

“Don’t waste your life being lied to by ISIS. Soon ISIS will be destroyed, I’m sure, God willing, they will be destroyed, because this ISIS is not about enforcing God’s word. Allah hates them.”


The whereabouts of the group – five men, nine women and four children – is unclear, but the end of the video shows them in tearful reunions with relatives.

Some Indonesians who saw the video expressed little sympathy for the family.

“Comfy, yeah, you burn your passport and your flag, you spit on your own country, you can still go back. They all should be monitored,” Bima Sudiarto wrote in the comments section of the video.

“The ‘short-fused’ will not believe this video … they will consider it engineered,” wrote  another commenter, using a nickname for hardline Muslim groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).

About 600 to 700 Indonesians have gone to Syria, according to Ridlwan Habib, a terrorism expert at Universitas Indonesia.

“Many of them were tempted by dreams of pots of gold in another country. Other than that, poor judgment and lack of information,” he told BenarNews when asked why people left for Syria in the first place.

Al Chaidar, a terrorism researcher at Malikussaleh University in Lhokseumawe, Aceh, said BNPT’s quarantining of Indonesians returning from Syria was important.

“There are those who have returned from Syria and then carried out acts of terrorism. That should be prevented from happening again,” he said, calling the BNPT video a positive step towards helping other Indonesians resist IS propaganda.


An Indonesian who returned from two years in Syria hugs a relative in a screenshot from a video released by the Indonesian government, Sept. 13, 2017. [BenarNews]


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