An Indonesian woman is on her way home after being evacuated from Raqqa, Syria, the self-proclaimed capital of the so-called Islamic State, the Indonesian embassy in Damascus said in a statement Wednesday.
Migrant worker Sri Rahayu binti Masdin Nur, 40, a native of West Nusa Tenggara, was trapped for more than three years in the city, according to the statement.
"After careful planning and looking for the right time, Sri was evacuated through the mountainous Raqqa and Aleppo terrains in a clandestine journey of six days," it said.
Since conflict erupted in Syria in 2011, Indonesia has repatriated almost 13,000 migrant workers from the Middle Eastern country, embassy staff said.
Heads on a road
Sri went willingly to Syria in February 2011 to work as a housemaid in the city of Aleppo. When her contract ended two and a half years later, she was placed with an elderly Syrian engineer in Raqqa.
As the Syrian conflict heated up, Sri requested to return home. But an employment agent told her – falsely – that the Indonesian Embassy in Damascus had closed and there were no more flights to Indonesia, the statement said.
At the time, the Syrian civil war had raged for two and a half years, and Raqqa was under the control of the Free Syrian Army.
Three months later, at the end of 2013, IS entered Raqqa and claimed it as their capital.
Many local residents fled, but Sri’s employer chose to stay.
Sri witnessed IS cruelty first hand on several occasions, according to the embassy statement. One day, at the market, she saw decapitated heads lining the road.
After that, she rarely left the house unless it was urgent.
With the city under IS control, it was very difficult to secure basic necessities. During Ramadan 2014, to get a loaf of bread, she had to sleep in a bakery, the embassy statement said.
The embassy learned about Sri in June 2015 and launched efforts to evacuate her.
An embassy lawyer pressured her employment agency to assist her, but the agency said it was impossible to get someone out of Raqqa.
But one day, an employee of the agency who knew Raqqa well agreed to be sent to rescue her. The journey out took six days.
"To fool the IS soldiers, Sri and the agency employee said they were husband and wife," the statement said.
Sri arrived at the Indonesian Consulate in Aleppo in January 2016 and was brought to Damascus on March 12 for repatriation to Indonesia.
Indonesia’s Ambassador to Syria Djoko Harjanto praised collaborative efforts that led to her rescue.
"Without a strong network between the Embassy in Damascus, the Syrian government, and the local community leaders, it would be impossible to carry out the mission to protect citizens in the middle of the turmoil of the Syrian conflict," he said.
It was not the first such rescue, according to AM Sidqi, an embassy staff member.
"In January 2016, the embassy also managed to rescue a woman from Subang named Casih Binti Waan from the siege of IS in Deir Ezzor. The evacuation was conducted by a helicopter of the Syrian army," Sidqi said.
He added that since the conflict erupted in Syria in 2011, the Embassy had repatriated almost 13,000 migrant workers to Indonesia.
The Indonesian government has also responded to reports of Indonesian nationals joining IS, according to Fajar Nurhadi, chief of the division for the Protection of Indonesian Citizens Abroad at the Indonesian Foreign Ministry.
"Most of the reports come from police and people who have lost contact with relatives after getting news that they wanted to go Syria. We continue our prevention and rescue efforts," Fajar told BenarNews.
"Our representatives meet individuals or groups who want to go to Syria and we coordinate with the local police and immigration officers to deport them," he said.
According to Fajar, some mention economic reasons for joining IS. They are lured by big salaries and benefits promised by IS, he said.
According to data from the Foreign Ministry, some 217 Indonesian citizens have been arrested and deported from abroad, mostly from Turkey, before crossing to Syria, allegedly to join the extremist group .
On March 13, 14 women and children who claimed to want to join family members in Syria were stopped at Jakarta’s international airport just before departing for Turkey. Police told them to return home after questioning them.
According to the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), through September 2015, about 800 Indonesians had joined IS abroad.
In February, Indonesian President Joko Widodo told an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit that 329 of his fellow citizens had joined IS in Syria. That figure, he said, was relatively small compared with Indonesia’s population of 252 million.
On Tuesday, a West Jakarta court convicted and sentenced a man to three and a half years in jail for supporting IS, bringing to 13 the number of IS supporters serving prison sentences in Indonesia.