When car bombs exploded and rattled her apartment building in Idlib, Aisyah said she was scared at first. Then she got used to the blasts.
Aisyah, a Malaysian widow of an Islamic State fighter in Syria, said her youngest child would scamper to her, crying, each time they heard the blood-curdling explosions. Yet, before her husband was killed, she said she was determined to remain in the war-torn state.
“I was not strong enough (to stay). If my husband was still alive, I would probably stay,” she said. “I did not have the strength to continue to be there without him.”
Aisyah, 32, spoke to BenarNews at her mother’s home Wednesday in the east coast state of Terengganu, during an interview where she talked about her two years in Syria, within the vast territory once claimed by the Islamic State (IS) as its “caliphate.”
She adopted and chose to be identified with a pseudonym for her safety when she was brought home by Malaysian authorities in October 2018. Officials said she was the nation’s first female citizen successfully repatriated after living under IS rule.
At the height of its power, IS controlled more than 8 million people in a swath of land that spilled across the boundaries of Iraq and Syria, forcing people to go through its extreme interpretation of the Islamic law.
In March, after almost five years of firefights, U.S.-backed forces demolished the last IS stronghold in Baghuz, a small oasis town on the Euphrates River.
As a result, attention has turned to complex issues surrounding the extradition – or legal proceedings – for captured foreign fighters, as well as their wives and children. As it stands, most Western governments are not willing to take them back.
Giving a glimpse of life under IS
Aisyah said she never thought about returning home – not once – although she missed her family, especially her mother. But she feared for the lives of her two children after her husband died in early 2018 while fighting for IS.
It was her husband, a 34-year-old oil and gas technician whom she did not identify, who planned their travel to Syria, Aisyah said.
“He wanted to die as a Shahid (martyr),” she said.
Aisyah said she was eight months pregnant in 2016 when she entered Syria through Turkey with her 3-year-old daughter, after paying a Syrian guide U.S. $2,000 to smuggle them in.
With her husband having crossed into Syria with a group of men a week earlier, Aisyah and her daughter took the perilous journey with 15 women and children, including Indonesians, Americans and South Africans.
She recalled going through a five-hour trek through hills when they crossed Turkey into Syria.
“We departed Turkey after Asr (evening prayer) … and reached the top of a hill at 10 p.m. We scaled down the steep hill to get to the other side. I had with me a small bag containing few clothes, diapers for my daughter and biscuits,” she said.
“When we arrived, the guide fired a shot into the air and asked us to stop. A Syrian government soldier briefly detained us, but allowed us to leave,” Aisyah said.
At least 102 Malaysians had ventured to Syria and Iraq since 2013 in hopes of joining IS. Of that number, 40 have been killed in combat or other circumstances, including nine in suicide bombings, Malaysian security officials told BenarNews. Eleven have returned home, they said.
Out of 65 Malaysians who have been detained in Syria since the last IS bastion there fell, 39 have contacted police back home asking for help in repatriating them, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, the chief of the Malaysian police’s counterterrorist special branch, told journalists in Kuala Lumpur last weekend.
“They have contacted us and said they want to return to Malaysia. However, this involves a lot of parties and we need to gather them in one place,” Ayob said, according to Bernama, the state news agency.
“We believe that this is only a small number of those who want to come back, and the number will increase,” he added, as he broke the Ramadan fast with a group of former convicted militants during an annual dinner hosted by the Royal Malaysia Police.
During the interview in Terengganu, Aisyah said she and her family lived in the northwestern of Syrian town of Idlib, instead of their original destination Raqqa, a city on the northeastern bank of the Euphrates River. It was once a place of green parks and a thriving middle class.
They were the only Malaysian family in that community, she said. The rest were Indonesians.
“I heard there were Malaysians in Raqqa, but I also heard no one lived there anymore because when I arrived in Syria, that area was under attack. We were supposed to go there initially but we could not, so we settled in Idlib,” she said.
Raqqa was then controlled by IS, while Idlib was under the Syrian government, she said. Raqqa is now a wasteland of shattered concrete and buildings warped from war.
“The city (Idlib) was fine, like any city. People go about with their daily lives. Except that you can see men and soldiers on the streets carrying weapons,” she said.
Financial support from IS
Aisyah said her family received a monthly allowance of about U.S. $150 from IS.
“The amount would change every month, depending on the funds they have,” she said. “Sometimes we used our own money.”
Part of the money was used to pay for rent, the rest for food and groceries, she said, recalling how she changed apartments several times to make ends meet.
“The house rental for foreigners was expensive. Locals only pay half of the amount we paid. So we have to live with other families to cut the cost,” she said.
Aisyah grew up eating rice, the most important staple food in Southeast Asia, but the grain was hard to find in war-ravaged Syria, forcing her to use wheat. Fruits and vegetables were easy to find, she said.
“It is also expensive to buy meat,” she said, as she recalled that access to electricity was also limited, usually between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. daily. None during daytime.
The sound of explosions and staccato bursts of gunfire scared her youngest child all the time, she said.
“When that happened, he would come running to me hug me and cried,” she said. “The eldest was fine.”
While it was relatively easier to enter IS-controlled areas when Aisyah came in, witnesses had reported to human rights groups that it was very dangerous to escape because the militant group had mined the roads and punished people who tried to flee.
Aisyah last saw her husband when he left home for a military training.
Her son was born in Syria. She managed to return home after emergency passports were issued for them by the Malaysian government as all their documents had been destroyed. Aisyah said her son is stateless as his birth was never recorded.
“No documents to show that he was born in Syria and we did not register his birth,” she said.
A police source said it would take a longer time for Aisyah’s son to get his citizenship, even though his mother was a Malaysian.
“It’s a matter of documentation. Tedious and long process,” the source said.
Two female police officers were present while BenarNews was interviewing Aisyah. They did not interfere.
Eight months since her return home, life is now back to “normal,” Aisyah said, referring to her village life, where she now wakes up to the sounds of chirping birds, instead of explosions.
But even while surrounded by her loving family members, including her mother, she said she had a heavy heart leaving Syria.
“There was a sense of regret,” she said. “I did not expect that I would be returning home.”