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The City of Al-Hawl
A woman displaced from Syria's eastern Deir Ezzor province, carries a child as she walks in the al-Hawl refugee camp in al-Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria on April 18, 2019. (Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images)

The City of Al-Hawl

An-Nahar, Lebanon, December 31

Roughly 35 kilometers east of Al-Hasakah, in the northeastern corner of Syria, lies the Al-Hawl refugee camp. However, the term “camp” doesn’t quite capture what this place – originally opened to house women and children left behind by ISIS fighters – actually is. There is conflicting information about the number of people who actually live in this compound. The camp’s total population ranges somewhere between 60,000 and 65,000 people, half of whom are Iraqis, including an estimated 28,000 children. On paper, the camp is run by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Al-Hawl is a city in every sense of the word – closer to Fallujah than to Guantanamo. It boasts several markets with merchants and vendors, means of transportation and even “neighborhoods.” But the most important elements of life in the camp are hidden from plain sight: there are underground courts, executions, fines, imprisonments, marriages and power hierarchies. Those familiar with Al-Hawl admit that ISIS has a network of secret representatives who have taken over the camp to establish nascent cells within it. They communicate with the caliphate from inside the city. They instill terror and fear among the camp’s population, consisting only of women and children, in order to impose the Islamic State’s control over everyday life. ISIS cells inside the camp have also formed a “Hisbah agency,” or Islamic police, mostly made up of foreign women. This group arranges the provision of weapons, supports logistical operations, sets up communications systems and provides transportation to and from the city. While the SDF forces nominally control the camp, the real power belongs to ISIS, which seeks to impose itself on the residents’ daily lives. To date, the United States has pressured Western governments to take back their citizens and their children who are found in the camp, but most of these countries refuse to do so. This city is not a prison. Yet it falls outside any system of international law or any single country’s established legal system. Indeed, Al-Hawl is a testament to the failure of the international legal system to deal with terrorism. The human beings trapped in the camp have been neither convicted nor freed; they’re stuck somewhere in between. Coalition forces demonstrated unquenched thirst for bombing and destroying the cities and villages from which these individuals fled, but they seem unenthusiastic about reintegrating them back into society. After this devastation, coalition countries were supposed to exert at least some energy in dealing with the very conditions that allowed terrorism to spread in the first place: things like tyranny, sectarianism and abject poverty. Without addressing these root causes, the fight against terrorism will remain futile forever. Meanwhile, in the absence of any other role model to follow, the children of the Al-Hawl camp will continue to live in misery, exclusion and despair – and will grow up to join the ranks of ISIS and its likes. – Samir Al-Taki (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)

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