U.S. and U.N. envoys to Uzbekistan have praised the country's repatriation of Islamic State wives and children in the Middle East, saying other nations should follow suit as a part of a global effort to reduce the risk of IS reemergence in Syria and Iraq.
"They have done a very credible, excellent job," Daniel Rosenblum, U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan, told VOA.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev's government began Operation Mehr, or Compassion, in 2019 to return noncombatant citizens from camps in northeast Syria held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Five operations since May 2019 have repatriated 435 women and children, mostly from Syria but also from Iraq and Afghanistan, including 343 minors ages 1 to 15.
The Uzbek government does not provide data on how many people have joined extremist militants overseas. Government studies estimate thousands, however.
Following recapture of the last IS pocket in Syria, Mirziyoyev announced a national priority in May 2019 of returning IS Uzbek families.
"That set the tone and was the right thing to do," Rosenblum said, adding that Washington supported the effort from the beginning.
VOA confirmed that the U.S. assisted the latest repatriation of 93 women and children from Syria in late April.
Officials told VOA that discussions to repatriate former IS fighters were underway, but that no decision had been made.
Helena Fraser, U.N. resident coordinator in Uzbekistan, said the country's "commendable experience and collaboration" could be a model for 56 other countries to repatriate nearly 10,000 citizens associated with IS in Syria.
"Mehr coincided with the release of U.N. key principles for protection, repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of women and children with links to U.N.-listed terrorist groups," Fraser said.
Returnees undertake a monthlong rehabilitation, established jointly with UNICEF, outside Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.
Fraser said UNICEF's technical and financial support ensured that returnees were protected and offered employment and education.
Choosing to return
VOA spoke to repatriated women who said the programs helped their transition.
Rano, a doctor, moved with her husband to the IS capital, Raqqa, in 2015. The couple moved to Russia from Uzbekistan in 2012 before crossing into Syria via Turkey.
"I accepted that the government had every right to prosecute us," Rano said. "I was ready to be tried. It would still be much better than living in Syria. But none of that happened. … My kids go to school. I'm a doctor."
Rano's husband died in a 2019 air bombing in Syria. Her family deeply regretted going to the region, especially with three children, but IS did not allow them to leave.
"My husband was not a fighter," she said. "He repaired cars and was a butcher."
Another mother of three, 40, who requested anonymity, told VOA she was convinced by acquaintances in Turkey that Muslim single mothers would be better off in the IS caliphate. Instead, she found "agony and misery."
"I'm hopeful people will accept and understand what took us to those parts of the world," she said. "We seek forgiveness."
Not their decision
Maqsuda Varisova, a doctor and parliamentarian, said many women were misled and deserve a second chance.
"We are bringing people home from the most dangerous parts of the world," Varisova said. "Women and children ended up there against their will."
None of the female returnees have been formally investigated for possible crimes. Varisova and other lawmakers told VOA the government would not take legal action against them.
"The state should care for its citizens here or anywhere," said Mohira Khodjayeva, a lawmaker.
"Uzbekistan has international obligations under conventions, protocols and treaties that call for humanitarian policies and acts," added Khodjayeva.
Some view Uzbekistan's approach as different from reintegration programs in neighboring countries such as Kazakhstan.
"Kazakhstan's focus is on deradicalization and ideological conversion," said Gavin Helf at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "Uzbekistan emphasizes reintegration into the community."
During initial rehabilitation, each returnee undergoes medical and psychological examinations and gets a new ID. The government monitors returnees through neighborhood councils and district administrations.
Nearly 100 personnel, including nurses, doctors and psychologists, work with each group.
'People make mistakes'
Not everyone agrees with the current approach. Some, including in the political establishment, are concerned that returnees could become a threat once reintegrated into society. Others say Uzbeks who left to join extremist groups were disloyal to Uzbekistan's secular system.
None of the women admitted to leaving for political or religious reasons.
"We lost our way, but people make mistakes," said Yulduz, 31, a mother of eight repatriated from Syria in 2020.
Yulduz followed her husband to Russia in 2011 "to have a happy life." But within a month, he sent his family to Waziristan, Pakistan. In 2014, she and her children ended up in IS territory with other Uzbeks.
"We experienced hell away from our homeland," said Farida, 34, a mother of three.
She left Uzbekistan in 2014 with her newborn to join her husband in Russia. Within a month, the couple moved to Turkey and then into Syria, "constantly under fire" between Aleppo and Idlib.
Farida lost contact with her husband in early 2019 before arriving at al-Hol camp. She is not sure if her husband is still alive.
"It's hard to imagine what I and my children went through for years," she said. "I don't wish that on anybody."
Steve Swerdlow, a human rights expert at the University of Southern California, said Uzbekistan should assure justice for those implicated in crimes, particularly men who fought with IS.
"Uzbekistan should repatriate men and, if warranted, investigate and prosecute those suspected of serious crimes to avoid indefinite detention that could amount to torture," Swerdlow told VOA.
U.N. Security Council Resolution 2396 binds Uzbekistan, encouraging member states to investigate and prosecute suspects for involvement with foreign terrorist groups.
Uzbek officials and lawmakers confirmed to VOA that agencies were discussing these issues.
"Given the absence of any fair trial proceedings for foreigners detained in northeast Syria, investigations by Uzbekistan and other home countries remain the only viable option to provide redress to victims for serious crimes the fighters may have committed," Swerdlow said.