For months her fate has been unknown. But RICHARD PENDLEBURY tracked British jihadi bride Shamima Begum to a new Syrian camp — where she claims to be a changed woman (complete with lip gloss and diamante nose stud) – So do YOU have any sympathy?
- Shamima Begum was seen perched on a sofa on a sun-blasted Syrian hillside
- She is not wearing a veil and wears a diamante nose stud and possible lip gloss
- In the past six months she says she has not spoken to anyone from the UK
In the corner of a cabin behind a wire fence on a sun-blasted Syrian hillside, a girl from Bethnal Green is perched on a sofa, regarding me warily. The first things I notice about her are the absence of a veil, the glint of a fashionable diamante nose stud and the application of what looks very much like lip gloss.
There is also the cheerful plum-coloured — rather than Islamist black — hijab. From beneath her long grey skirt a baby-blue nylon trainer is peeping. All these aspects of her appearance are new and unexpected. Yet her face is instantly recognisable. She is the British teenage Isis bride, Shamima Begum.
For the past six months no one from her home country has spoken to her, she says. That is, no one outside this internment centre whose name can be loosely translated as Camp Sunshine.
Shamima Begum is no longer wearing a veil. She is also wearing a diamante nose stud and a substance that looks like lip gloss. (Pictured: Shamima in an interview for ITV news after the Home Office removed her British citizenship)
For the past six months, Shamima says, she has not heard from anyone from her home country. (Pictured: Shamima in an interview for Sky News)
They have either made no effort to do so, or she has rejected their approaches because she could not cope with the attention. And those she once felt closest to are no longer around.
‘I have no real friends,’ she says to me. ‘I have lost all the friends who came with me. Now I do not have anyone.’
Her hands are clasped and make a constant wringing motion. During our conversation it becomes clear she is struggling under enormous psychological strain. Something approaching despair.
‘My mental health situation is not the best,’ she says. ‘My physical health is OK. I am still young and I do not get sick. That is not my problem. Mentally, though, I am in a really bad way. I need therapy to deal with my grief. It is so hard. I have lost all my children.
‘None of the people I am living with in here know what I have experienced. They are not like my school friends who I could always talk to. They do not understand what I have been through.
‘There is no mental health provision. I have heard that in other camps there is psychiatric help, but not here.’
Shamima is consumed by sadness. But should we care?
Shamima said that she had ‘no real friends’ and has ‘lost all the friends that came with me.’ (Pictured: Shamima, centre aged 15, with Kadiza Sultana, 16, left, and Amira Abase, 15, right, going through security at Gatwick airport before joining Islamic State)
For many, she is a pariah, a hate figure. She is a ‘traitor’ who threw in her lot with a murderous Islamist cult which killed, raped and enslaved across Syria and Iraq and whose sympathisers have carried out mass casualty attacks on home soil.
She should be left to ‘rot’ on this hillside, a number of commentators and columnists have declared.
Her saga began in February 2015 when, aged 15, she and Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana, two friends from the Bethnal Green Academy school, left the UK.
The trio flew to Turkey — photographs of them going through security at Gatwick made them look like excited teenagers off on holiday — and from there crossed into IS-held territory in Syria.
They were following in the footsteps of another schoolmate, Sharmeena Begum (no relation) who had travelled there the year before.
Shamima begum also said that she needed therapy to help her deal with mental grief. (Pictured: Shamima in an interview with ITV News)
Within ten days of her arrival, Shamima had been married off to a Muslim convert turned IS fighter called Yago Riedijk. But the tide was about to turn for the murderous caliphate.
Having conquered vast swathes of Syria and Iraq, Isis began to collapse under the onslaught of a U.S.-led coalition and Russian airstrikes. The caliphate’s last stand took place at Baghuz in March this year.
Shortly before that, Shamima had been found among thousands of other Isis wives and children in the sprawling Al Hawl internment camp, having trekked across the desert to escape the final battle.
It is hard to forget her apparently damning words in the first interviews after she was discovered.
She did not regret joining the caliphate, she said. She had wanted its victory. Most egregious perhaps was her admission: ‘When I saw my first severed head it didn’t faze me at all.’
She appeared to continue to espouse aspects of Isis ideology and mitigated its atrocities. She also said: ‘I’m not the same silly little 15-year-old schoolgirl who ran away from Bethnal Green four years ago.’ Many agreed. She had grown into a dangerous terrorist. This view was then compounded by anti-Isis activists who claimed Shamima had been part of the hesba — the Isis morality police who beat and tortured those who failed to meet the cult’s strict dress and behavioural codes.
She said that there was no mental health provision where she is. The camps name roughly translates as Camp Sunshine
They also alleged she had carried an AK-47; that she had been involved in recruiting other young women to the cause and had even helped sew Isis suicide bombers into their explosive vests so they could not be removed before detonation.
Caught in a media frenzy — and anger from some IS supporters that she had spoken to Westerners — she was moved to the much smaller Roj Camp ten days after her son Jarrah was born. He caught an infection and died in a nearby hospital shortly afterwards.
The decision to allow Shamima’s family legal aid to fight the Home Secretary’s subsequent decision to revoke her British citizenship was greeted with anger in some quarters. Bangladesh, the birthplace of her parents, would hang her by the neck until she is dead, its foreign minister said. Then she seemed to disappear from view entirely. Last week, the internet was alive with claims that Shamima had been flown to the UK and would be given a new identity; that she was being represented legally by Cherie Blair, wife of former PM Tony Blair. The rumour was shared more than 50,000 times on Facebook and Twitter.
Shamima was also wearing a blue nylon trainer when she was interviewed by Inspire. (Pictured: Shamima in an undated photo from police)
But it simply wasn’t true, as confirmed by my encounter at Roj Camp.
It is easy to have such antipathy towards her when you have not met — let alone spoken to — her. It is easy to forget her youth; that she was still a child and had not even taken her GCSEs when she was groomed and persuaded to travel to Syria.
Easy, also, to forget she was then married off to a 22-year-old Dutch jihadi with whom she had three children in quick succession, all of whom died of disease or malnutrition in the space of five months.
In the hour we spend together, Shamima seems to have changed her tune dramatically regarding Isis. She talks of her hatred for Islamic State, her continued fear of its adherents, her ongoing ‘rehabilitation’, and of what she hopes for the future.
She says she is happy she is no longer in the Al Hawl camp which holds more than 70,000 Isis family members and was described to me this week by a Kurdish official as a ‘ticking time bomb’ of Islamism.
A new Islamic State is being cultivated inside its boundaries and I was shown sickening photographs of beaten and tortured corpses of women and children who have fallen foul of the female IS fanatics who effectively run the site. The Kurdish guards are regularly attacked.
What of the inflammatory comments Shamima made as a 19-year-old adult in Al Hawl camp?
‘I want to say this and I want you to report it clearly,’ she begins. ‘I hate the Dawla [the IS name for itself] so much. I hate these women and what they stand for and what they believe in and that they think they can terrorise anyone who does not share their views.
‘I said those things then to protect myself and my unborn son. That is all. I did not receive threats [from IS women] at first because I made it seem as if I was with them, that I still supported Isis and was against the West and still radical.
‘When I came to this new camp a lot of dangerous women thought I was on their side. But it was a facade to protect me and my son. Now they have figured it out and they hate me.’ It is for this reason she asks not to be photographed.
Before coming to Camp Sunshine, she was staying at the camp in Al Hawl which had no running water as radicals kept throwing rocks at tankers
And the reports that she was a hesba enforcer? She is indignant. ‘That is such bulls**t. For the first eight months [in the caliphate] I was waiting at home for my husband who was in prison suspected of spying. After that I was constantly making babies. I did not even speak Arabic.’
There are some 700 families in Roj Camp, some Isis but the majority Syrian civilians displaced by the war. The camp has about ten shops where all kinds of merchandise, from make-up and jewellery to TV sets, are sold. It is run by ordinary refugees who are allowed to enter and leave the camp at will, unlike the Isis contingent.
Shamima shares a tent with a Canadian woman 30 years her senior. ‘She is old enough to be my mother and certainly she treats me like a child. I have to keep our tent tidy.’
They have a TV and Shamima says she keeps abreast of world events through Arabic satellite channels. She can also watch some of the latest films. ‘I have seen Men In Black: International and Spider-Man: Far From Home,’ she says.
Shamima Begum: Her story in brief
The British-born schoolgirl left her family in East London to join IS at the age of 15 in February 2015.
She lived in the Syrian city of Raqqa and married a Dutch jihadi named Yago Riedijk with whom she had three children, all of whom died as infants.
After being missing for four years, the teenager resurfaced at a refugee camp earlier this year saying she wanted to come home and pleading to be allowed back.
In an interview on whether she regretted joining ISIS, Shamima said: ‘Yes, a mistake in coming here, living under Islamic State.
‘In a way, yes, but I don’t regret it because it’s changed me as a person.’
In a dramatic move, Mr Javid ordered that she be stripped of her citizenship ‘in order to protect this country’.
She is now fighting to appeal the removal of her citizenship.
‘The TV is a good form of escapism. I can stare at it all day. When I feel very low and have no one to talk to I just sit there in front of it and zone out.’
She also listens to pop music, something she could not do in the caliphate. ‘I missed it so much since I first came to Syria, Western music. The type of music people my age listen to back home.’
She says the new camp has better sanitation than the previous one. ‘There is running water and the supply is always there, unlike at Al Hawl where the radicals threw rocks at the tankers. The toilets aren’t clogged up either because the maintenance men aren’t attacked here, like they were in the other place.’
What, then, of communication with the outside world?
‘Yes, there is a phone here we can use. You are allowed a one-minute call every so often. Most people use it to ask for money. But my family don’t really talk to me.’
‘No, not at all. I have not spoken to them since I went to Syria.’
Have you tried?
‘Yes. I have tried to phone them. I got through on the camp [mobile] phone. I sent them a message and they asked me for confirmation [of my identity] on voicemail. I sent it and then heard nothing after that.
‘My parents have always been angry with me. I was oppressed [as a teenager]. It was a stereotypical Asian family. Very conservative.
There is also a phone in the new camp where you can make a one-minute call every day. (Pictured: Al Hawl camp where Shamima lived before heading to Camp Sunshine)
‘They were angry that I went. They were angry that I did not speak to them when I was [in the caliphate]. I could not tell them that I could not speak to them [from inside]. After the whole media spotlight, they are angry about what I said. But I had no choice. When I left for Syria my relationship with my family was already on a tightrope. Coming here did not make it better and me speaking [earlier this year] made it worse.’
She adds: ‘I know what will happen if I can go back. Initially they will be happy and loving, but then they will just become angry and hostile again and I am just not ready for that.’
She says she has received no visits from British officialdom or family lawyers. She has been visited by an official from the Netherlands, the home country of her husband who is in custody elsewhere.
The camp officials told me there were six other British Isis women there, all of Pakistani origin, and 14 children.
‘I tend to avoid them,’ says Shamima. ‘I think most of those women have also had their citizenship taken away. British government officials came here to tell them. I only found out about my own because a journalist told me. They showed me the letter that my family had received.’
One of the two school friends with whom she set out on her disastrous trek to Syria is reportedly dead. Kadiza Sultana was said to have been killed in a Russian airstrike in 2016. Shamima has lost touch with the other, Amira Abase.
Scotland Yard is investigating a possible criminal case against her.
Scotland Yard is investigating a possible criminal case against Shamima. She has already been stripped of her British citizenship by the Home Office. (Stock image of Scotland Yard in London in August 2018)
She says: ‘The only crime I committed was to come to Syria. I would like to be at home. There is more safety in a British prison, more education and access to family. Here, there are so many uncertainties about what will happen. It is still a warzone.
‘I want to be taken back and put on trial in my own country. In a way it is already a punishment being in this camp.’
I interview her under the benign gaze of another young woman.
Cudi Serbilin is a Kurdish soldier who fought Isis and is now in charge of the caliphate’s surviving women in the internment camps in north-east Syria. She is dressed in a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt and combat trousers and is only four years older than Shamima. There is clearly a mutual trust, perhaps even affection, between them.
The rise of Islamophobia
Last year hate crimes rocketed by nearly a fifth in England and Wales, latest figures reveal.
There were 94,098 such offences recorded in 2017/18, an increase of 17 per cent on the previous year, while statistics show the figure has doubled since 2013/2014.
In November, a 15-year-old boy who whose family escaped war in Syria and were relocated to Huddersfield, was beaten up and ‘waterboarded’ on a school field, and told how he was so upset and ‘ashamed’ of the attack he dreaded returning to school and cried himself to sleep.
What does Ms Serbilin think of her celebrity prisoner? ‘She is always silent,’ she begins. ‘She does not express her feelings and her situation is very bad. Her mental illness is very natural because of what she went through. Her children were killed. It was a violation of human rights to recruit a 15-year-old schoolgirl here. We support her as much as we can.
‘We brought her here from Al Hawl because she was in great danger. Many Isis women there wanted to kill her or beat her, every day. The danger is less here.’
The commandant does not allow the Isis women to wear black or cover their faces. ‘I tell them black is symbolic of IS ideology. To wear other colours is a form of rehabilitation. There was resistance at first but some do not even wear the hijab any more. We try to change their mentality.’
Does she believe Shamima’s expressions of loathing towards the caliphate and its fanatics? Are they not simply self-serving?
‘I believe she truly regrets she was once one of them. She was broken. She refuses to talk about her past. I want her to talk about her future. And give her some hope.
‘Did you see how she pierced her nose? She did it two months ago with an American woman. They used garlic to sterilise the skin and then a needle. They bought their studs from the bazaar.’
Before I go, I give Shamima two paperbacks I have in my rucksack. Both seem apposite in their ways and might yet contribute to her ‘rehabilitation’.
One is Heart Of A Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov, a satire on another great ideological tyranny — Soviet Russia. The other is A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush by Eric Newby. It is the account of how Newby, with no mountaineering experience, set out from London to climb a high peak in Afghanistan — and failed. A foolish adventure which might well have been his last.
She is genuinely grateful. ‘The only books here are so childish,’ she says.
Six children died in Roj Camp last winter. Shamima, who turned 20 last month, has no more children to lose. What does the UK gain by pretending that she too no longer exists?
That is a question that has troubled me since I met her. I have a daughter the same age as she was when she made her egregious, life-changing mistake.
Try Shamima at the Old Bailey by all means. Put her in handcuffs if that helps. But surely we can’t simply leave her here ‘to rot’ or fall victim to random jihadi justice.
She is British born and bred. Who knows what she really thinks now? But we are not the Islamic State.
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