The fixation of Western media on blue-eyed, blonde-haired women in the camp erased the sufferings of thousands of people residing at the same site.
Al Hol, a sprawling refugee camp located on the outskirts of a town in northeast Syria, hosts between 55,000 and 61,000 people, most of whom are Syrian internally displaced people (IDPs) and Iraqi refugees, although there are over 40 nationalities at the site in total.
Since 2019, Al Hol has regularly been called the “Daesh camp,” as it holds roughly 10,000 foreigners who are, in some capacity, related to dead, imprisoned, or in-hiding Daesh members.
But the name is, at best, completely inaccurate.
At worst, it’s an erasure of the identities and lived experiences of the thousands of Syrians and Iraqis who desperately escaped Daesh once.
Now, many are having to do so again as Daesh resurges within the camp.
READ MORE: Syria's largest camp for Daesh prisoners is a recipe for disaster
Decades of conflict
Al Hol was first established in 1991 by the UNHCR to support Iraqis displaced by the Gulf War. Supporting around 15,000 people at the time, it continued to grow throughout the US invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s, during which more than one million Iraqis sought refuge in neighbouring Syria.
In 2014, when Daesh began to take control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria, the camp once again saw an influx of refugees, mostly those from areas that had either been taken over by Daesh or seen heavy fighting between Daesh and US-allied forces.
After five years of heavy fighting that devastated both Iraq and Syria, Daesh lost its last remaining territory during the 2019 Battle of Baghuz. Those in Baghuz, including residents, and the wives, children, and relatives of Daesh members, numbering around 40,000 in total, were forced to flee.
They took refuge in Al Hol, and the population of the camp swelled once more. By some estimates, the months after the battle saw over 80,000 residents in the camp.
According to Orwa Ajjoub, a senior analyst at COAR Global who focuses on terrorism and Syria, this is where the problematic name of Al Hol as a “Daesh camp” began to originate.
“It’s a very stigmatising name,” he says. “People in Baghuz had no other option.”
But most media outlets didn’t think so, and continued to highlight the journeys of the foreign women in the camp, particularly white women hailing from Western nations like the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Belgium, despite the fact that they made up a mere 10 to 15 percent of the camp’s demographic.
It was, in no way, a surprising fixation: Netflix itself has produced an episode on blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Samantha Lewthwaite, a British militant who is believed to be a member of Al Shabab.
When Sally Jones, another British militant with similar features to Lewthwaite, was killed by a drone strike in 2017, it was covered by media outlets across the globe. For reference, 2017 saw the death of over 10,000 Syrian civilians.
Both Lethwaite and Jones were called “white widows” in the press.
For Ajjoub, it’s easy to spot the fixation on foreigners in Northeast Syria: neighbouring camps like Al Roj that are in just as precarious a situation as Al Hol but have a lower foreign population, are rarely discussed.
A new wave of violence
Since 2019, the conditions at Al Hol have continued to radically deteriorate. On one hand, there is little material support for the camp that is overcrowded and under-resourced: residents report having nothing but stale bread to eat and often complain about the lack of clean water. In the winter, there is little to protect them from Syria’s cold, which this week alone killed two babies in Idlib.
On the other hand, governments have been slow to repatriate citizens amid radicalisation concerns, leaving tens of thousands in limbo, some for nearly 10 years.
Some analysts argue that a lack of solutions is a primary reason behind the surge of violence seen in the camp over the last two years in particular, largely attributed to a rise in both pro-Daesh sentiment and concrete support from the terrorist organisation.
Since January of 2021, there have been 91 murders committed in Al Hol, including the murders of two aid workers.
Reports detail that the majority of the murders happened in the Syrian/Iraqi section of the camp, which is separate from the more secure foreign section, where foreign women and children are held.
But Ajjoub isn’t convinced that the reports are necessarily accurate, particularly when guards are few, and the structure of the camp does not make it impossible for residents to move between sections.
“When the guards go home, women can move between sections at night,” he says, noting that it is foreign women that primarily make up the hesba, the religious police force that attempts to ensure residents are upholding Daesh rules of modesty, among other things.
In December alone, there were four women murdered in the camp: two Iraqis, one Syrian, and one woman whose identity has not been confirmed. The perpetrator - like for most murders in the camp - has not been identified, but the murders are understood to have been committed by a Daesh cell.
Continued allegiance to Daesh within the camp is not just about ideology, however.
“Women receive money from Daesh,” says Ajjoub.
“If you’re a woman with a teenager, you’re more likely to be smuggled out of the camp because the child is an asset [to Daesh].”
Repatriation is the only solution
In order for progress to be made, Ajjoub is clear: citizens must be repatriated to their country of origin.
It's Western countries that have higher capacities for repatriation and deradicalisation programmes, among other things, Ajjoub believes.
And if anyone needs reminding of just what is possible in the absence of state solutions to the problem, he points to the recent overtaking of Al Sana prison by Daesh terrorists. The prison held 3,500 Daesh members, and it took the US-allied forces nearly a week to regain control.
“Al Sana prison should serve as a reminder for everyone involved in the Syria conflict that Daesh is still a threat,” he says.