By Ezel Sahinkaya, Rikar Hussein and Edlira Bllaca
While most European countries have been reluctant to take back their citizens who joined the Islamic State (IS) terror group in Syria and Iraq, the government of Kosovo has taken a different path by repatriating dozens of its people with plans to reintegrate them into society.
Some experts say Kosovo’s proactive approach, supported by a national action plan that addresses key components from detention to counseling to rehabilitation, is a unique example with considerable success in facing the dilemma of IS foreign fighters.
“Kosovo is a small country with a very well-established social structure,” said David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. “So, there is a system in place for managing their returns. That’s why the government of Kosovo is better suited to accept returns than larger countries in Europe where returnees could simply become absorbed into the local population and commit crimes either in their home countries or go to other battlefields.”
Kosovo is a predominantly Muslim nation in the central Balkan Peninsula with an estimated population of 1.9 million. Between 2012 and 2015, an estimated 355 Kosovars went to Syria to join IS and other Sunni militant groups, making up the highest per capita share of foreign fighters in Syria.
Pristina last April brought home from Syria 110 of its citizens, consisting of 74 children, 32 women and four men. The total number of adult returnees has reportedly since reached about 250, with another 98 killed in Syria and dozens of others remaining unaccounted for.
Leonora is one of the IS women who was repatriated along with her four children from the Kurdish-controlled al-Hol camp in northeast Syria on April 20, 2019.
Leonora did not want her real name used, to protect her identity and those of her children. She told VOA that the government had put her under house arrest while her court process was continuing. A court in November officially accused her of membership in a terrorist organization but has yet to indict her.
“We didn’t think we would ever come back. For us, everything was over and we thought we were going to be there all our lives,” said Leonora, speaking of her living conditions in the overcrowded al-Hol camp. She said that when the Pristina officials decided to take them home, “it felt like we were born again.”
Under Kosovo’s reintegration policies, Leonora is allowed to go out, with certain limitations and strict monitoring. Her children are already back in school in the hope of starting a new, normal life.
“I am just happy that my kids are in time to go to school now and haven’t lost a year. That’s why I’m so happy,” she told VOA.
Now 25 years old, the Kosovar woman had just finished high school and was planning to go to college when her husband arranged for them to move out of the country in mid-2014. Leonora told VOA she was unaware that her husband had Syria in mind when the couple and their children flew on one-way tickets from Adem Jashari International Airport in Pristina to Istanbul en route to the IS self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria on August 2014.
“It was a war zone and I didn’t agree to go. But everything was complicated because he didn’t make it clear to me that we were going to Syria,” she told VOA. “From here, we actually headed for [Turkey], to which I agreed to go, but at the last moment after we arrived in Turkey, he decided we would go to Syria.”
At the beginning of their stay in Syria, when IS was still in control of large swaths of land and had resources to pay salaries to its fighters, the family enjoyed a “comfortable life,” according to her. But things changed 2½ years later when her husband was killed on the battlefield as IS started losing ground to the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.
“Sometimes we were left homeless and sometimes two or three families lived in one house, each in a room,” she said. “Our payment was decreasing day by day. The last few months were the worst. It was terrible.”
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces declared IS defeated in March 2019. The forces still hold about 2,000 alleged foreign fighters and close to 14,000 foreign women and children in camps.
Kosovo officials in the past have said they considered the women and children to be “innocent victims,” lured by their husbands to the conflict zone. Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj in May said that his government was taking full responsibility for its citizens, though “everybody who returns will be subject to the law.”
Upon the return of its citizens, the Kosovar government allowed all the children to go home while the women were put under house arrest during their trials.
Astrit Dibra from Kosovo’s Special Prosecution Office told VOA that 20 of the women returnees have so far been indicted. Eighteen of the women were charged with “organizing and participating in a terrorist group,” with the rest charged with “joining or participating in foreign military or police, external paramilitary or para-police formations, in group or individually, outside the territory of the Republic of Kosovo.”
A majority of the men, about 85, have been prosecuted.
The government last year created the Division for Prevention and Reintegration, a cross-ministry agency assigned to support the repatriated women and children. Through reintegration program, the women and children are given special educational classes and are provided with food and clothing vouchers. Those in prison are put under deradicalization programs.
According to Kujtim Bytyqi, a Kosovo-based expert, the Kosovar government felt empowered to return its citizens from Syria because of its relatively small and homogeneous population.
“They are just Kosovar citizens, very well-integrated, because they were born here and their parents were born here. And it is a very small society, if I can say, so the government has very close cooperation with their families, their neighbors and their community,” Bytyqi told VOA.
Addressing why other European countries are less willing to take back their citizens, Bytyqi charged that “foreign fighters from EU countries are usually people who are citizens of that country, but their origin in most of the cases is some other countries. But in the case of Kosovo, they are just Kosovar Albanians who don’t have dual citizenship.”
Based on government documents, Bytyqi has found that at least five returnees have been involved in planning domestic attacks. While the government integration effort has been largely effective, he warned that “a small number of returnees remain highly radicalized and are both willing and determined to attack at home.”
Paul McCarthy, the Europe regional director at the International Republican Institute, told VOA that Kosovar officials need to address the fundamental issues that forced many of their citizens into radicalization.
While some citizens joined IS for ideological reasons, many others left Kosovo because of a deep feeling of injustice and lack of economic opportunities, he argued.
“It is extremely important, when we’re looking at the deradicalization process, also to look at strengthening Kosovo’s governmental institutions, as well to respond to their citizens and to listen to their grievances. One of the sources of radicalization is a feeling that institutions and society as a whole are not responding to an individual’s needs,” he said.