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Out of the Black in Kazakhstan

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— 9 minutes reading time

Above: al-Hol camp, Syria


Stevan Weine, Director of Global Medicine and Director of the Center for Global Health, UIC College of Medicine, Chicago, Illinois (USA)

Gulnaz Razdykova, Director, Center for Analysis and Development of Interfaith Relations, Nur Sultan, Kazakhstan

Noah Tucker, Nonresident Senior Fellow, the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, UK

The following opinion piece has been written by a guest author. The views expressed in it are the author’s own and cannot be attributed to the Strong Cities Network, its members or its Management Unit.

In early January this year, Kazakhstan experienced a wave of anti-government protests that quickly spread nationwide. In little over a week, dozens of protesters and several law enforcement officers were killed and government buildings were set on fire. President Qaysm Joomart Tokaev stated that “terrorists” were cooperating with “external terrorist groups” and declared a state of emergency nationwide, ordering law enforcement to “shoot to kill without warning”, shut down the internet, and imposed martial law. President Putin then dispatched Russian troops to “keep the peace”.

While President Tokayev and other government officials have begun to acknowledge both that most protestors were peaceful and that significant economic reforms are needed, the narrative of a terrorist – and specifically Islamist – threat has not gone away. With Kazakhstan now host to one of the largest contingents of returnees from the Syrian conflict in the world, these claims have led many both inside and outside the country to speculate that these returnees may have been involved in the protest and driven the turn to violence. While it remains unclear how the unrest escalated, there is no evidence that Kazakhstan’s returnees from Syria were involved.

The baseless speculation on the part of the government, the public, and some Western commentators, as well as a sudden spike in Islamophobia within Kazakhstan, threaten to both obscure and undermine a unique success story in an increasingly challenging context.

Repatriation of Women and Children:  the Zhushan Operation

“We were in a little black prison cell. It felt like we could never get out of it.” So said one of the women brought back to Kazakhstan from Syria by the government of Kazakhstan’s Zhushan Humanitarian Operation. She was describing not an actual prison cell, but the repression, fear, and fundamentalism all women lived under and some embraced in ISIS-controlled territory in Syria. She is one of many Kazakhstani women who had apparently changed their religious beliefs, broken off contact with family and friends, and followed their husbands or boyfriends to the so-called Caliphate.

After ISIS lost control of territory, these women and their children ended up in Al-Hol refugee camp in Syria. One woman described how she and the others felt in the camp: “We feel like we don’t belong to anybody.”

With hundreds of its citizens in Al-Hol and other camps and detention centres in northeast Syria, Kazakhstan has done something commendable with these women and their children which many other countries have been unwilling to try: rescued them from Al-Hol, brought them home, welcomed them, and helped them to try to restart their lives as ‘ordinary’ citizens.

The women feared they could be imprisoned or that the offer to return home was a cynical trick. Even if the government kept its promise, many were afraid their families and communities would reject them. “Once I left the country, will they accept me?” said one woman.

Reintegration and Rehabilitation: A “Human Centred” Approach

Any doubts these women had were put to rest during their first month in the government rehabilitation centre in Aktau, where the women and children found they were welcomed and supported.

We were recently in Kazakhstan to look at how their programme has progressed. We visited five cities with the largest concentration of returnees: Shymkent, Atyrau, Aktobe, Uralsk, and Karaganda. The visit was arranged by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the regional governments in the country, with financial support from the United States Government to provide training and other advice to local practitioners working with the returnees. At each location, we met with a wide range of staff, including psychologists, religious counsellors, school psychologists, government officials, and the Zhusan women.

We felt the trust they placed in us. That allowed us to start to trust in other people again.>

The women were resettled in 12 different regions in Kazakhstan and the country’s three largest cities. In each one, there is a locally-run effort to support them which includes the regional government, the Office of Religious Affairs, the Regional Department of Education, Rehabilitation Centres for Victims of Extremism, religious non-governmental organisations, the local police, and security agencies.

The practitioners and Zhusan women spoke of their progress and openly talked about some key challenges and gaps.

One woman reflected on what she was like when she first returned: “I don’t recognise myself then. We were afraid. We thought we were just going to die and go to heaven. Now we see we have to live and provide for our children and we have a future.”

The programme invested heavily in their reintegration. It appears significant progress has been made both for mothers, in terms of family reunification, housing and jobs, and children in terms of schooling. One woman spoke for many: “We felt the trust they placed in us. That allowed us to start to trust in other people again.”

The women are asked to participate in holiday celebrations, wear traditional costumes, learn some songs, and show they are a part of society. Religious counsellors and psychologists educate and coach them on the version of Islam taught by the state. By their own criteria, there have been many successes. “They broke off contact with our religious community and their family and friends. They have [since] renewed those contacts and follow Kazakhstan’s national traditions.”

To Western eyes, this approach to rehabilitation may seem more performative than substantive. But then again, efforts to change returnees’ ideology are not necessarily effective and are controversial. The Kazakhstan approach is highly consistent with its society’s government-promoted religious practices.

Regarding psychosocial and mental health adjustment, many of the women say they are less fearful and more hopeful than when they first returned. They believe that the best thing for them and their children would be to forget their time in Syria. However, many women still report some depression and traumatic stress symptoms and the practitioners are unfamiliar with trauma-informed care which would likely benefit the returnees.

Overall, the women of Zhusan told us they are satisfied with the programme. They noted the help of religious counsellors, psychologists, teachers, local governments assisting in job training and placement as well as housing and legal support. One woman said, “Give people a chance to change. Rehabilitation works.”

The most powerful change process we witnessed was the welcoming and valuation of women and children. All the Zhushan women we met cited being welcomed, trusted and forgiven. They report having their basic needs provided for (food, safety, shelter, comfort – all of which many women highlight they did not have in Syria), and having a future for their children as key initial components of the rehabilitation process.

One woman said, “Give people a chance to change. Rehabilitation works.

As one of the women put it: the practitioners and officials associated with Zhusan “showed us that we are inseparable members of our society.” They told us they have become progressively more open, more relaxed, more trusting, more believing in themselves, and more connected with family, community, and society.

Questions Concerning the Future

Despite the areas of progress that were shared with us, we are also exposed to some of the significant questions that come with the rehabilitation process that could, if not adequately addressed, potentially stall or even undo the initial success:

  1. What if children want to know about their time in Syria and family members who died there? Several women asked us, “What should we tell [our children] when they ask about why we were in Syria and what happened to my father?” As much as they sometimes wish to forget this dark chapter of their lives, they grudgingly acknowledge that it cannot be erased. Some children have already started to ask. The recent crisis in Kazakhstan has triggered memories among children and mothers. But presently the mothers are not prepared to have those conversations in a way that would be helpful for their children and family.
  2. What if women and children reject the state’s version of ‘traditional’ Islam? In some of the more challenging cases, women reject interaction with state-sponsored religious counsellors and return immediately to the same social networks that led them to Syria in the first place. A few have arranged informal nikoh [Islamic] marriages with men serving prison sentences on extremism charges to demonstrate their loyalty to the social networks to which those prisoners still belong. The programme has yet to develop a concept of rehabilitation that could accommodate those who eschew violence but hold religious values (e.g., that preclude participation in certain public holidays or want their daughters to wear a hijab in school) that are not aligned with the state’s version of Islam.
  3. What if children and women cannot remain anonymous in society? The Zhusan programme has intentionally not informed others in their communities or schools about those who have returned from Syria. However, we heard of some examples where this secret had been revealed and wonder if it can be kept for all the others. Strategies for preparing communities and overcoming stigma have not been developed and some women describe the panic created when they read how returnees, including their husbands, are portrayed in the media as ‘terrorists.’

Before January 2022, we believed that satisfactory answers to all of these questions could be found with continued support from dedicated practitioners across Kazakhstan, its local, regional, and federal leadership, and the international community. However, the recent protests and government response in the country have introduced new challenges which collectively create a major stumbling block to realising a successful rehabilitation and reintegration programme for the returnees from former ISIS-controlled territories in the long-term.

First, for women and child returnees, the protests and crackdown can act as a trigger, causing traumatic memories to return and having a negative impact on their mental health and functioning. Second, there has been a sudden growth in Islamophobia voiced by leaders and the media, which has inflamed public attitudes against the Zhusan women in particular.

One practitioner recently said, “The women want to just be regular people. They want everyone else to forget about them. This new attention could make it more difficult for them to reach that goal of becoming a regular person in society.”

The Zhusan program has certainly helped many women and children to reintegrate into society, but, going forward, it may need to do more to protect against elements of the wider social-political-cultural ecosystem turning against them and leading to the kind of grievances that drove some people to leave for the Islamic State in the first place.

This article was written as a follow-up to the January 2022 SCN webinar: Rehabilitation & Reintegration of Family Members of Foreign Terrorist Fighters: The Roles of Cities and Other Local Actors. You can watch the recording of this webinar here To find out more about this work, you can email us at [email protected].