In February 2015 three schoolgirls from Bethnal Green in London, boarded a Turkish Airlines plane at Gatwick and flew to Istanbul – the first leg of a journey towards Syria, where a rapid land grab by Islamist militants a year earlier had established a self-proclaimed “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.
Five years later, Sultana is believed dead after a 2017 airstrike, Abase has been widowed and unaccounted for after recent bombing in Baghouz, eastern Syria, and Begum’s husband has been captured by Syrian forces.
Begum, now 19, is heavily pregnant, and says she has already buried two of her children. She is being held in a refugee camp and is desperate to return to the UK.
In an interview with The Times, Begum, who fled Baghouz and is now in al-Hawl camp in northern Syria, revealed what she has endured and witnessed during the collapse of Isis and its caliphate.
Within 10 days of arriving in Syria in 2015, Begum was married to Isis fighter Yago Riedijk, who had already been wounded fighting in Kobani, south of the Turkish border.
The couple lived together in Isis’ defacto capital Raqqa, but soon after their marriage he was arrested, accused of spying, and was imprisoned and tortured for six and a half months.
After his release, the couple remained in Raqqa, but Riedijk was no longer classified by Isis as a fighter.
“Mostly it was normal life in Raqqa,” Begum told journalist Anthony Loyd, adding that “every now and again” there would be “bombing and stuff”.
She said the first time she saw a decapitated head in a dustbin it did not faze her “at all”.
“It was from a captured fighter seized on the battlefield, an enemy of Islam. I thought only of what he would have done to a Muslim woman if he had the chance,” she said.
Meanwhile back in the UK, Metropolitan Police Chief at the time, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe apologised to the families of the three girls, after it emerged the police had not warned of the likelihood the girls might follow a friend who had left the same school and gone to Syria a few months earlier.
The families said they would have done more to monitor their children’s activities.
It emerged the three girls had paid more than £1,000 in cash to a travel agent for their flights to Istanbul, and police said they had raised the funds in part by stealing and selling their own families’ jewellery.
In 2017 Begum, her husband and their first child – a girl named Sarayah – left Raqqa and moved to the edge of Mayadin – a town on the Euphrates River in east Syria.
While here she was wounded in an airstrike which killed a woman and a child in the house they were all living in.
Since 2014, over 14,600 strikes have been carried out by US-led coalition forces fighting Isis, which include Australia, Bahrain, France, Jordan, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the UK.
Strikes reached a peak in Syria in 2017. In August alone, over 1,400 airstrikes were launched against Isis targets in the country.
Isis’s territory diminished rapidly. Raqqa was recaptured by an alliance of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters in October 2017.
The Iraqi government announced the war against the militants was “over” in December 2017.
By the beginning of 2018 the US-led coalition said 98 per cent of the territory once controlled by Isis had been regained, with militants only remaining in a few isolated pockets.
Despite her husband’s assurances of eventual victory for Isis, Begum was sceptical. “I began to think that the caliphate might not survive after all,” she said.
The family moved again, to the town of Susah, between Hajin and Baghouz. By now Begum also had a son, but as Isis lost ground, airstrikes grew increasingly frequent until they were a “daily occurrence”.
Towards the end of 2018, aged eight months, her son died. He was ill, undernourished and there was no medical care available.
Just one month ago, her one-year-and-nine-months-old daughter Sarayah also became ill and died. She was buried in Baghouz – the remaining Isis-held town in the region the family had retreated to.
As well as the death of her children, this point also signalled the demise of the caliphate for Begum.
She said Isis commanders told families of foreign fighters they could either stay on to face the bombing in Baghouz, or make their way into the desert and escape as best they could.
Begum said she saw her husband of four years surrender to Syria’s SDF as they had walked out of Baghouz. That was the last time she saw him.
Despite the enormity of what she has endured, she told The Times: “I’m not the same silly little 15-year-old schoolgirl who ran away from Bethnal Green four years ago … and I don’t regret coming here.”
She believes the caliphate “didn’t deserve victory”, due to its own corruption and oppression, and her objective now is to return to Britain. She said she would “do anything required” to return to live with her third child.
In the past those who have joined Islamist militants and then returned to the UK have faced prosecution for terrorism offences.
But in 2015 Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe said the three girls would not face terror charges or be treated as criminals.
Assistant Commissioner, Mark Rowley, head of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command, said at the time there was a “difference between the person running around northern Iraq with a Kalishnikov” and three schoolgirls who had been duped into travelling to Syria.
But as Ms Begum is now 19, she is legally an adult. If she was under 18, UK authorities could argue they still had a duty of care to her.
“As a British citizen she has a right to come home here,” Security Minister Ben Wallace said on Thursday. “We are obliged to make sure our citizens have rights, no matter who they are,” he told Sky News.
But he dismissed any suggestion of sending officials to meet Ms Begum, saying: “I'm not putting at risk British people's lives to go and look for terrorists in a failed state. Actions have consequences.”
Sir Peter Fahy, a retired senior police chief who was the leader of the Prevent terrorism prevention programme at the time the girls left the UK, told BBC Radio 4 if Begum was to now return, British authorities would first detain her and investigate whether there was enough evidence to prosecute her.
He said it was understandable why the government was “not particularly interested” in aiding her return.
“If the woman was showing complete remorse, it would be completely different,” he said.
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