French ISIS widow in Syria camp, veil-free, wants to 'go home'

Frenchwoman Emilie Konig walks in Camp Al-Roj in northeastern Syria, on March 28, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

ROJ, SYRIA (AFP) - In a Syrian detention camp for people linked to the Islamic State group, French mother-of-five Emilie Konig has swapped her all-engulfing black robe for a sweatshirt and baseball cap.

The 36-year-old widow - who is on UN and US blacklists of dangerous militants, accused of recruiting ISIS fighters and inciting attacks in the West - says she's now desperate to go home.

Joining ISIS "wrecked" her life, said Konig, who was captured in late 2017 by Kurdish forces battling the Islamist terrorists in the eastern Syrian town of Shadadi.

"I want to go home to France," she told AFP. "I have my family there. I want to start my life over and right my mistakes." Konig - who frequently appeared in ISIS propaganda videos, including in a 2013 clip showing her training with a shotgun - now lives in the Kurdish-run Roj camp in northeast Syria.

Now sporting a hooded top, faux leather leggings and white hightop trainers, she said: "I'm already dressing ... to get used to my returning".

She said she hopes to work as an accountant back in France - even if Paris has been reluctant to repatriate citizens with ISIS links and would likely seek to try them on terror-related charges.

"When I do return, I won't be able to wear" a veil, she said, her dark, blond-streaked hair braided into a plait under her Yankees cap. "In the job I want to do... you can't wear it.

Online encounter

Syria's Kurds hold thousands of foreigners in their custody after leading the US-backed battle that ousted ISIS from its last patch of territory two years ago.

Of those, 800 European families associated with the Islamist group and 100 Syrian and Iraqi families live in Roj, according to a camp official.

Konig is vague about what pushed her to leave France in 2012, one year into Syria's civil war.

She says she arrived in Syria after she "met someone online" and agreed to marry him, becoming one of the first of hundreds of French citizens to join ISIS.

If allowed to return, she said she would like to take more classes to improve her accounting skills, and to start afresh for her five children, aged four to 16, who are all in France.

She sent home in January the three youngest children, born to her late French and Belgian husbands - a six-year-old boy and twin girls aged four.

"Since they left, not a day has gone by that I haven't thought of them," she said.

Emilie Konig is vague about what pushed her to leave France in 2012, one year into Syria's civil war. PHOTO: AFP

'Long live France'

Inside the dusty camp, a child pushed a kick scooter along a thin tarmac road beyond rows of white tents, while another played on a makeshift swing.

Women covered from head to toe in purple or blue robes - instead of the typical black outfit worn under ISIS - queued to get into a small market.

But others were dressed in more fashionable, modern clothing, and said they - like Konig - were ready to be repatriated.

"We want to go home," one of them told AFP, sunglasses on the top of her head and dark hair tied in a ponytail.

Another woman, with large white sunglasses and her hair bound up in a scarf above the neck, said: "We want to be repatriated." "Long live France," chimed in a third woman with curly blond hair worn loose.

'Most dangerous people'

Roj is one of two Kurdish-run camps housing foreign family members of suspected ISIS fighters.

It is smaller and better guarded than its overcrowded counterpart Al-Hol, which has been rocked by assassinations and break-out attempts in recent months.

The United Nations said the cost of being smuggled out of Roj can run as high as US$14,000 (S$18.762), compared to just US$2,500-3,000 from Al-Hol.

"We try to transfer the most dangerous people" here, the camp official told AFP. "We're trying to relieve the pressure off Al-Hol." Roj camp management "has banned covering the face and wearing black clothes," the camp official said.

Emilie Konig said she hopes to work as an accountant back in France. PHOTO: AFP

She said those who have started wearing modern clothing again "are trying to convince their governments to repatriate them".

But she added she believes that only a few were truly repentant.

'I'm a prisoner'

Konig said she was so desperate to see her children, she went on hunger strike in early March - but quit after eight days believing "there was no point".

Nonetheless, she added that "I hope one day to see my children again, that all six of us will sit around the same table".

The Kurdish authorities have repeatedly called on more than 50 countries to repatriate the men, women and children from their jails and displacements camps.

But their home nations have largely been reluctant.

In France, relatives and rights groups have urged Paris to bring back around 80 women and 200 children, including from Roj.

But the French authorities, reeling from a string of deadly ISIS-inspired attacks, have instead brought only some home on a case by case basis.

Konig urged the French authorities to "really analyse everybody" individually before deciding.

"I'm a prisoner here," she said, claiming she had lost some teeth and was suffering from hip and knee problems.

"I don't have a phone, I don't have my children, living conditions are difficult." Konig said she knows returning to France won't be easy but that she is ready.

"I don't care about people not accepting me," she said. "I live for myself, my children and my family."

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