The al-Hol camp is chaotic, maddening and dangerous.
It is the home of the wives and children of the foreign fighters of the Islamic State group: a city with tents, crowded families, surrounded by armed guards, watchtowers and barbed wire.
The sprawling desert camp is a four-hour drive from al-Malikyah, past the city of Qamishli, and near the Syrian-Turkish border in northeastern Syria.
Inside, women dress in black and wear the niqab, a facial veil with an eye opening, worn by some Muslim women.
Some are distant, while others are hostile in appearance.
In a corner, near the small vegetable market, sheltering from the scorching sun, there is a group of women ready to chat. They are from Eastern Europe.
I ask them how they ended up here, but they say little, blaming their husbands for the decision to travel thousands of miles to join IS and live under a regime. who tortured, murdered and enslaved thousands.
Her only crime, they insist, was falling in love with the wrong man.
It is a familiar story among the wives of IS militants, who seek to dissociate themselves from a regime that was clear about its brutality and its objectives.
Their husbands are dead, incarcerated or missing and now they are trapped here with their children.
Approximately 60,000 people are detained there, including 2,500 families of foreign Islamic State fighters.
Many have lived here since the defeat of the jihadist group in Baghuz in 2019.
Women speak reservedly, wary of attracting attention that may have dire, if not fatal, consequences.
It is not the guards they care about, it is the other women, the hardliners who continue to enforce IS rules within the camp.
In the early hours of the morning that we were there, they found a murdered woman.
Violence and radicalization in the camp is a major problem for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, responsible for managing the camps.
Dr Abdulkarim Omar, the de facto Foreign Minister in the Kurdish-led administration in northeastern Syria, admits that in al-Hol, Islamic State still rules.
It says that hardline women are responsible for much of the violence.
“There are daily killings, shops are burned when people do not follow the ideology of ISIS,” he says, “and they are transmitting those radical views to their children.”
AND there are children everywhere, brought to Syria by their parents from Asia, Africa and Europe to live under IS.
They have little to do. Some of the younger children throw rocks at us as we drive through the foreign sections of the camp.
A passenger window is smashed, the car’s guards are unfazed. This is normal.
Other children they are completely passive and stare blankly as they sit outside their tents.
Most have lived through unimaginable horrors, constantly on the move as the Islamic State desperately tried to defend its territories in Iraq and Syria.
Many have known nothing but war and they have never been to school.
Some have visible wounds. I see a boy with a severed leg making his way across the uneven and dusty terrain.
All have been exposed to trauma and loss, and most have lost at least one of their parents.
To cope with the increasing violence in the countryside, periodic security raids are carried out. And that’s not all.
Older children too are seen as a potential threat. Once they reach adolescence, they are transferred to detention centers far from their families.
“When they reach a certain age, they are a danger to themselves and to others, so we have no choice but to build rehabilitation centers for these children,” says Omar.
It indicates that they keep in contact with their mothers through the International Red Cross (ICRC).
“Every day he gets older”
North of al-Hol is Roj, a smaller camp that also houses the wives and children of the Islamic State.
Violence here is less frequent. It is where many of the British women live, including Shamima Begum, Nicole Jack, and their daughters.
The camp is divided by barbed wire. I know of a group of women from the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago, who had one of the highest recruitment rates for SI in the Western Hemisphere.
One has a 10-year-old son. She took her children to live under the Islamic State and, after her husband was killed, they remained under the regime to the end.
You have heard of older children who have been separated and Now she fears that this could happen to her son.
The older she gets, the more she worries. “I sit down and every day he gets older, with each passing day. I think maybe one day they will come and take it away, ”he says.
Nearby, his son plays soccer with his younger brother and sister. His father was killed in an air raid. He tells me that he would miss his mother if he was taken away from her.
Sanitary facilities here are basic, there are outdoor toilets and showers, and drinking water is shared from tanks, something all the children complain about.
There is a small souk – or market – in the camp, which sells toys, food and clothes.
Every month, families receive food parcels and clothing is provided for their children. Some live in mixed family units.
Under Islamic State, some of the women shared husbands, and those ties have endured through sharing childcare and household chores.
Destruction, bombardment, war
Many children attend a makeshift school run by Save the Children.
“We hear a lot of stories and none of these stories is positive, unfortunately, but our hope is that they can go home and have a normal childhood and be healthy and safe,” says Sara Rashdan, from the organization’s Syrian Response Office.
“We have seen many behavior changes. We saw that they were drawing images of destruction, bombing and war… but now we see that they are drawing more positive images of happiness, flowers, homes ”.
However, it is unclear how these children will fare or what the future holds.
Some Western countries see the wives of foreign IS fighters as a security threat.
Many of the women deny that they are. However, there is a reluctance among them to talk about the victims of IS: the thousands of Yazidi women who were enslaved by the group, or the supposed opponents of IS, those whom they considered heretics, who were assassinated or died fighting against the group. .
It is common for women to say that they did not see any violent IS propaganda.
Despite living in the “caliphate”, many claim to be unaware of the beheadings, massacres and genocides committed by the group.
This is a common excuse for those who joined IS, and for the most part it is not an argument that stands up to scrutiny.
They are disconnected from the outside world and few understand how they are seen in their countries of origin.
Some European countries like Sweden, Germany and Belgium some of the children and their mothers are being repatriated.
But with the situation in the camps deteriorating, the Kurdish authorities are urging more countries to bring their citizens back.
“It is an international problem, but the international community is not assuming its duties and responsibilities,” says Dr. Omar.
“If it continues like this, we face a disaster that we don’t know how to solve.”
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