Spending the Pandemic in an Iraqi Jail

Hundreds of Islamic State-affiliated women are optimistic that Baghdad will soon have to let them go.

Russian women who have been sentenced to life in prison for joining the Islamic State stand in a hallway of the Central Criminal Court in Baghdad on April 29, 2018.
Russian women who have been sentenced to life in prison for joining the Islamic State stand in a hallway of the Central Criminal Court in Baghdad on April 29, 2018. Ammar Karim/AFP/Getty Images

There has been a lot of international attention on prisons holding Islamic State-affiliated women in Syria, but not all of the terrorist group’s imprisoned adherents are located there. For over three years, more than 800 foreign women have been held in Rusafa prison in Baghdad. Their sentences range from 15 years to life. Some have been handed death sentences. The majority are serving their time alone, but in a few cases, several family members—mothers, daughters, sisters—are in jail together. And as in other Islamic State prisons and camps, this one houses women of many different nationalities including Azerbaijani, Austrian, French, German, Jordanian, Russian, Saudi Arabian, Swedish, Syrian, Tajikistani, and Ukrainian. There’s even a family from Trinidad and Tobago.

Although these women are currently in prison in Baghdad, they are not just an Iraqi problem. They’ve been sentenced to crimes in Iraq, of course, but holding them there for life or executing them is also not a sustainable policy. It not only leads to an increase in pro-Islamic State sentiment but puts a heavy burden on Iraq, which is finding itself less able to manage the challenge of imprisoning Islamic State affiliates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The female prisoners at Rusafa live about 40 people to one air-conditioned cell with a toilet and shower. It is crowded, but not like when they first arrived. According to one woman I interviewed over the phone in August, “When we were moved here it was terrible. Dirty, stinky mattresses on the floor, broken air conditioners, and bright light all night long. Also everyone had kids with them, so instead of 40 people in one room we were 145. And many were wounded and in pain. It was madness. Now, we could not complain.”

Three years in, a majority of the children have been repatriated to their home countries, although some still remain with their mothers because their countries refuse to take them back. “It is terrible for kids here. Mothers make them clothes from adult prison robes, and there are no toys, so they play with trash, like empty plastic water bottles or paper wrappers,” said one women serving a life sentence. “They became so wild that they climb on the door and run around screaming. The happiest moment in their life is when the cell door opens. Once a cat entered a hallway and kids started throwing bread at it. For many of them, it was the first time in their life they have seen a cat.”

There is not much for adults to do either. The main form of entertainment seems to be to secretly move to another cell for several days to have new people to talk to. If they’re found out, though, everyone in the perpetrator’s cell has their walks taken away for a week. Paper and pencils are prohibited, and the women get two walks in the prison yard per week. The majority lie in bed and chat, but some spend their day studying Arabic or the Quran.

Religion is strictly observed by all the inmate women. An older boy, the son of one of the inmates, who remained in the prison, performs the call the prayer five times a day. Religious dress code is observed, and even inside their cells all women wear a hijab or abaya, because each cell has a security camera, and they are afraid that men see them through it. The majority still support the Islamic State, but a small group of around 80 people declared takfir on it (deeming it against Islam). “One time, guards tried to move a takfiri girl into our cell,” recalled one of the women who still supports the Islamic State, “but we blocked the door and did not allow that to happen.”

For the most part, the two groups try to ignore each other, but there have been riots along other fault lines. For example, this year, two riots happened in quick succession. First, women demanded to be allowed to meet with their embassies to ask for repatriation. “Everyone is very psychologically tired from being here, so it was just a desperate emotional behavior,” said one of women I interviewed. “We knew perfectly well that it would not lead anywhere, because guards could not affect that decision.” Several days later, there was another uprising when a group of Russian-speaking women tried to push their cell door open. They did not succeed, and as punishment prison guards decided to move them to other cells. Women disagreed with that and started fighting back. After they hit a high-level member of the prison authority, a special force was called in. “They were in all black, wearing protective gear and had sticks. They did not hurt us, but they made a corridor and one by one dragged us outside to the prison yard,” said one of the women involved in this riot.

A majority of the women I interviewed initially insisted that they do not care about their home country and that their “ISIS brothers” would liberate them. But it became obvious quickly that they don’t believe that anymore. Although they still celebrate Islamic State insurgency victories in Iraq, they do not expect the group to be strong enough to take control of Baghdad, where their prison is located. Nor do they believe that the remaining Islamic State insurgents—mostly Iraqi now—would care about them as foreigners.

For now, most of the women are more concerned with getting home. In a handwritten message a Trinidadian woman passed me to send to her government, she wrote, “How many more years will our children have to remain in prison, when will help come?” Others, whose children have already been sent home, are optimistic that Iraq may soon deport them too. Especially now, during the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and amid huge economic problems, they believe that Iraq may try to offload them. “I do not think Iraq wants or could afford to feed and guard and house us for life, so I think we would eventually go home,” said one of the interviewed women.

And that could happen soon. Since the beginning of pandemic, judges have started openly talking to inmates about them being repatriated to their home countries, and some even said that it would be done by the end of this year if their countries would agree to take them. Although it would take time to reintegrate them into a civilian society back home, women are optimistic about their prospects. “We are so tired,” one told me. “We just want to get out of here, and it does not even matter to where. And if they [her home government] do not want me to even go outside my house, I won’t.” For many, their kids are already home. And they are particularly looking forward to reuniting with them.

Vera Mironova is a visiting fellow at Harvard University. Twitter: @vera_mironov