Some 800 Syrian women and children on Monday started leaving a Kurdish-run camp in northeast Syria crammed with tens of thousands, including relatives of jihadists, heading to their hometowns.
At least 17 buses were seen leaving the area in the first such transfer from Al-Hol camp, which is home to nearly 74,000 people, among them wives and children of suspected Islamic State group fighters.
Conditions in the camp were previously deemed “extremely critical” by the U.N.’s food program, as disease and malnutrition have plagued its inhabitants, particularly children.
Some children were seen with identification tags hanging around their necks, while others had their name and a phone number scribbled on their hands, an AFP correspondent said.
“800 civilians have started leaving the Al-Hol camp aboard buses taking them to their hometowns in Raqa and Tabqa,” a town 70 kilometers (43 miles) west of Raqa city, said an official with the Kurdish administration in northeast Syria.
SYRIA – Malnourished children struck down by life-threateningly chronic diarrhoea, mothers too weak to breastfeed.
In Al-Hol camp, a humanitarian emergency is unfolding, as hardened jihadists compete for meagre resources with the displaced.
— Frédérique Geffard (@fgeffardAFP) March 29, 2019
“In the coming days, there will be other batches of civilians who will (also) be taken to liberated and safe areas,” Sheikhmous Ahmed told AFP, referring to towns and villages recaptured from IS.
Monday’s transfer follows an agreement brokered by the Kurdish administration and Arab tribal leaders during a meeting in the town of Ain Issa last month.
It is to be the first in a larger wave of releases that aim to empty Al-Hol of its Syrian residents.
The next batch is expected to follow after the Eid al-Fitr holiday due to start sometime in the next few days marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Hoovered up during a final offensive against the jihadists by a U.S.-backed Kurdish-led force, thousands of wives and children of IS fighters have been trucked into Al-Hol from a string of Syrian villages south of the camp in recent months.
Thousands more have flocked to the settlement from former jihadist strongholds, including the northern city of Raqa, once IS’s Syria capital.
Their numbers have created a major headache for the semi-autonomous Kurdish administration and have sparked concerns that the camp is emerging as a fresh jihadist powder keg.
Among the crowds of Syrians and Iraqis, some 12,000 foreigners are held in a fenced-off section of the Al-Hol camp, under the watch of Kurdish forces.
Ahmed said that the Kurdish administration had decided to release the Syrian inhabitants of Al-Hol because “the situation in the camp is very difficult.”
He accused the international community of “neglecting its responsibilities towards the displaced” in the camp.
Speaking of Monday’s batch, Ahmed said that some of those leaving Al-Hol had been “influenced” by IS’s radical ideology.
“They will be monitored and reintegrated into their societies,” Ahmed said.