At irregular intervals throughout Alba Sotorra’s stirring, sobering and vitally humane new documentary “The Return: Life after ISIS,” discreet titles appear to define the foreign terms that crop up. The small group of Western women in this Syrian detention camp are from all over — Canada, the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands, Germany — and speak in differently accented, more or less fluent English. But with the regime that until recently defined them fallen, with their own countries refusing their return and with the wider world regarding them with hostility if not outright hatred, the few Arabic words they all use are piquant markers of their shared experiences as “ISIS wives” — a short glossary of regret, shame and despite everything, hope.
Sotorra’s film is put together with remarkable poise and intelligence, considering the fraught territory it traverses. Quickly but comprehensively, using newsreel footage and archival clips, she begins with coalition forces taking back Baghouz, the last ISIS stronghold, in early 2019, and placing its remaining women and children into under-resourced camps like Camp Roj, a temporary shanty town made of tents, tarps and plastic sheeting that has a tendency to tear. But she doesn’t skimp on broader context either: One blistering montage takes in ISIS recruitment videos, the Jim Foley assassination, the terror attacks on Barcelona, London, Paris and the Manchester arena, and the worldwide storm of grief, horror and outrage they continue to inspire.
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The women Sotorra follows are at the eye of that storm. Some are even, after a fashion, famous for it. Shamima Begum was 15 when, one winter afternoon, she took a plane to Istanbul with two friends, and went from there to Syria. Married off immediately, by 19 she had endured the deaths of both her companions and the three children she bore, the last baby dying of pneumonia in the camp. But it was when Britain revoked her citizenship that she made (mostly scathing) headlines. A journalist brought her the Home Office document, filmed her reading it and inquired eagerly, “How does that make you feel?”
Hoda Muthana, often shown with her little boy wriggling on her knee, became notorious when then-president Trump named her in a tweet crowing about his administration’s decision to forbid her return. Canadian Kimberly Polman has also been disavowed. Older than the others, she was suffering from empty nest syndrome and fell for a “vibrant” man online who told her to come “where you are loved and needed” (a common theme among the subjects is that they were often manipulated initially through their desire to be “helpful” or “useful” to a suffering Syrian population).
All of them were quickly disavowed of their altruistic notions. “I was expecting a happy community with Muslims helping each other,” says Hoda ruefully. Instead, “it was hell on earth.” Women and girls put up for auction, traded for guns or money, married and remarried multiple times. Food became scarce, disease raged. There was never enough milk for the babies they were expected to breed; sometimes mothers resorted to feeding grass to their children. And all the time their every move was monitored, with the smallest infractions bringing untold punishments. Kimberly remembers tending to a woman during miscarriage who had “not an inch on her body that wasn’t marked, like she’d been beaten with a pipe.”
These stories are harrowing, but the manner in which they’re revealed is gently optimistic, a testament to the patience and efficacy of Sevinaz, the energetic activist who runs workshops that encourage the women to confront the past and find solidarity in one another. That Sevinaz is a Kurd — the minority perhaps most victimized by ISIS — is deeply moving and a salutory lesson to the supposedly enlightened governments that would rather wash their hands of these women than contend with the issues they represent. “The people in your camp killed our people,” says Sevinaz’ father simply. “But it is our duty to help the fallen… without feelings of revenge.”
“If they were radicalized, they can be de-radicalized,” says one commentator, and no one watching “The Return” can doubt the sincerity of the women’s contrition and remorse. But the process is arduous. ISIS recruiters promise paradise, when all a deprogrammer can offer is struggle, pain and grief, and at the end of it, a world that still may not believe in your rehabilitation or even your value as a human being. These women have been raising their children and deferring their already traumatized lives, in the mud and plastic of Camp Roj, for two whole years. Surely now, pleads this gripping, compassionate, essential documentary, it is time to let them come home.
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