They tell stories that their lives depend upon. All insist they were shocked and appalled when they learned what ISIS was really like. They are the former brides of ISIS fighters – once lured into living in the so-called caliphate – now stuck between the militants’ crumbling stronghold and home countries that most likely don’t want them back.
A French widow of an ISIS member who dreams of being on the Mediterranean, sunbathing in a bikini on the beach. A Syrian English teacher from Homs who insists she was en route to Turkey when she got waylaid in Raqqa, and fell in love with a Moroccan militant. And three Indonesian sisters who say they were lured to Raqqa, ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate, by the promise of free healthcare and education.
In the scorching heat of the Syrian desert, dozens of runaway ISIS brides sit in a crowded concrete jail and wait with their children. The women are segregated from the rest of a sprawling refugee camp in Ain Issa, around 30 miles (50 km) north of ISIS’ de facto capital, Raqqa.
Saida, originally from Montpellier, in southern France, is among the ISIS wives who fled as US-backed forces closed in on the city. Many of the women say they paid smugglers to guide them to the outskirts of Raqqa, where Kurdish forces picked them up before bringing them here.
“I love life, I love to work, I love my jeans, I love my makeup, I love my parents,” says Saida, who wears a floral headscarf.
“The only thing I want is to go back, to take my car and travel back.”
She sits near her 14-month-old son, whose face is pockmarked with insect bites from the month they spent in the wilderness, escaping Raqqa on foot. Saida says she and her husband, a fighter named Yassine, paid smugglers $6,000 to shepherd them out of the city. Yassine died on the journey, she says, leaving her stranded with their young son.
Saida, and other foreign women like her, flocked to the “Islamic caliphate,” drawn by the promise that they could start a new life with strong, devout men. They say what they found there was something entirely different – fighting in all female dorms, sex obsessed ISIS fighters, women divorced and remarried as many as six times.
The French woman recalls arriving in Raqqa and swiftly being placed in a women’s dormitory, a “madafa” she calls it, where new female arrivals waited to be selected by ISIS fighters. She says she was shocked by the dormitory’s rules and its relentless rounds of speed dating – a jihadi form of Tinder.
“When the woman arrives in this madafa, she makes a sort of CV,” Saida says. “She puts down her age, her name, what her personality is like, and what she looks for in a man. And men also post their CVs. It’s ‘dating.’”
“So you meet, you talk for 15-20 minutes, and then it’s a yes or no. If they both agree then they get married. It’s very quick,” she adds.
May, a Syrian English teacher from Homs, says she wasn’t looking for love when she arrived in Raqqa. She claims she was just passing through the city on her way to Turkey, where she had decided to move after her first husband was killed by a sniper. She was staying with her children at a friend’s home when she met Bilal, who was living next door.
“I think God sent him to me,” she says, giggling.
Like many of the ISIS wives being held in the jail, May describes Bilal as a good man, a pacifist who didn’t want to fight. But she gossips about other women back in Raqqa who she says weren’t so lucky.
“They [European women] look at the European men here that are in ISIS, that they are strong men with guns and they can protect them. It’s an idea, it’s like movies,” May says. “Many were very shocked because when they got married to the men, three to four days or one month later, they are divorced.”
She mentions one woman who was married and divorced at least six times, until the judge in the caliphate’s divorce court threatened her with being whipped or jailed.
May still pines after her husband, who is supposedly imprisoned in the nearby border town of Kobani. She’s daubed his initials on a wall of the prison in blue paint, encircling them in a heart. May confesses she doesn’t know what she’ll do if she never sees Bilal again.
“I want someone to kill me. Because I can’t kill myself, because this is suicide,” she says with conviction.
There are some newer arrivals in a tent outside the prison – three Indonesian sisters: Rahma, Fina, and Noor, who say they never actually wed ISIS fighters.
The women, who paid a huge sum to travel with their family from Jakarta to Raqqa, say they were disappointed to find that the ISIS fighters were not the “pure Muslims” they had believed them to be.
“They say they want to jihad for the sake of Allah, but what they want is only about women and sex. It’s disgusting,” Rahma says.
“I heard if they marry a widow they will get a thousand dollars,” Fina adds. “They ask me to marry in the morning and they want the answer from the night.”
Noor says she was most shocked by the infighting in the all-female dorm.
“The manner of the women inside the dorm is very different, it is very far from Islam,” she says. “[They have a] harsh manner, gossiping, shout at each other, back biting, and fighting between the women. Oh I was very surprised.”
The women, who claim they came to Raqqa to find free healthcare for Rahma’s cancer and computer studies for Fina, are now anxious to get in touch with an Indonesian embassy and return home.
But it’s unclear whether any of the women here will ever make it out of Syria, let alone home. And as US coalition-backed forces tighten the noose on Raqqa, many more women who pledged allegiance to ISIS are sure to flee. It’s just one of the many challenges authorities face as ISIS’ self-declared caliphate unravels, scattering the militants and their families.