Authorities try to weed out people who might pose security threats from others returning from Syria.
While the government in Kyrgyzstan is worried about people returning from Syria after fighting alongside Islamic militants there, it is trying to take a more nuanced approach to those who are not suspected of wrongdoing.
The Kyrgyz authorities say some 200 of their citizens, including about 20 women, have travelled to Syria. A senior interior ministry figure cited a higher figure of 300 in early February, announcing that 22 had been killed in fighting in Syria.
Police have detained 44 people who came back to Kyrgyzstan, and eight have been convicted of taking part in military training, plotting terror attacks or spreading Islamic extremist ideas. The head cleric at a mosque in Kara-Suu in southern Kyrgyzstan, Rashot Kamalov, was detained in January and accused of encouraging people to go and fight for Islamic State.
The government is worried that some of those returning home are on a mission to recruit new fighters for Islamic State or other Syrian militant factions. (See Kyrgyzstan: Recruiters Seek Men, Women to Join Syria Militants and Does Islamic State Threaten Central Asia?)
In the words of Rahat Sulaymanov, spokesman for Kyrgyzstan’s intelligence service, the State National Security Committee (GKNB), “Those who came back tasked with specific missions, who recruit others and who want to organise acts of terrorism, do present a threat.”
Sulaymanov made it clear that anyone who could prove they had not engaged in combat would be free to go
“Some of those who have returned have admitted they made a mistake. They left unawares, and [on their return] they quickly went back to normal life, to work. They don’t pose a major danger.”
“Apart from our officers, the local police and local authorities have been instructed to generally keep an eye on what they are doing and report to us if anything happens,” he added.
Rafik Mambetaliev, head of the interior ministry department for combating organised crime, says most women who go to Syria are told they will be involved in aid programmes, but are then forced to marry militants. If they are widowed, they are married off to another fighter.
One woman who spent time in Syria, a 21-year-old medical student from Osh who asked not to be named, told IWPR the experience left her traumatised.
Her brothers encouraged her to attend the mosque and follow the sermons given by the imam or prayer leader.
“He proved to be a teacher with the gift of persuasion, I started listening to him more and more. He said our Muslim brothers were suffering in Syria and needed help. I became interested and decided to offer my help,” she said. “We were taken to Syria via Turkey and told that there was a need for medical personnel.”
What she found when she arrived was totally different from what she had expected.
“Where I was, I didn’t get to see any of the wounded. I spent six months there. I don’t want to talk about what I did there. But I realised I’d made a mistake and asked an acquaintance to get me back home,” she said.
Only her immediate family knows about her trip, and she was only to confide in her mother about her experiences in Syria.
“Whatever they say they stand for, I don’t support Islamic State. At the same time, I can’t say anything good or bad about Syria, as I am now so far from it all. I just want to be an ordinary Muslim. I am still agonising over having gone there,” she said.
NGOs in Kyrgyzstan say the government needs to find the right balance and avoid persecuting people because that might radicalise them.
Izatulla Rahmatullaev, head of Law and Order, an NGO in Osh, says that in one district there, Kyzyk Kystak, 36 people have gone to Syria. He is aware of three who have returned.
“We offered support to those who were tricked into going to Syria and then came back to their villages. We carefully approached one of them, asked how he was doing and offered him psychological help so that he could reintegrate back into the community,” he said.
“He has admitted that he made a mistake, he cried and promised that he’d never get involved in anything like that again. But law enforcement has been questioning him endlessly, threatening him and extorting money. They have driven him mad,” he continued. “Now he’s become withdrawn and stopped communicating with us. He doesn’t go out and sits at home all the time.”
The other two who came home have since left for Russia.
“Our society wouldn’t accept them. Their neighbours and acquaintances treated them with suspicion wherever they went. Some people called them terrorists and killers. They felt very uncomfortable because of this treatment and they left,” Rahmatullaev said.
Akchach Joldosheva, director of the Gender and Psychological Help Centre in Osh, agreed that there were no support for people who came back from Syria. She said it was vital for police, their first point of contact, to treat them with sensitivity.
At the moment, she said, “the authorities are not actively involved in working with them, and sometimes even scare them off with their harsh methods and questioning”.
“They need a minimum of one year of psychological rehabilitation to free them of the brainwashing and propaganda were subjected to in Syria,” she said. “It’s also important to explain to neighbours and other members of the public that they shouldn’t drive them away, call them names or be hostile to them,” Joldosheva said.
“This is a widespread phenomenon – if a group rejects you, you will develop a negative attitude towards it and feel you want to take revenge or make a point,” she said.
Religious affair expert Samagan Myrzaibraimov agrees that marginalised people are more liable to become a security risk.
“It can’t be easy for people who have been subjected to strong propaganda and training in the Islamic State environment just to go back to their old life,” he added. “Law enforcement agencies shouldn’t just let them go immediately without putting them on a psychological rehab programme.… This might be a psychological centre run by the GKNB, or it might be some kind of crisis centre.”
Jakyp Zulpuev, an officer with the interior ministry department in the southern Osh region, confirmed that police were monitoring people who had been in Syria but were not suspected of wrongdoing. He denied that police officers were mistreating them.
“We have registered everyone who’s been to Syria and returned,” he said. “No one is harassing them, and no one is extorting money from them. But at the same time, we may sometimes ask them to come in for questioning about various cases. Apart from that, our interest is to ensure they resume normal life. We are working through local government to help them re-adapt.”
Ernist Nurmatov is a correspondent for the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL, and is based in southern Kyrgyzstan.