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Yulia Denisenko: There Is No Universal Solution for The Rehabilitation of Returnees from Syria

«The rehabilitation program for those returning from Syria and Iraq should be individual for each person. There is no universal solution. If it existed across the globe, it would have been successfully used already,» – Julia Denisenko, an independent expert on countering extremism and deradicalization, noted in her interview for CABAR.asia.


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CABAR.asia: Kyrgyzstan is considering the issue of repatriating its citizens from combat zones. Society has split up: some believe this is right, while others fear of possible consequences. How do you rate this action step?

Julia Denisenko. Photo: cabar.asia

It is vital to bolster repatriation of citizens from combat zones. This is a very essential step for the Central Asian region in global perspective of countering extremism and terrorism. Firstly, the children are not to blame. Most members of foreign terrorist organizations, with an exception for few, are victims of psychological violence. They were taken to the conflict zones through manipulation and under various motives. However, our legislation does not include the concept of psychological violence, so there are no victims of such violence either. These people themselves turned out to be hostages of the situation and victims. Their work, their psychological and physiological capabilities were roughly exploited. Sometimes they performed the role of a human shield during the hostilities, and other times, they were home front workers. It was an unpaid work, and they had no choice when they were there.

Secondly, it is not enough to claim that “it’s bad there and it’s good here.” The state offers a real alternative to people who are confused. Especially when it comes to children whose opinions were not considered at all.

The alternative is serious social and material assistance, document restoration, medical treatment, work and vocational training. They starved, were abused and have experienced terrible hardships and tribulations there, whereas here, on motherland, people are waiting for them are ready to give a chance. This is very essential in countering extremism and terrorism. But is the state capable of this?

My colleagues and I often came across the cases when one realizes he made a wrong decision once he ends up there. What he also realizes is that he doesn’t have an opportunity to exist in another world, behind the organization’s fence; there is no other place for him to go. But here, he was given a chance; someone else built up a hallway to the normal life for him.

For those who do not believe in the rehabilitation of these people, and who believe that those returnees are the people with protesting and criminogenic potential – there is such a legal concept as the presumption of innocence. Until proven otherwise, these people are not guilty. Society should keep that in mind.

Do you see any risks involved?

There are many risks involved, in fact. There are internal risks, but there also external risks that do not depend on those returning women and children. They depend more on the state. For instance, if the state outsources this work to some non-governmental organization, where is the guarantee that this organization will have financing in the long term & that this project will not be transferred to someone else later? When donors provide grants, there is no guarantee that the same organization will win a grant twice. This is a matter of sustainability.

Another thing is the lack of experts. This also does not depend on the returnees. This is an issue of the state and society itself, but currently no university has a course on the rehabilitation of those who fell under the influence of socio-psychological manipulations and ended up in the FTO (Foreign Terrorist Organization). Besides, not only psychologists should be engaged in this, this is the work of professionals in social, particularly legal, field, which we lack today.

There are also internal risks directly related to the personal characteristics of the returnees. Since 2016, the concept of “the lion cubs of the caliphate” has been actively promoted. These are the children who promise to grow up and “kill the Gentiles”, children who killed and tortured prisoners. You need to understand that instead of mathematics, these children counted cartridges, instead of physical education there was military training, instead of drawing – Arabic calligraphy, instead of literature – memorizing doctrinal provisions and rules of organization. They lived in a completely different community. Some of these children might have even been used as soldiers, which is quite normal for such organizations, their age is not considered. Children are very profitable warriors, they participate in the war because this is a kind of game for them. A child cannot evaluate the consequences of his actions, simply because he did not see another world.

When this category of children returns, you need to understand that this is not quite the “children” concept accepted in our society. They had no books or toys, and if they had, they had no head to avoid the image of their faces. There are many questions on correct methodology of organizing work with these children. But this work is vital. Moreover, the scenario described above is a rarity. We will basically have small kids among returnees that cannot speak yet. It is clear that they do not pose any threat to society.

Can we rely on the experience of neighbors (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan) in the repatriation issue of citizens from Syria and Iraq? Is the experience of European countries applicable to Kyrgyzstan?

We cannot apply the European experience since mentally we are very different from them. We cannot even take test methods for determining the level of personality development. We need adapted techniques that are not yet available. There are experts but this is a huge work that will take a lot of time.

There is no ready base for return anywhere in the world now. Europe found itself in the same situation – people were brought in, but no one knew how to work with them. Perhaps, it will be known after a few years when we start observing the progress from certain tested programs.

Is Kyrgyzstan ready for such action?

It was necessary to conduct serious training for a long time. Before you repatriate citizens from conflict zones, you need to know how many children are there and what are their age groups. You also need to know what language these children speak and whether there are specialists who can conduct a competent diagnosis, for example, in Arabic, if the children do not understand other languages. It is also necessary to adapt the tests, because the diagnosis of a child who grew up in a completely different environment, with different ideology, is completely impossible with the use of European psychological tests.

A simple example: a picture test, when a child is asked to draw a person. If before entering school, a child draws a person without a face, then there are serious personal problems, and the psychologist’s verdict will not be a good one. And if a child returning from Syria draws a person without a face, then it is completely normal since the doctrine forbids drawing living things. Therefore, there shouldn’t be an image of living thing in the rehabilitation center.  We have birds, fish, butterflies and everything with eyes and faces painted on the walls of children’s clinics, which is usual for us. For returnees, this will be a sensitive issue.

The organization of the rehabilitation process itself should begin with the collection of maximum information. We need to know in advance where will the returning children go. We need to know what to prepare for. If the kid has relatives who are ready to accept him, then this is one solution. If not, it is completely different issue. We need to know how many children are orphans and decide on who will be with them during the rehabilitation program.

There also should be a training hold for the personnel who is going to work with these people, how correctly it will affect the rehabilitation, how soft it will be. The staff needs to be trained in advance, even the kitchen worker and the technical staff. They should be aware of what they will encounter in the process of work and must clearly understand that everything that they see there, hear and recognize, even at random, cannot be carried outside the walls of the institution. This is not only a matter of stigmatization of returnees, but also a matter of staff safety.

How to build an effective rehabilitation plan?

What is rehabilitation? This is a team work.
This team shouldn’t consist of psychologists only, but of psychiatrists as well to diagnose and work with mental disorders people brought back from conflict zones. We need a “slang” translator who knows the concepts that are used within the group. Only an expert well-aware of the issue can understand the true meaning of these terms.

The next thing is the doctors who primarily take and assist in restoring physical health. I would even add a nutritionist to the large list of doctors because children and women are physically exhausted, they have starved. They need to be given time to restore the normal functioning of the gastrointestinal tract.

Imagine a person who was in the conflict zone for several years where the ideology of terror was the only existing ideology. These people were part of an organization that terrorized the whole world, and at the same time, the same organization terrorized its members. And now they fall into the hands of the military, are in camps and prisons, awaiting the trial. The conditions in these camps are no better than they were in the war zones, they continue to starve. Their bodies are malnourished. But when they arrive, do we really need to entertain them with songs and dances and strive to make them patriots?

You need to instill patriotism after you feed the person.

Each case needs to be studied separately, and thus the program should be built individually. There is no universal solution. If it existed across the globe, it would have been successfully used already. One after another, countries would declare the triumphs over such phenomena as extremism and terrorism. But there is no such magic recipe.

What are the criteria for evaluating the success of a rehabilitation?

Criteria can only be at the level of personality changes. It is indeed difficult. It can last for years and you need to attract a lot of experts and invest huge amounts of money.

The hijab removal indicator is not a criterion. In my practice, there have been cases when women in prisons argued: yes, I sing and dance, dress like everyone else to get the parole, but as soon as I get out, everything will change. They do this not because of their personal wish but rather because people that decide on their release prefer it that way.

You need to stop working on clothes, you need to work with a person who wears these clothes. How are the removal of the hijab and the victory over extremism related?

In addition to the physical and psychological condition, it is also necessary to consider certain religious attitudes. How to work with these settings?

Through membership in terrorist organizations, a person loses the ability to think analytically. Therefore, it is first necessary to restore these functions, turn the brain back on, which was artificially “disconnected”, help a person to start thinking and making decisions independently. Then involve theologian to correct the religious worldview. Until that moment, a person will not be ready to talk on religious matters, he would reject them.

How long should the rehabilitation process take?

There is no single criterion for the rehabilitation duration. Even when a completely normal person moves from one locality to another, it’s hard for him to adapt. A person needs to get used to a new climate and new food. Change of residence seriously affects physical health. Imagine how difficult it is for people with this background to adapt. Rehabilitation should not be harsh.

When they arrive, we must give time for them to adapt and catch their breath, eat enough, get enough sleep and stop thinking that a bombing will start any moment. Once I worked with a child who saw with his own eyes the North Caucasus war. When his mother went to take out the trash, he began to have a tantrum, reaching to convulsions, because he thought if his mom left the house, she can already be killed by now. The child was five years old. When he heard firecrackers, he wanted to hide because he thought it was explosions. He could not even look at the light bulb because he had grown in the basement. We would have almost similar kids arriving in our case. But we can obtain good results under accurate rehabilitation program.

In the case of small kids, it is often enough to be surrounded by care and love. Love them and they will rightly survive this traumatic experience. Adults should also feel loved and supported. You need to be able to hear and gradually expand the person’s past framework. In the case of adolescents and adults, the process of rehabilitation and deradicalization, their societal return can last for years. No one can guarantee that the experience they had can be destroyed – it is impossible to get it out of their heads.

The quarantine period depends on the severity of the person’s condition. It takes about three months to adapt. In an ideal scenario, people should just enjoy a peaceful life for three months. This should be followed by work of experts who should collaborate, particularly with the family. The work of any expert – psychologist, theologian and others – ends when the cabinet doors are closed. What’s next? We cannot take them under round-the-clock surveillance to our homes; you cannot monitor them all the time. Therefore, the role of the family and relatives is important, of course, if any. They should become a bridge between a terrorist organization and society. But there is a risk that relatives themselves might be involved in the activities of such organizations. Special services should deal with these issues and manage such risks since it is their competence. What we can do is to work out the problem with the relatives themselves. They are as afraid, they have many fears and stereotypes on this matter, and they can make mistakes that will negatively affect rehabilitation. They also need to be trained.

There is a risk that society won’t accept these people and even after rehabilitation they won’t be able to fully integrate into the community. What is the working plan on this issue?

If society doesn’t accept these people and give them a chance, then all the rehabilitation attempts will be futile.
A person has arrived, and he is not being hired anywhere. No one wants to talk to him, neighbors avoid him, no one plays with his children in the yard. What will the happen to him? He will go back to the place where he will be loved and appreciated, relatively speaking. To overcome this risk, there are mediation programs.

For example, in Georgia there is a program for difficult teenagers, where mentors work with communities these children return to after, conflict with the law if you want. They work with community in explaining that we can’t alienate these teenagers. When society does not accept them, it pushes them further into this abyss, onto the criminal path. Same thing with returnees. We need to understand how dangerous this problem is globally.

Whenever the main part of the rehabilitation program is completed and people integrate into the community, is it required to observe them to assess the effect of rehabilitation?

We need to move from the concept of observation to the concept of help. These are two completely different things. I urge that these people be given the status of victims who have the right to rehabilitation and support, and not members of terrorist organizations that are required to undergo the rehabilitation process. These are completely different approaches and different execution techniques. Another risk is associated with the fact that it is impossible to force a person to change, he must want it himself. He should know what will happen to him and who will work with him in the rehabilitation process. Without his informed consent, this work would be futile.


This article was prepared as part of the “Stability in Central Asia through an open dialogue” IWPR program. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.

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