Taking the family out of Syria was an act of clemency on the part of Chechen authorities, who say it is their duty to bring back the women and children stranded in Islamic State territory after their insurgent husbands or fathers have died or been imprisoned.
“The Chechen government says if we take back the women and children, and give them the best things, treat them the best way we can, we can try to let them forget who they used to be in Syria,” said Madina, who agreed to speak on the condition that her family name not be disclosed. “And this is the best method, in my eyes.”
Short and intense, Madina had framed her small face with a thick black covering, a khimar, that stretches over her elbows and below the waist, like a cape. Not a wisp of hair could be seen. She spoke solemnly yet without remorse, relaying her life story as a series of unforeseen events connected to each other by circumstance.
Madina’s geographical footprint and life trajectory seem to reflect the international reach and allure of the Islamic State. She left a war-wrecked Grozny in the late 1990s, settling in the Netherlands, where she met, married and divorced two men. Her third husband, with whom she traveled to Syria, is from Tunisia, which has sent more Islamist fighters abroad than any other country. Russia has provided the second-largest contingent, at 5,000, according to President Vladimir Putin.
Following many of the men from around the world were their wives. It is estimated that hundreds, if not thousands, of Russian-speaking women accompanied men into Islamic State territory.
A month before she was returned to Chechnya, Madina and her family were captured in a raid by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Her husband is a prisoner in Syria, and the two do not speak. He does not know that she gave birth, in Chechnya, to his third, and her seventh, child.
The family was held in a camp in Qamishli, near the border with Turkey, with women from Russia, Central Asia and elsewhere. Madina said she was regularly beaten and denied the toilet, and her children were starved.
The Kurdish women guarding them had taunted the prisoners, telling them they would be sold to Iraqi Shiites. “They will rape you and take your children away,” Madina recalled their saying. So when Madina was blindfolded and led to a car, she was sure she was heading to enslavement.
Instead, she and other captive women were met by Chechen officials at an airport.
Kheda Saratova, one of those overseeing the repatriation program, corroborated Madina’s account. She said Madina and her children were flown back from the Hmeimim air base, which Russia operates.
In Grozny, they live in a temporary refuge provided by the government, a Soviet-era apartment on the outskirts of the capital, one of the few buildings to have survived the city’s flattening during Chechnya’s two doomed wars for independence from Russia.
Last year, 13 women of Chechen origin and their 35 children, including Madina and her family, were taken back to Chechnya, Saratova said.
“The men go off to fight in ISIS, but the women and children were not involved in this,” Saratova said. “They made a mistake by following these men to Syria, and they know that.”
Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of the tiny republic in Russia’s North Caucasus, uses Islam to further his own interests, including rebuilding mosques in Syria and stamping out Islamist militancy at home. This is key to currying favor with the Kremlin, on which he relies for money and a large degree of autonomy. Rehabilitating Chechen wives who found themselves in the clutches of the Islamic State sends a signal, analysts say, that alternatives to extremism exist. And Madina said she is grateful for that.
Compared with similar repatriation programs in France or Britain, Chechnya’s is by far the most lenient; other regions in Russia put women like Madina on trial and place their children in foster homes.
When Madina fled Chechnya in 1999, as Russian troops entered the breakaway republic, she headed with her sisters and mother to Maastricht, a hilly town in the southern tip of the Netherlands.
In Maastricht, Madina studied psychology and married a Dutchman, a non-Muslim. That relationship soured, and she moved back in with her mother and started working the odd restaurant job. Recalling her time in Maastricht, she joked briefly about the city’s riverside barges selling cannabis, then her look turned steely.
“I have no interest in seeing that country again,” she said, abruptly.
Madina married twice more. Her children range from 6 months to 12 years old. As she reeled off their ages, the children who are with her, including two from her first marriage, timorously came into the living room, where they gathered by her feet, hidden among the folds of a floor-length gray skirt. Madina effortlessly slipped in and out of four languages with them: Dutch, Arabic, Russian and Chechen.
Her second husband was a Russian Muslim, her third is the Tunisian. She pointed to her three smallest boys, his children. “See, they look Arab, don’t they?” she said saucily.
She met him in Turkey in 2014, and they left for Syria a year later.
They lived all over Islamic State territory together, from Raqqa in the north to Deir al-Zour in the south. Most of the family’s time was spent in Tabqa, a city on the Euphrates River.
During the heaviest battles between the Islamic State and the U.S.-led coalition, in the second half of 2016, an explosion ripped through the side of their house in Tabqa.
“My children were sleeping on the mattress, so they were okay,” she said. But still, her two little Syrian-born boys, Abdullah and Isaaq, are often on edge.
“If he hears loud noises,” she said of 2-year-old Abdullah, who was sitting on the floor trying to navigate a fidget spinner, “he is searching, looking, all around him. When he hears fireworks, he starts to cry and cry, and I cannot stop him.”
A tiny scrap of a boy with eyes like chestnuts, Abdullah is still sickly from their time in prison. When he arrived in Chechnya, he weighed barely 11 pounds.
Madina wouldn’t say she misses Syria, as there wasn’t much she could actually see. “We women, we were just sitting at home making children, taking care of the house and the husband,” she recalled. But she often wonders about the fate of her friends there, a group of women from the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, with whom she shared a great deal of laughter-filled gossip.
Memory of their spell in the Islamic State returns each morning by way of a green tub of halvah. The treat is the family’s one keepsake from Syria, and they take turns scraping out a thin shaving to savor.
When Madina talked about how she got to Turkey, and why she took her two oldest children with her, while leaving her middle children behind in the Netherlands with her mother, she declined to go into details. The Dutch government views Madina as a terrorism suspect. She has been accused in the Dutch media of kidnapping the two Dutch-born children who are with her.
“I can never enter Holland again. I am not welcome there,” she said.
Madina said she went to Turkey for eye surgery. She insisted that her Tunisian husband was not a fighter and that the pair had been duped by Islamic State recruiters who promised them a better way of life.
“That was my mistake. I took my children to Syria,” she said.
Being back in the city where she grew up can be disorienting. Where before there were “just stones,” now there are immaculately kept gardens and polished avenues. Madina said she cannot recognize anything in rebuilt Grozny, whose skyline is punctuated by glistening skyscrapers. But there is one constant.
“I’ve always wanted to live in a Muslim country. I want my children to live in a Muslim country.”