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‘War has no boundaries’ Photographer Sergey Stroitelev meets Chechen mothers who are trying to bring their daughters home from the Islamic State’s former territories

Source: Meduza

In the mid-2010s, young men from Chechnya — lured by the promises of recruiters from the Islamic State (commonly known as ISIS or ISIL) — began departing for Syria and Iraq en masse. They were followed abroad by their wives and children, who often didn’t know their final destinations. As a special project for Meduza, photographer Sergey Stroitelev interviewed and photographed the mothers of Chechen women who are missing or imprisoned in the Islamic State’s former territories. These mothers have spent years working to bring their daughters and grandchildren home to Russia. Here are their stories, in their own words.

Sergey Stroitelev

Photographer

In the mid-2010s young Chechens began leaving en masse for the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa — territories which, at the time, were under the control of the Islamic State. They were lured by recruiters who promised them a heavenly life and huge amounts of money. Chechen men were followed by their families — young women with children in their arms. 

In 2017, the militants were driven out of these territories. Men, including those who didn’t participate in the hostilities, were killed during the bombings, and their wives and children were placed in widows’ homes, where they were forbidden to leave. Many of these women received prison sentences ranging from 15 years to life. There are also those who have gone missing and haven’t been in contact for several years. 

The mothers of these young women who are waiting for them in Chechnya have created dozens of mutual-aid groups. They cling to the smallest crumbs of information about their daughters, and believe to the very end that their daughters are alive and someone will help them to come home.

For this story, I projected images of the women missing or imprisoned in the Islamic State’s former territories onto the figures of their mothers: women who sense the presence of their children everyday, who live their lives and see them in their dreams. This is a story about the fact that war has no boundaries, including temporal limits. And the fact that sometimes people who live thousands of kilometres from a conflict become its victims. 

Zara

Mother-in-law to Aishat

My son’s wife, my daughter-in-law Aishat, was very quiet and calm, it was impossible to get a word out of her. She loved to sit at home, she rarely went out walking, even with the children. If she went out, she was completely covered up in black [clothing]. In the courtyard, everyone asked, “Why did you dress her like that?” — but it was her choice. Back then, this was very badly received. At the bus stop, if they saw someone dressed like that, they would go around. They were considered Wahhabis. My son worked in Moscow and couldn’t do anything in this situation. He was always in touch, he called, sent money, he planned to take his family there, since he had settled in very well.

At a certain point my grandchildren started complaining that their mom was always on the phone. I began to notice this too, you would wake up at any time in the night and her light would be on. She said: “Mom, I can’t sleep.” Actually, Aishat met some man on social media. Later, the FSB showed his photo to us and said that she had left with him. I didn’t know who she was talking to. 

I remember how she asked me: “Can I go to the village to visit my mother?” She went to see her sometimes — for a day or two — to help. She packed her things quickly, got the children ready, and left. Two days went by and they called me from the village asking why Aishat wasn't answering her phone. “She went to see you!” I exclaimed. It turns out that her mother and sister knew about her intentions to leave for Turkey. I think they didn’t even suspect [that she was going to] Syria. They aren’t fools, they wouldn’t have let her go otherwise. 

Despair set in. There wasn’t any information for a long time. My son returned from Moscow after I told him the news. He ran into the apartment, took money for the trip and flew to Turkey to look for them [Aishat and the recruiter] — he didn’t even change his clothes. He was on television, he showed their photos everywhere. He searched for a month and a half, he was exhausted. I sent him my last pennies to live off of, but it was all in vain.

We only found her two years later. Bit by bit, I received information about her through a social media group for relatives. I managed to contact her once. Aishat asked for forgiveness, she said “I’m sorry, Mom.” She sent photos of my grandchildren and asked me to send money, but they were strict about this at the time. God forbid you send money there — after all, this is considered complicity in terrorism according to the law. I told her I was afraid for my son, he’s my only one. After that she broke off contact with me completely.

Then information appeared that Aishat’s brothers had sent her money and had been in contact with her. They’re in jail now. I saw one of them on television; he was involved in extremism. It’s possible that they were involved in her recruitment, but that’s just me speculating. My son and I also found out that she seems to have been married there twice and it’s possible that there are children from one of these marriages. I begged her to tell the truth, I said that I was prepared to take this child as well, that he would be like my own. But she was silent.

Then we found out that Aishat and my three grandchildren are in Al-Hawl [a closed refugee camp in northern Syria near the border with Iraq, where women and children brought from the conflict zone are held]. The eldest Magomed, is already 14. The youngest, Ali, was killed by shrapnel during shelling — he was eight years old. A couple months ago I was told that allegedly, she went to Idlib [a city in northwestern Syria]. There hasn’t been any more information from her. 

Roza

Khadijat’s mother

My daughter [Khadijat] and son-in-law [Magomed] had a small house with a nursery and big, bright windows, but the newlyweds never had the chance to live there. The toys are packed away, the furniture is untouched. What was Magomed lacking? He’s a nice guy, he finished high school with a gold medal, he’s humble and smart. He never did anything without his father’s permission. He bought him a car so he could drive a taxi. Magomed was very worried about his work, he complained all the time that they promised him mountains of gold but in fact everything wasn’t going so smoothly. Perhaps this was the reason? It seems like his friends advised him that it’s better to work abroad. And well, he decided to go. Khadijat followed him in June 2015 — first to Turkey. At the time there was a big wave of young people from Chechnya. It’s strange, because he saw all the horrors happening there on TV. 

One night, in March 2017, my daughter called me. Her arm was bandaged. At first she said that she got hurt cutting watermelon, then she confessed that she was hit by the rebound from an explosion. I’ll never forget that night. I listened to her and everything inside of me trembled. They realized that a war was starting in Iraq and tried to escape back to Turkey in a group of 200–300 people led by a guide. No soldiers were visible at the border, but as soon as they went onto the road, they started firing at them — it was a trap. There were victims — dead and wounded. Another guide promised to take them through Syria to the Turkish border, they agreed, but he abandoned them and disappeared.

My daughter and her husband didn’t participate in the hostilities, they were on the run, in hiding. The militants put them in jail for disobedience three times. My daughter was thrown out onto the street that same evening — apparently, the women are treated more gently. Magomed sat [in jail] for two or three months, and Khadijat roamed, she begged for food. There was also abuse at the hands of the militants: they beat [people] and threw them into a hole with water. [Kadijat] said that they [she and her husband] tried to escape for a fourth time because it was unbearable — regardless of the [militants’] threats that if they were caught for the fourth time, they would be killed for it. At the time they had a nine-month-old daughter in their arms. Kadijat’s last words that evening were: “If we don’t get in touch within a week, look for your granddaughter, we’re no longer here.” Everything inside me ached, I couldn’t sleep.

I went to town to ask officials for help. Right there in the office my phone rang and I [let them talk] — the officials and my daughter. At first my daughter was frightened and began to lie, [saying] that she’s in Turkey. I started shouting at her: “Tell the truth!” My daughter said that the Raqqa dam was under fire and after one more bombing Raqqa would be washed away. Khadijat was advised to go closer to the border. However, this was very difficult — there are three rings of encirclement. The Wahhabis, the Shiites, and the government troops.

With the help of law enforcement agencies, a strategy was prepared on how to get them out of there. They were waiting in an apartment with two other Chechen guys. In the end, my daughter and her husband ended up in Latakia [Syria], where they broke through heavy fire. They were placed in a temporary detention center, they were free there, they were allowed to make phone calls and go outside.

The last time I contacted my daughter was on August 29, 2017, through the head of the prison, an Arab, who promised to take my grandchildren out of this hell. My daughter also could have been taken out on the last flight that year. But after she found out that her husband wasn’t being taken out she refused to fly. 

Four days after we picked up our grandchildren in Moscow, Kadijat called. I couldn’t hear a thing, [but] she said that everything was fine. The conversation lasted about 28 seconds — for me these seconds were like an internal blow. Then there was a long silence. During our next phone call, my daughter said that they were being held in Damascus, in a state prison where their second daughter was born. After that they had a trial and the Syrian side acquitted them. I spoke to the [Russian] ambassador, who assured me that the release documents were being prepared.

After some time, I found out via word-of-mouth that they [Khadijat and the baby] had been separated from her husband and they had been transferred to different temporary detention centers. It turns out that the Syrian side wouldn’t hand them over and the Russian side wouldn’t take them. I understand that criminal cases have been opened against Khadijat and Magomed in Russia, they must appear before the court here. But this isn’t the point. The main thing is for them to come, to be here. Fate is a tricky thing. My Kadijat was a mischievous girl — she played football, she supported Spartak. She was very open-minded, with a kind soul, but this trusting nature can play a cruel joke.

Caring for the grandchildren has fallen on me and Magomed’s moher, but it’s very difficult, physically and mentally. We let them listen to their mother’s voice, they recognize it. They’ve adapted, but they’re still afraid of airplanes. 

Farida

(named changed at the interviewee’s request)

My daughter and I were very close. I lost a son in 2002, he worked as a traffic police inspector and was assassinated by Wahhabis. My daughter was small and cried with me, she said that she’d never leave me.

My daughter was married in November 2014. Her husband has a good family, his relatives on his mother’s side lived in Moscow. I trusted them. They found work for the young family in Moscow and off they went. My daughter and I spoke constantly. We exchanged photos and videos on WhatsApp. Sometimes even several times an hour. At one point, the communication stopped and my daughter stopped picking up the phone. She disappeared along with her husband. Her husband’s relatives searched for them all over Moscow, but to no avail. Forty days went by. When my daughter managed to contact me she said that her husband took her phone away and supposedly took her back to Gudermes [Chechnya]. When she got off the plane, she didn’t recognize anything. She trusted her husband, but he deceived her and took her to Egypt. My daughter cried the whole time and asked for forgiveness: “Mom, mom, how can this be?” Even then she was wearing a black hijab, although she wore colorful handkerchiefs in Chechnya.

Then her husband said that they needed to go to Iraq, where he allegedly wanted to study. It was 2015. It turns out many of his relatives were in Mosul. Everyone in their hometown knows this. Some of them went on so-called business trips. They work as cooks for three months and then come back, supposedly there’s more money there. My grandson was born in Mosul, my daughter sent a photo.

In the end her husband was killed — my daughter said so, but she didn’t see the body, you’re not supposed to, there. After her husband’s death she was transferred to a widows’ home, where she lived with other women until 2017, taking care of the child. She got in touch from time to time, we cried together, but she kept silent about the war so I wouldn’t worry. I know that a large family from Gudermes helped her in Mosul. This calmed me a bit.

In the end I found out about the war. They started trumpeting about it everywhere. It was grief. Communication with my daughter was cut off completely. We took action. We wrote to the Red Cross, to the [Russian] Embassy. [We wrote] everywhere in order to get her out of there. In Iraq there are many many camps and there are seven or eight prisons near Mosul. Sometimes mothers’ groups receive lists with the names of prisoners in Arabic. These lists mainly come from the guards. And one from 2019 had my daughter’s name. This is the only thing we know about her. Since then we’ve all been waiting, waiting, waiting, endlessly.

We really want her to come back. We have closets and chests full of her things. This is my only daughter and I always tried so hard for her. I pray that she comes back with my grandson, who is six years old already. 

Birlant

Fatima’s mother

Fatima’s husband was a Chechen with Ukrainian roots. He came to Chechnya to look for his relatives, but he found my daughter. The wedding was against my will. Everyone said “your daughter married a Russian” — this isn’t done here. The men can marry Russian women, but the girls can’t marry [Russian men]. But he was even more Muslim than us, he fasted strictly. In Ukraine, his mother worked with Turks, they helped her run a food business. 

After the [Euromaidan revolution] they managed to leave Ukraine and after some time they invited her son there [to Turkey]. He decided to go in 2014. His family had to sell their entire business, they sold their cafe and their car. From there [Turkey], he sent for my daughter and the three children. She left this very house. I told her: “You’ll end up in Syria or Iraq and disappear there, don’t go.” Fatima reassured me that she wouldn’t leave Turkey. But apparently she had to. At first they hid where they were from me, they claimed they were in Turkey, they even told me an address. And well, after that I didn’t ask. We talked a lot, we exchanged photos.

The last time my daughter contacted me was in August 2017. Her last message is saved in my phone: “Mom, I’ve got a really bad connection, if I don’t come online, have a good day.” 

It turns out that around that time they were in Iraq. In 2017, we got a phone call from a woman from Gudermes. She had been looking for her daughter and had gone to Turkey, to the border. She informed me that her son-in-law had been with my son-in-law; that all of the women and children had been sent to camps and apparently the men were no longer alive. But the exact fate of my son-in-law remains unknown to this day.

At the time, Kurdistan was still communicating with Russia. Then Iraq was sealed off completely and my girl disappeared there. I made inquiries everywhere to try and find her, but with no result. I managed to find out that my daughter had been injured. She went looking for one of the grandchildren near the camp and at that moment a group of women entered the camp and one of them — a fifty-year-old woman with a child — blew herself up on the spot where the Kurdish soldiers were standing. The Kurds opened fire and wounded my daughter, who was standing nearby. After that I lost 19 kilograms [nearly 42 pounds] because of my nerves.

After my daughter was injured, the children ended up with the Red Cross and on February 5, 2018, they were taken out of Iraq.

At that time in Iraq, they started imprisoning everyone indiscriminately under the article on aiding terrorism, they gave out long prison terms and didn’t offer the opportunity to appeal to a lawyer. In the end my daughter was put in prison. I don’t know exactly which one, but I know that it’s somewhere in Baghdad, so she can’t get in touch. They jailed her despite the fact that she wasn’t involved in the hostilities, she was simply afraid to leave her children alone.

I was happy for the children, of course, at first I slept with them. They cried and asked where their mom was, the eldest was very distressed, he woke up constantly, he trembled. He talked about how the neighboring house exploded and the windows were blown out, after that they left and were persecuted up until the movement they were saved. They call me grandma behind my back, but to my face they call me mom. They really need their mother, of course. They recognize her picture, they miss her. Every year I tell them: “This year she’s definitely coming.”

Maymulat 

Iman’s mother

My third daughter, Iman, married a local. All of their children were born here, in Grozny, but then they packed up and left for Turkey with their whole family — my youngest grandson was only two months old. 

We called each other, but it was impossible to guess her location via a WhatsApp video call. Then in 2015, it turned out that her husband had been killed during a rocket attack on a mosque. I immediately realized where they were, although I hadn’t even guessed it before. My husband Isa and I were shocked. According to my daughter, my son-in-law didn’t take part in the hostilities, he was deceived too, they lured him there with work. He was very trusting. But Islam assumes that a person must be trusted, until you catch him being deceitful. In all likelihood, he was promised a heavenly life. After his death, Iman was assigned to a widows’ home. We had a strong feeling we would lose her too, because after the death of a man a woman can’t leave the house, let alone leave there.

When Iman was in the widows’ home we called each other. I felt like she was talking based on instructions, that perhaps someone was standing behind her and monitoring her. And that if she said too much, she simply wouldn’t be allowed to call next time or she would be punished.

There’s been [nothing but] silence since 2017. For two years we didn’t know anything about our daughter. Uzbekistan started to take its citizens out and one of the rescued [women] recognized my Iman from a photo. She asked for our number and called, saying that my daughter was in a prison in Damascus and that the children were taken to an orphanage that was under the patronage of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad’s wife. According to the caller, the women could go to each other’s cells, share food, drink tea together, and do crafts. But at the same time, the laws in Syria are quite strict, and a person in custody can be held for an unlimited amount of time before they’re charged. My daughter’s sentence still hasn’t been handed down.

[Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner] Anna Kuznetsova helped get my grandchildren out. The children were returned — two girls and a boy — in August 2020. The boy doesn’t want to study, it’s difficult. He was very aggressive when he arrived. He swore and fought. He hadn’t seen anything good there for six months. His mother was beaten up in front of him in prison and when he got to the orphanage the Arabs there made fun of him. Now we go to a psychologist several times a week at our own expense. We’re having difficulties with money too — we still haven’t been issued payments for the loss of a breadwinner. The guardianship documents promised help. The court has to make a ruling recognizing the father as absent, but it’s not clear when this will happen.

Nobody imagined that fate would turn out this way. Our daughter studied acting and loved to dance. She was an unparalleled dancer, she danced for the soul. She was always a very sensitive girl. Now she’s been in prison for four years and we’ve forgotten what she looks like.

Zara

Makka’s mother

According to our traditions, in the event of a divorce the children remain with the father — my two daughters stayed with my ex-husband. I left for Tatarstan in a new marriage and then we moved to Alanya, [Turkey]. Some time later, in September 2014, I received news from my relatives that one of my daughters had married. I was very surprised, because no one told me. My daughter Makka was very young — 18 years old. I started to get very worried and called the Turkish number my relatives had sent me — the only contact information for my daughter at that time. “Makka, daughter, is that you?” I asked. On the other end they told me there was no one named Makka, but there was another girl. I heard the voice on the phone — it was definitely her: “Mom, come get me, I don’t know where I am, there’s a lot of women here.” Turns out, they changed their names. She told me a stranger had showed her a photo of her future husband and promised her a wedding. Then the phone cut out.

I went to the police in Antalya [Turkey] and said that my daughter had been stolen. They advised me to appeal to the Russian authorities, arguing that I’m a Russian citizen. I was ready to die. I fell on my knees in front of the chief at the police station. I felt so ill. In the end they took a photo of my daughter from my phone and sent it to five Turkish airports. At that moment it was like I was in some kind of film, we checked every flight from Chechnya and Dagestan. Nothing. I tried to go to Syria several times, to look for my daughter there. Every time they refused to let me in the country, having heard why I had come. 

I was in such pain inside, like I was being stabbed all the time. And one day I fell ill and couldn’t get up for six months. My husband helped, I’m thankful. I just said: “If my daughter doesn’t return, let the Almighty take me away as soon as possible. I don’t need anything.” I couldn’t eat or drink. But the Almighty forced me, he opened the way for me. I got up, prayed, and promised to get my daughter back.

After five months, Makka began to call. She said she married a Chechen from a neighboring village. I don’t want to accuse him of luring my daughter from home through intermediaries. Perhaps their love was strong, who knows. When we spoke on the phone I felt that she was afraid of something. As if someone was standing behind her. I asked her, “Makka, where are you? What city at least, tell me, I’ll find.” She wrote “Manbij, Syria” on a piece of paper and then ate it. Once she even told me: “Mom, if you tell me to come home one more time, I won’t be able to call you anymore.”

Later, her husband was killed during a bombing. My daughter was pregnant with a girl. She only had a place in a widows’ home, it was forbidden to leave there. If the widows needed something, they had to write notes and leave them at the door. Makka nearly died giving birth, they did a cesarean. After giving birth, she was transported to Mosul, Iraq, that same night. It was September 2015.

We continued talking. Sometimes [we had] no contact for several months. She told me she wanted to run away from there. She was caught and beaten. In 2016, we even discussed various options for getting her out, because it was completely unbearable for her there: each conversation [came with] continuous tears and heartache. My girl is soft, gentle. I even remember when she was doing an internship at the medical college she couldn’t look at blood, she fainted several times. I can’t imagine what she’s been through there. 

Later, my daughter was sold to the Iraqis along with another girl, a Tatar, Rusha. Makka got in touch with me, writing that she didn’t know where exactly they were, but they gave the name of the man who was holding them captive — Hashitab. A guard took pity on them and gave them a phone. Makka managed to send me the coordinates and a photo of the room where they were locked up.

A man from the Chechen government flew to Iraq with all of the information that I provided. In a week, he took 25 girls and more than 100 children out, they were all transferred to the Rusafa state prison [in Baghdad], where they were safer. In prison, the girls were kept in a cell with 200 people, the conditions were completely unsanitary. My little granddaughter became seriously ill, she wouldn’t drink, she wouldn’t even say the word “mama.” I can’t take a sin upon my soul and say that they killed children, but I heard that when a child is taken from the prison to the hospital, he dies there. They also wanted to take my granddaughter. Makka hugged her daughter and said, “Kill me, but I won’t give you my daughter.” Then she herself fell ill with typhus. In short, she’s been through a lot of terrible things.

[Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner] Anna Kuznetsova, who I met several times in Moscow, helped bring my granddaughter Samia back. We did all the DNA tests and prepared all the documents. I was very afraid that only the children would be taken out, and the mothers would be left behind. And that’s what happened. It was very painful. When Samia starts talking about her mother she ends up in tears. She says: “You brought me [here], bring mama too, I won’t love you any less than my mama when she arrives.”

Makka calls us herself from time to time, when the opportunity arises. She asks us to send photos of Samia. She wants to come back and raise her daughter herself.

Larisa

Ava’s mother

Ava was visiting her paternal half-brother and she met a man [while she was] there. She married him without my consent. Her brother gave her away. She was 20 years old then. It’s all so strange, we lived together in perfect harmony and she was a very obedient girl. It was a terrible blow for me. I didn’t want her to go far away, much less abroad. She was my only support and my health isn’t good. My husband was killed in the line of duty 17 years ago.

I never spoke to my son-in-law, I don’t even know what kind of person he is. If he’s good or bad. But my daughter chose him, she fell in love.

Ava left six years ago, she followed him. He said he wanted to study religion in Egypt. My daughter was also very interested. At first I didn’t speak to her at all, probably for a year. I was too offended, too angry at her. And if not for my anger I probably wouldn’t have survived that moment, I would have lost it completely. Then my mother’s heart melted and we began to talk a bit.

Of course, they didn’t tell me they were going to Iraq. I found out about it only when my son-in-law was killed during shelling. After that, she went to live with her half-brother and his family, who had followed her [to Iraq] with his family. He married her off for a second time. She often cried and said to me: “Mom, forgive me, please, if you can” and I forgave her. Every mother would forgive her child, no matter what she did.

Our communication has been very poor since 2017. I tried to keep track of information from mothers’ groups, of every list of missing persons and prisoners. I found out that my daughter ended up in the Rusafa prison [in Baghdad] after the death of her second husband — she was pregnant with her second son in custody. I was shocked. 

Later, she called me several times and said it was hell in prison. She said she had given birth to another boy, he was scrawny and weak. There were 59 women in one cell. There were mattresses all over the floor and no place to walk. And these two boys were kept on their mattress constantly, there was no space, no light, no air. The food was rice and water. My daughter has said many times that she really wants to come home. She didn’t expect that everything would turn out this way, having gone after a man. What did these women do that they were given 15 years each? It isn’t fair.

They managed to bring my grandsons home — after court hearings and filing documents for the children and guardianship. The last time we spoke with her was from Moscow in 2019, when the boys were brought [there]. The consul allowed us to talk on the phone. I forgave her of course. If I hadn’t forgiven her, I wouldn’t be able to look after her children now.

At first it was very difficult. Now [the children] have adapted a bit. I told them that their mother is sick, I can’t even voice news about the prison. They ask me: “Why doesn’t Allah help her, when will she get better?” I really hope my daughter will be brought back. No matter how hard I try, no one can replace their mother. 

Razet

Madina’s mother

I never spoke to my son-in-law. Madina got married at 24 and went to live with him. My daughter came to visit me every week. One day she told me that her husband was getting ready to go abroad. I was categorically against it, I didn’t understand how he could leave his family, his wife and child. Five months later, in 2014, he left — allegedly for Egypt, to study at the Islamic Institute. Then he invited his wife to join him, because he missed his daughter very much and wanted to see her. Madina was supposed to go for two weeks, but it turned out it wasn’t true. I assume they moved from Egypt to Turkey.

For some time I spoke with them and I was convinced that they were in Turkey. Even though Turkey is a peaceful place, I was still very worried. When we spoke on the phone, I cried a river of tears. My daughter didn’t want to upset me and she didn’t tell me they were in Iraq until the very last moment. When we talked she told me everything was fine.

I only found out that they had crossed the border in 2017. In 2017! One day my daughter sent a message through a third party, saying that if something happened to her, she wanted us to look for our granddaughter. She said that there’s a war in Iraq. I was very angry at my daughter’s husband, but it’s not for me to judge him. God judges all. I don’t even know how he ended up there himself, who recruited him.

Seven or eight months later, their names appeared on one of the lists that are sent to mothers’ groups. They were alive and with an illegal rebel group. With the help of the Chechen authorities, it was possible to get them out of there and to transfer them to a state prison. As a result, she was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

I can’t imagine how she copes there, because she has health problems. After her pregnancy she had complications and surgeries. In all likelihood my daughter is sick and exhausted. 

On December 27, 2018, they called and said that my granddaughter was on a list of those who were supposed to be taken out of Iraq and that I needed to fly to Moscow. My granddaughter arrived on December 30. I remember that day like it was yesterday, I was very happy. They were carried off the flight one by one, in blankets. I didn’t even recognize her, because she was four years old. She started school immediately after the winter holidays. She has serious psychological trauma — I can see it. She reacts to every noise and sound. She’s afraid of being alone. When there’s thunder and rain she remembers the bombings. She tells me about the prison where she was with her mother. There were 80–100 people in one cell. They slept on mattresses on concrete floors, in the dirt.

It’s very hard for me, I remember my daughter every day, I see her at night. She comes and sits down next to me and reassures me: “Everything will be as it was.” Madina was always very kind and helpful. My granddaughter should grow up with her mother. Although I do everything for her and I try, no one can replace her mother. We don’t know whether or not my daughter will be brought back. Sometimes they give you hope, but other times it’s complete hopelessness.

Mizan

Marek’s mother

Marek has had a difficult life. My daughter got married at 14 years old. Her husband was 16 — also a teenager. All of their relatives and I were against the marriage. She had just finished seventh grade. Her husband loved drugs and going out, but at the same time he dressed my daughter in a hijab. He beat her, but if my daughter went out without him, he would start to cry. It was hard to watch, but you’re not supposed to interfere. She spiralled like this for 10 years. They had two children. In the end, her husband was imprisoned for drugs, although many didn’t believe that he was an addict up until the very end. They divorced and the children stayed with his family, but we helped with them of course.

After some time she met another man and got married again. The mullah said he was an excellent guy, especially since she chose him herself, for love. One day her husband went to work in Turkey for three or four months. He said that he decided to go by rail. I was categorically against it, saying that I wouldn’t let my daughter go there because from Turkey they’d end up in Syria. I didn’t like the idea of [him] working there. What, there’s no jobs in Russia?

I asked my sons and they said to let her do what her husband said. They asked me: “Do you want your daughter to get divorced a second time?” I gathered all of our relatives, including one who’s a lawyer, and asked for advice — they even suggested giving their information over [to the authorities], so they would be stopped at the border if they tried to cross it. That’s what we did. In the end, they left with hardly any belongings and ended up in Iraq. Nobody stopped them. All our fears have become reality. 

I was angry at my daughter, I didn’t speak to her for two months. She told me that she was taken by force, but she didn’t dare resist — she didn’t want to get divorced again, especially since he doesn’t beat her, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, and, after all, they were going somewhere to work. Then we began calling each other. I asked my daughter: “Do you know where you’ve ended up?” She replied that everything seemed to be fine there and that there was no war. Her daughter Sumaya, my granddaughter, was born in Iraq. It later turned out that her husband had already been there two or three times, earned good money, and decided to go back again. He was a good cook and jack of all trades. In the end he was killed after a car carrying him and his friends came under rocket fire. It was the second day of Easter. A fast was coming up.

The last time my daughter called was on February 14, 2017. After the death of her husband my daughter lived in a widows’ home, a two-story building with three other neighbors, and groceries were dropped off in the yard once a week. And if they needed anything — to go to the hospital or to the market — they called a car that was assigned to each house.

We’re not in contact with my daughter’s mother-in-law. She didn’t stop her son. She could have called me and said, “my son isn’t listening to me and he’s taking your daughter away,” she could have given me the number of the taxi they were in, she could have done a lot. If my son were going there I wouldn’t let him leave, I would ring all the alarms. I would have strangled him with my own hands. Honestly. 

Please note. This photo report was originally published on May 11, 2021, and has been abridged for length and clarity. You can read Sergey Stroitelev’s full story in Russian here.

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Story and photographs by Sergey Stroitelev for Meduza

Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart 

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