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In The Face Of Brutal Fates, Many Women Still Cling To ISIS


Author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon has also just returned from Syria, where she's been working on a book about the roles of women in the fight against ISIS. We last spoke with her in December after President Trump announced that U.S. forces would withdraw from the country. At the time, he said that the U.S. had, quote, "won the war against ISIS," unquote, a claim many immediately disputed. He has since decided to leave hundreds of troops in Syria.

But we wanted to check back in with Gayle after her latest reporting trip there, and she is with us now from Los Angeles. Gayle, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Oh, great to join you.

MARTIN: So could you just tell us where you went on this trip, and who are some of the people that you spoke with? And. Of course, I want to know what's changed since you were last there.

LEMMON: I was in Raqqa, in Kobani, in a number of towns. And what I have seen is that the people I've been following for the past two years - one mom, who came out of Raqqa eight and a half months pregnant, led her entire family facing ISIS snipers, ISIS mines and coalition airstrikes designed to rout ISIS from the city. After having given birth, she's now supporting her whole family. She's working for an NGO. And the thing that's so fascinating is to see these moms talk about how women, even in camps for the displaced, are taking on all kinds of new roles.

MARTIN: I just want to pause for a minute and ask about women who fought with ISIS or who are married to ISIS fighters. How are they being treated in this community? Are they there? Are they being accepted? What is happening with them?

LEMMON: There is a level of acceptance for some. So one young woman I met joined the all-women's force after being brutalized by her husband, who was part of ISIS. On the other hand, the women who were foreigners and even the real hardcore last holdouts in the fight against ISIS who are in this town of Baghuz, which had basically an apocalyptic end. They ran out of food. They ran out of water.

And what you see now from the women who were part of that is that all of the crimes of ISIS - you know, enslaving girls, raping women, beheading people on the streets, the hangings - that was not enough really to make them lose confidence in the head of ISIS. But the fact that children whose families belong to ISIS starved to death while leaders had food, that is what's making people very disappointed, very disillusioned, especially the women I've talked to.

MARTIN: Are there people who still support the caliphate despite all that they went through?

LEMMON: Absolutely there are. And in fact, one woman from Egypt I met has four daughters. She was talking about how all they want is to go home, to go back to Egypt, to go back to the parks, to go see relatives. And she said to me, you know, I don't believe in Baghdadi. But I still believe in the caliphate.

MARTIN: I did want to ask about your take on U.S. policy in northeast Syria because back in January, you wrote on your website that it's working. You said that the U.S. has helped defeat ISIS and prevent its resurgence, and it's done so not solely through direct military engagement, but by assisting a partner force. And I wanted to ask if you think that this assistance is sufficient to keep the threat of an ISIS resurgence in check.

LEMMON: It is sufficient as a foundation because what you see now is local folks holding local towns and working their best to keep them safe. But it is an international problem that requires international investment to help people have water and power and schools that run. And they merit our investment.

MARTIN: That was writer Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, who just returned from a reporting trip in Syria. Gayle, thanks so much for talking to us once again.

LEMMON: Pleasure to join you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.