Ain Issa, Syria- When Leefa set out from Indonesia for ISIS’ Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, she says she thought she was headed to a better life.
But now, as ISIS battles to defend its onetime bastion, Leefa and 15 other Indonesians are among thousands who have fled Raqqa in northern Syria.
They are sheltering at a camp for the displaced in Ain Issa, 50 kilometers north of Raqqa, waiting to learn their fates as the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) advance inside the terrorist group’s bastion.
In broken English, scattered with Arabic words picked up during their 22 months in Syria, Leefa and her compatriots admit they chose to travel to ISIS territory.
They tell piecemeal stories, with details missing and lost in translation.
“When we in Indonesia… we read, we watch in the internet (ISIS) is a place to live, to become a real Muslim,” said Leefa, 38.
“I have health problems, I need an operation in my neck and it’s very, very expensive in Indonesia,” she added.
“But in ISIS, there’s all free, all free,” she said.
“We come to ISIS for become a real Muslim and for my health,” she added.
Leefa explains haltingly that she was in contact with ISIS members in Syria over the internet, who told her that those who made it to Raqqa would be reimbursed for their tickets and would enjoy good lives.
But upon arrival, they found the situation harshly different from their expectations.
Leefa discovered the operation she needed was not free after all, and went untreated.
The stories told by members of the group, among them eight women, three children and five men, are impossible to confirm.
But, according to Agence France Presse, they match accounts by some other foreign escapees from ISIS territory who describe being seduced by online depictions that differed vastly from the reality they discovered upon arrival in the group’s self-declared “caliphate.”
In the small room where the Indonesians have taken shelter, a young girl with the group wearing a purple headscarf uses a flattened plastic bottle as a makeshift fan to battle the heat.
“Everything is lies,” said 19-year-old Nur, another of the Indonesians at Ain Issa, her beige headscarf pinned neatly below her chin.
“When we enter ISIS, enter their country, turns out all of them very different from what they said on the internet.”
Nur said she and her family expected the male relatives among the group to have jobs.
But when they arrived they were told that all men were obliged to join the ranks of ISIS fighters.
The SDF fighters now advancing inside Raqqa against ISIS are interrogating the members of the Indonesian group but expect to free them, said Ain Issa camp official Fayruz Khalil.
“For the last 10 months they were trying to leave, but they only managed in the last few days to flee.”
The SDF plans to send the group of Indonesians over the border to the Iraqi city of Arbil and hand them to the Indonesian embassy.
According to Indonesian authorities around 500-600 Indonesians are believed to be in Syria at the moment.
Around 500 more have sought to reach Syria but were deported before reaching ISIS territory.