Qamishli, Syria- Islam Maytat thought marrying an Afghan-British businessman was her ticket to a new life as a fashionista in London. Instead, she became a widow living under ISIS rule in Syria.
At just 23, the young Moroccan spent three traumatic years in northern Syria under ISIS group’s so-called “caliphate.”
She got married to three extremists, two of them were killed, and she gave birth for two children before she was able to escape Raqqa, about one month ago, in a risky trip with her children.
Maytat spoke to AFP after fleeing ISIS’s northern stronghold of Raqqa to territory controlled by a US-backed alliance fighting the extremist group.
Now safe in the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli, Maytat holds her gurgling 10-month-old daughter Maria in her lap as she tells her story.
“Meeting my husband was one of the things that motivated me to study fashion design in Europe, but I had no luck. Everything went wrong,” she said.
She first met Khalil Ahmed — an Afghan-British trader who worked in Dubai — online in early 2014, and they got married two months later.
He flew to Morocco to marry her and then they went to Dubai, stepping into a complex web of lies and journeys across the Middle East that would eventually take her to Syria.
In Dubai, Islam said, Ahmed proved to be a strict, controlling husband who did not allow her to wear makeup or bright clothes.
After a brief trip to Afghanistan to meet his family, Maytat was eager to get to London and start working as a stylist.
Ahmed proposed travelling to Istanbul, convincing a reluctant Maytat that it would be easier to move to London from there.
But as soon as they landed in Turkey, Ahmed immediately drove her to the southeastern city of Gaziantep near the border with Syria.
In Gaziantep, Maytat and Ahmed moved into a large house full of ecstatic couples from countries including Saudi Arabia, Algeria and France.
“I asked them ‘Why are you here?’ And they told me they were there to migrate to the alleged ‘caliphate’ in Syria,” Maytat recalled.
In June 2014, ISIS declared a self-styled “caliphate” across Syria and Iraq, where it implemented its literal interpretation of Islamic law.
“I began to cry. It was two weeks after the ‘caliphate’ was declared and the women kept saying ‘We’re going to the land of the caliphate, the land of the Muslims,’ and they were all happy,” Maytat said.
In August, Ahmed and Maytat made their own journey across the border into war-ravaged northern Syria.
Six months following their marriage, they settled in the northern Syrian town of Manbij in August 2014, where Ahmed’s brother was already living with his family.
“I asked my husband ‘Why did you destroy my life like this? You should have told me from the beginning that this is what we were going to do,’” Maytat recalled.
“And he said ‘You’re my wife — you have to listen to what I say.’”
By September, she was pregnant with her first child — Abdullah — and Ahmed was sent to a month-long military training before deploying to ISIS’s front in Kobane.
On October 8, 2014, Ahmed’s brother told Maytat her husband had been killed in combat.
“I became more depressed. I told myself, this is the only person I knew in this foreign land, and now I’m alone here,” she told AFP.
Pregnant and alone, Maytat moved into a shared “guest house” for widows of jihadists, mostly Uzbeks and Russians.
This is when the military training started.
“When they forced us to do weapons training I was pregnant, but I had no choice,” she said.
Unable to communicate with many other widows, Maytat was allowed to move into a building housing other Arabic-speakers.
“There were French, Tunisians, Moroccans and Algerians. I stayed there until I gave birth to Abdullah.”
Less than a year after her first husband died, Maytat remarried in order to escape the shelter.
Her second husband, an Afghan known as Abu Abdullah, took her to Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS’s caliphate.
“I couldn’t deal with life there — he wouldn’t let me leave the house — so I asked him for a divorce two months later,” she said.
Later she got married for the third time in three years, this time to an Indian militant in Raqqa known as Abu Talha al-Hindi.
That 18-month marriage produced her daughter, Maria.
When Maytat learned Abu Talha had been killed battling the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, she joined up with another jihadist widow, a Yazidi woman.
Traumatized by her past, Maytat is now also worried about her future and that of her two young children.
“I still don’t know what to do with my life.”
“I hope to return to Morocco with both of my children, but I don’t know if I’ll have a future or not there.”