The Open-Air Prison for ISIS Supporters—and Victims

Since the Islamic State fell, tens of thousands of people—many of them children—have been herded into Al-Hol, a giant fenced-in camp in Syria, and effectively given life sentences.

The dead turned up everywhere. Two decapitated corpses in a cesspit. The remains of a woman with a pierced skull. A child with a bullet hole in his temple. Men clustering around a ditch suggested the worst, as did women running at full speed through the dirt. With each grim discovery, Jihan Omar renewed a promise to herself: she had to find a way out.

Jihan lived in Al-Hol, a detention camp in eastern Syria which could more properly be called a concentration camp. Al-Hol was created decades ago, in a stretch of scrubland about ten miles west of the Iraqi border, as a haven for refugees. But in 2019, when the U.S.-led coalition vanquished isis—the armed group that had briefly established a breakaway caliphate within Syria and Iraq, imposing an extremist interpretation of Islamic law—tens of thousands of people who’d been living under its rule were herded to the camp. Guard towers and armored vehicles and concertina-crowned walls appeared, and residents could no longer walk out the gate.

About fifty thousand people are currently imprisoned in Al-Hol, which is named for a dilapidated nearby town. The detainees hail from more than fifty countries: Chinese and Trinidadians and Russians and Swedes and Brits live alongside Syrians and Iraqis. Many of the adults had either joined isis or been married to someone who’d joined. But many others have no links to the Islamic State and fled to the camp to escape the punishing U.S.-led bombing campaign. Some were thrown into isis’s orbit by force: Yazidis enslaved by commanders, teen-age girls married off by their families. More than half the population are children, the majority of whom are younger than twelve. Dozens of babies are born each month. All the residents are under indefinite detention, as no plans have apparently been made to prosecute any of them—imagine if Guantánamo were the size of a city, and its inmates were mostly women and children. The United Nations has called Al-Hol a “blight on the conscience of humanity.”

The camp, which is in a region of Syria still protected by several hundred U.S. troops, is under the aegis of a beleaguered force of mostly Kurdish fighters—soldiers who had previously aligned with the Americans to defeat isis. They are largely backed by the United States, but the Pentagon declines to specify how much it spends annually on Al-Hol. The Kurdish fighters guard the camp’s perimeter in swat vehicles, and a primarily Kurdish civilian administration manages the camp bureaucracy, coördinating with aid organizations to distribute rations and deliver such basic services as sewage treatment and water. But the camp itself—block after block of dirt lanes and tents—is effectively under the control of its isis inmates. All-female squads of religious police pressure women to cover head to toe in the black niqab; violators have been dragged to makeshift Sharia courts, where judges order floggings and executions. Assassination cells gun down inmates accused of passing information to camp authorities.

For years, I have been visiting Al-Hol with a health-related humanitarian organization. To stand in one of the camp’s alleys is to feel a type of vertigo: in every direction, rows of tents—U.N.-issued blue nylon and polyester patched together with white and beige scraps of fabric—stretch to the horizon. Above this canvas metropolis loom red water towers whose tanks are known to teem with worms. Some days, simoom winds blast open tent flaps, covering residents with dust. The smell of sand and raw sewage is overwhelming.

Jihan, who arrived in the camp in 2018, spent years plotting escape. Some guards were corrupt, and she occasionally heard of prisoners bribing their way out. This carried great risk, though, and required huge sums of cash. The safest approach was to wait for the camp’s security officials to decide, through a secretive process that no prisoner quite understood, that you didn’t pose a threat, or to confirm that you’d never belonged to isis in the first place. Such beneficence could take years, though, or might never come. Identifying an intermediary who had the ear of the jailers was crucial, and after much searching Jihan believed that she’d found just the person: a fifty-four-year-old inmate named Hamid al-Shummari, who promised that he would raise her case with the authorities.

“There isn’t a problem on this earth I cannot solve,” Hamid told me.

One afternoon in January, 2021, I visited Hamid’s tent, which he’d outfitted with floor cushions and hanging bulbs, in an homage to the bungalow that he’d had on the outside. Hamid, who possessed the regal bearing of a man accustomed to addressing tribal gatherings, had a well-grooved Bedouin face and wore a checkered shemagh scarf swirled around his gray hair. He and his family had arrived in Al-Hol after fleeing the war—an outcome that might have reduced someone less resourceful to despair. But Hamid threw himself into camp life, befriending neighbors and smoothing over daily calamities. He roved from tent to tent, insuring that detainees received their allotments of the camp’s two official provisions: bread and cooking gas, both of which are supplied by non-governmental organizations. Before long, he was serving as an advocate for the camp’s tens of thousands of Syrians to the authorities. The role filled him with pride—his great fear wasn’t penury or dispossession but to be thought of as not useful.

On the afternoon we met, a dozen women, all clad in black, were awaiting his audience. Hamid told me that he’d recently succeeded in obtaining official approval to open a sewing workshop for the women. He wished that he could give me a tour of the facility, but he wasn’t keen to be seen with a foreigner. Not everyone was grateful for his efforts; some inmates, who were linked to isis, denounced him as a collaborator. And conditions in the camp were deteriorating; the previous evening, five detainees had been murdered. “The people here are forgotten by the world,” he told me.

Some days later, Hamid and a few of his sons were walking home from a tent used as a mosque. They had finished Friday prayers. Teen-agers were loitering on a lot that served as a soccer field, though it lacked goalposts. As Hamid paused in front of his tent, to suggest to his family that they erect a wall to protect themselves, a man approached. He was wearing Adidas sneakers and track pants, as if he had just come from the soccer field, and he’d covered his face in a shemagh. As Hamid turned to greet him, the man fired a pistol. The bullet tore through Hamid’s neck. One of his sons ran at the attacker and was shot in the face.

Jihan Omar, who lived a few tents down, heard the shots and rushed into the street. When she saw that the father and son had been murdered, she collapsed. She’d believed that Hamid was an angel sent by God to deliver her from imprisonment. In the days that followed, she despaired. Jihan had pictured herself walking freely through the boisterous souks and open fields of her youth. Now she was trapped, maybe forever.

Among the hundreds of women I crossed paths with in Al-Hol, Jihan was one of the few who appeared before me without a face covering; it was her way of repudiating the memory of living under isis. Her eyes were the color of honey, and her smile said, I know what I’m doing. When she came to a decision, no exhortation or inducement could move her. In a different time and place, this quality could have been seen as ordinary stubbornness, but in the camp it signalled unusual resolve.

I first met with Jihan in her tent on a spring day, in the hope of better understanding how so many women and their children had ended up in Al-Hol. A curtain separated the areas that passed for the living room and the kitchen. There was a single mattress on the floor. Nearby, goats bleated.

Like many detainees, Jihan supplemented her rations using money earned from occasional jobs around the camp. She had recently started working as a janitor at a kindergarten, where she made about eight dollars a day. A few aid organizations had established schools in Al-Hol, although isis occasionally burned them down, because they dared to teach secular subjects. She was usually home by the early afternoon, but the work didn’t cease: she swept the tent clean of sand, patched rips in the nylon, and prepared dinner, often with provisions handed out by charities.

Jihan told me that she was born in the early eighties, in a neighborhood in the Old City of Homs, in western Syria. It was a world of narrow streets, ancient buildings of black basalt with ogive windows, and inner courtyards with lemon and loquat trees. Marwa al-Sabouni, an architect from Homs, has written that “it was common to hear the bells of Christian churches and the Muslim call to prayer echoing through the streets at the same time.” Jihan recalled Friday picnics in which her family would prepare lime-shaped kibbe in yogurt sauce. “We used to sit in the yard of our house, next to the jasmine and the fountain, drinking yerba maté, listening to my mother singing in her sweet voice,” she said.

Jihan excelled in school, but, at the age of thirteen, after watching her older siblings’ university degrees come to nothing, she dropped out to become a seamstress. She apprenticed at a workshop, learning to handle bodices and chiffons; within a few years, she could sew a bridal ensemble. Soon, she was talking about designing her own wedding gown—lots of lace, flared like a bell—and her parents took note. In traditional quarters of Homs, most marriages were arranged, so one day they introduced her to a tall boy with rich brown skin named Ahmed. Jihan knew of him from the neighborhood; he had a reputation for chasing away men who catcalled women. The families gathered in the Omars’ living room and encouraged the pair to speak privately in a corner—Jihan’s father insisted that the decision be hers. She sat before Ahmed, staring into her lap. He was soft-spoken, with a kindness to his voice. She summoned the courage to look at him. “He had nice eyes, the color of honey,” she recalled. “We had the same eyes, so I believed it was fate.”

Jihan and Ahmed became engaged; they selected invitation cards and playlists for the wedding, and picked out wallpaper and kitchen appliances for their future home. He wasn’t like other neighborhood men, who saw married life as a kingdom ruled by fiat. “He did not impose anything,” she recalled. “He told me, ‘You are my life partner, we have to share everything.’ ” Ahmed promised that his family would have no say over their affairs; their secrets would remain their own. As they planned this shared existence, Jihan realized that she was in love.

She remembered every detail of her wedding: the procession through the winding streets, the metallic-sounding voices on the cassette tapes, the friends dancing the dabke, the date-filled maamoul cookies. The family couldn’t afford soft drinks, so they provided water. Afterward, Jihan spent her first night in her new home—a room at her in-laws’. Exhausted, nervous, and flush with optimism, she was sixteen.

Jihan had noticed that the act of matrimony transformed many of her friends’ charming suitors into petty tyrants. Some husbands even forbade their wives to work. But Ahmed kept his word about sharing decisions. “Our years passed like a dream,” Jihan told me. Her husband worked with great industry, earning a decent wage as a laborer. When he returned home in the evening, they smoked Lucky Strikes and talked of vacations. Like her, he had little interest in Islam; instead, his faith was in the idea of progress, and he assiduously saved money. Once, he surprised her with a washing machine; later, she was astonished to learn that he’d managed to buy a plot of land out in the suburbs, on which he hoped to build a new home.

Jihan prepared to quit tailoring. She hoped for two boys and a girl; her daughter would be named Sarah, after a dear friend. But they had trouble conceiving. Men in the neighborhood often used this difficulty as a pretext to take a second wife, but Ahmed promised Jihan that she was the only one for him. They planned their future home: life became the measurement of curtains, the weighing of shades of blue. In 2011, when the television began showing scenes of protests in Egypt, Ahmed and Jihan hardly paid attention.

Then protests against Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, erupted in their neighborhood. Jihan wasn’t sure what to think, but Ahmed believed that demonstrations would bring only chaos. He moved their Friday picnics indoors and stayed home from work. The authorities were responding with force, gunning down unarmed protesters and detaining activists. In response, angry residents launched a sit-in at a clock tower; regime soldiers massacred them, leaving the asphalt streaked with blood. Not long afterward, troops opened fire on Jihan’s street while a friend, Aisha, was making coffee at home. A bullet shattered the window, killing Aisha. Jihan stopped going outdoors, and was afraid even to pass by her own windows.

One day, Ahmed came home in a panic: he’d witnessed a regime soldier fatally shoot an elderly neighbor, whose body was thrown from his wheelchair. Jihan and Ahmed soon abandoned their possessions and fled to the countryside with their relatives, taking shelter in an empty house offered by a local family.

Meanwhile, Homs became a kill zone. Protesters took up weapons, forming rebel groups. The regime shelled the city, reducing neighborhoods to rubble. Pro-government militias dismembered children and set bodies ablaze. Jihan noticed a change in Ahmed. Like everyone else who’d fled, he’d lost his job, but he would stay out all day without telling her where he was going. He’d return in a dark mood, relating news of fresh massacres. In a nearby town, regime fighters executed nearly a hundred people, half of them children. Ahmed began lashing out at friends, relatives, and even Jihan. He abandoned the Friday picnics, saying that he felt guilty breathing fresh country air while, just miles away, his friends were being buried. He joined the Free Syrian Army, an assemblage of pro-democracy rebel groups. But a shortage of funds forced some units into brigandage, which deepened Ahmed’s cynicism: the government was murderous and the rebels were corrupt. He could no longer even visit his plot of land because the road there was crisscrossed by checkpoints. And what was the use of owning land when the world was collapsing?

Ahmed received daily updates about the carnage in Homs from his best friend, Ali, who’d stayed behind. One day in 2013, Ahmed got a phone call: Ali had been bringing home a breakfast of eggs and yogurt when he was shot in the forehead by a regime sniper. Ahmed smashed his phone to pieces, sobbing, and locked himself in his room. Jihan had never seen him like this; she worried he would harm himself. He left home. Days later, his mother brought him back, but he had a new, distant look. “I’m sick and tired of this life,” he told Jihan. “I’m going to join the Islamic State.”

When night falls in Al-Hol, the floodlights cast a fluorescent glow on the tents, and the camp feels like some extraterrestrial colony, severed from civilization. Jihan didn’t have a phone—guards confiscate them during raids—and her tent lacked electricity. At night, she would lie on her mattress, the desert wind whipping the nylon. Occasionally, she permitted herself to think about Ahmed. Something had been churning within him, she told me, but his decision to join isis remained inscrutable to her. Back in 2013, there had been nearly a thousand rebel groups, an alphabet soup of acronyms. She had no clue that one of them—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—was different. Nonetheless, she was convinced that Ahmed’s enlistment would bring ruin on them. She begged him to reconsider. For the first time, they had vicious fights: slammed doors, shattered dishware. But nothing could move Ahmed; there was a fury in him that frightened her. Sometimes he didn’t come home, and Jihan spent the night crying into her pillow.

Ahmed’s decision alarmed both their families. His relatives knew nothing about isis but believed that the only way to survive was to keep the armed factions at a distance. Jihan’s father—who had never raised his voice at her—screamed that she must divorce Ahmed.

“How can I leave my husband?” she asked.

“If you don’t, I will never forgive you,” he said.

For a month, Jihan stayed indoors, mired in disbelief and depression; she rehearsed telling Ahmed that she wanted a divorce, imagining his shock, his grief. Both sets of parents vowed to disown the couple if he wouldn’t renounce isis. To prove it, they acted as if they didn’t know Jihan when they passed her on the street. But Ahmed had stood by her when they couldn’t conceive. Jihan couldn’t abandon him, even if he was making a terrible mistake; indeed, she would stay with him precisely because he was making a mistake, since it was such moments, she told herself, that made love meaningful. She hoped to keep reminding him that there was a realm beyond air strikes and mutilated bodies, somewhere.

“We’re going to lose our families,” she told him one day. “Please don’t do this.”

He took her hand. “Maybe we’ll lose our families,” he said. “But we will be doing the right thing, and that’s what matters.”

A few months later, Jihan and Ahmed moved to Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate.

The Islamic State at its height controlled nearly a third of Syrian territory and forty per cent of Iraq, and ruled over some ten million people. In addition to the front-line fighters who battled rival Syrian and Iraqi factions, thousands of functionaries engaged in such mundane bureaucratic tasks as collecting taxes and conducting restaurant food-safety inspections. The caliphate’s system of laws, which was as intricate as that of any established state, included the provision that women cover fully in public. Jihan loathed wearing the niqab so much that she rarely left the house. Ahmed asked her to bear it, as if they were immigrants in a foreign culture. He was often away at the front lines, returning only once or twice a month, usually without warning. Jihan had grown up surrounded by siblings and in-laws; she’d never slept in an empty house a day in her life. Though she had acquired a smattering of friends by working as a seamstress, each evening she sank back into a terrible loneliness. She grew obsessed with having children, but she and Ahmed still couldn’t conceive. They visited several doctors, who declared them medically sound. One said that their condition was God’s will.

Whenever Ahmed came home, he was withdrawn. “He hated life in general,” Jihan recalled. When she prepared his favorite meal—mahshi, stuffed vegetables—he ate without pleasure. He stared blankly into his phone, then slept for twelve hours straight. He hardly even looked at her anymore. She saw him smile only when he heard news of regime losses. When Jihan asked about his work, he refused to discuss it—and she felt relieved, because she didn’t really want to know. She tried to imagine they were living a normal life, that he was going off to do construction or farming, that a child was on the way. Within her four walls, it was easy to forget that a war raged in other cities. But she couldn’t forget her former life in Homs. One call from her father would have been enough. None came.

Ahmed must have noticed her despondency, because he began taking her out: hiking along the Euphrates, shopping in the souks. The couple were seen together so often that when Ahmed’s comrades spotted him out alone they teased, “You forgot your weapon at home.” Still, he was rarely on leave, and Jihan wouldn’t go out by herself. In this shrunken universe, she lost track of time. Two, three years passed.

Then, in 2017, the war came to Raqqa. Though the city was an isis bastion, there were many residents, especially poor ones, who opposed the group but lacked the resources to escape. American jets pounded the city; isis forces shot back from rooftops. Jihan huddled at home while Ahmed was off fighting. The American barrage struck isis locations and civilian homes alike. A coalition bomb slammed into a residential building in Jihan’s neighborhood, nearly wiping out four families living there; twenty children died. A week later, a strike hit another nearby building, killing twenty-seven civilians. Explosions rocked the city day and night, and Jihan hardly slept.

Finally, Ahmed returned home. He frantically loaded their possessions into a car, and drove with Jihan through a vista of extraordinary devastation: some eleven thousand buildings—mosques, schools, water towers—were in ruins. Amnesty International, which tracked civilian deaths resulting from the battle, later called Raqqa the “most destroyed city in modern times.” Ahmed and Jihan headed south. She recalled, “A bomb hit a building on a street we were passing, and I saw with my own eyes a crib thrown onto the street. Ahmed stopped the car and went to check on it. There was a baby inside, and it was still alive. Ahmed told me, ‘Do you see who we are fighting?’ He was very upset, and he was pointing to the sky: ‘What did this baby do?’ He was shaking.”

After leaving the infant with neighbors, they drove to Deir ez-Zor, a province deep in the heart of the caliphate and far from the bombing. It was the poorest corner of Syria; malaria and polio were rampant. The accents were rustic and guttural. Ahmed returned to the front and Jihan resumed tailoring. He was gone for longer and longer stretches. She tried desperately to imagine a better future, but these thoughts were impossibly imbricated with her past. In her mind, she was having a Friday picnic in Homs, and she was chasing after Sarah and her boys, scolding them, feeding them kibbe.

One morning, there was a knock on the door. Jihan opened it to find a group of Islamic State fighters. “Are you Ahmed Ali Saleh’s wife?” one asked. She nodded. “May God have mercy on him and bless him. He was martyred.”

Jihan wasn’t sure what to say. “Where is his body?” she asked.

“We buried it,” one said, and then they left.

The moments after this were a haze. At some point, Jihan fainted. Neighbors must have noticed her in distress. They took turns spending the night with her. Sometimes she talked about waiting for Ahmed to come home, as if she’d only imagined his death. When the truth bore down, she fainted again. In the depths of her mourning, she considered reaching out to her parents, but the dread of rejection stopped her. “If I called my father and heard his voice and he told me I wasn’t his daughter, it would break my heart into pieces,” she said. Occasionally, she imagined she’d given birth to a child who had Ahmed’s scent. She lost all desire to leave the house. Her neighbors tried to persuade her to move in with them, or at least come for meals, but she refused.

One day in 2018, a woman who lived next door to Jihan was stoking a clay oven on her roof. As the woman called to her four children down below to help their father load the car, an air strike rocked the house. Jihan raced over. The woman had been thrown from the roof. “Don’t check on me!” she screamed. “Check my children!” But her entire family was dead. Jihan stared at the children’s little bodies and was suddenly gripped by a rage she’d never felt before. She realized, for the first time, that she hated Ahmed—for his stubbornness, his zealotry, his bloodlust, his willingness to destroy her life. She hated her parents, who, she told me, had “tossed us out like garbage.” She hated her government for plunging her country into horror. She hated the Americans, the U.N., and the entire world, and she swore that she’d never cry for anyone, or anything, again.

Jihan began leaving the house, and she resumed tailoring with a furious intensity, though she couldn’t say what for. The sound of warplanes grew closer, but she no longer cared. She befriended one of her customers, who introduced her to her brother, a divorced tuk-tuk mechanic named Mahmoud. He not only detested isis—he repudiated every side of the conflict. At first, Jihan resisted any thought of romance. But after weeks of contemplation she decided that there was only one way to bury the memory of Ahmed. She married Mahmoud in a small ceremony. There had been no courtship—indeed, hardly any discussion between them—but she couldn’t remain alone.

Soon afterward, the war reached Deir ez-Zor. Pro-regime forces sent jets thundering overhead, and ordnance crashed down at random. Jihan and Mahmoud decided to take refuge in the countryside, where Mahmoud had relatives. As they were leaving, a staggering explosion nearly overturned their vehicle. Jihan looked back to see their house ablaze.

The next day, they stole back to the house. It was in ashes. Their possessions, including their identification papers, had been incinerated.

The couple moved from village to village, fleeing the advancing front line and venturing deeper into the caliphate. Tens of thousands of families were doing the same—isis was barring civilians from leaving its territory. But nowhere was truly safe; one day, coalition warplanes struck the hamlet where Jihan and Mahmoud were sheltering, turning the village into an inferno. As they gathered their belongings to flee again, an air strike hit a nearby building; the blast threw Jihan to the ground, and shrapnel just missed her, cleaving a nearby tree. Mahmoud carried her to the car, and they raced off.

There was no choice but to try to escape the caliphate. They joined hundreds of other families trekking through the desert; many had paid their life savings to smugglers, who guided them around isis checkpoints. The caravan proceeded northwest, toward Raqqa, and finally arrived at a checkpoint of the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. The travellers—who included the sick, the wounded, the pregnant, the dying—begged the soldiers to take them in. The soldiers demanded identification documents, which Jihan and Mahmoud no longer had. In any event, almost none of the people in the caravan were admitted. Most of them were arrested and loaded into cargo trucks. Jihan, who hadn’t eaten in days, was barely conscious. After many hours, the trucks were unloaded. Jihan and her husband stood shivering under floodlights, and were informed that the name of their new home was Al-Hol.

In 2006, the Syrian government settled a few hundred Palestinian refugee families on a dusty, scorpion-infested stretch of brushland near the Iraqi border, south of the town of Al-Hol, which means, among other things, “the horror.” The Palestinians had been living in Iraq but fled the violence unleashed by the U.S. occupation; they had already been expelled from their ancestral lands by Israel in 1948. The U.N. built cinder-block houses for the refugees. During the Syrian civil war, the camp filled with more displaced families. In March, 2019, when the caliphate fell, thousands of its residents were corralled into Al-Hol, and the camp was abruptly converted into one of the world’s largest prisons. Today, Al-Hol’s fifty thousand residents are grouped into sectors divided by barbed wire; to walk from one to the next can take half an hour. Most sectors hold Syrians and Iraqis, but the so-called Annex is home to about six thousand Europeans, Asians, and Africans, some of whom have been denied repatriation by their home governments. Horticulture is evident here and there around the camp, with squash and bean plants peeking over tents. A few non-governmental organizations operate health clinics, but detainees complain that malnutrition and water-borne disease are pervasive. Crowds jostle around bathrooms whose pipes are often clogged. Many inmates receive money from relatives—hawala networks, informal cash-transfer systems, are sometimes allowed to relay funds to prisoners. Detainees can use their remittances to buy smuggled goods, including drugs. The chief diversion is the souk, which was built by inmates, and in which you’ll find small grocers next to carts selling makeup next to smoothie stands. A few lucky prisoners own shops, but most stalls are run by outsiders with permits to enter the camp. A mass of black-clad women drifts among the stalls, examining bras, haggling over cigarettes. You can guess who the true believers are: the women who cover not only their faces but also their eyes tend to be loyal to isis.

When Jihan and Mahmoud moved to their assigned tent, Jihan was surprised to find many detainees with stories like hers. The common denominator appeared to be guilt by association. There was a woman from central Syria named Fatima; her husband had joined the democracy protests and then, through the twists and turns of the war, had ended up in isis. Her family insisted that she divorce him, but they had a child, and, according to local custom, custody goes to the man, so she refused—and was disowned. Eventually, Fatima’s husband died in battle, and she was transferred against her will to a “guest house” for isis widows. There she rebuffed isis suitors, wanting only to be reunited with her family. During America’s bombing campaign, she was moved from village to village by isis, and she ended up living in a ditch as ordnance exploded around her. Now she and her child were in Al-Hol, surviving on camp rations, as she waited for a sign from her family. She hadn’t spoken to them in four years.

Jihan met Da’ad, who was also from Homs. Her family, which was not linked to isis, had fled regime air strikes for Raqqa, then kept moving east to escape U.S. bombs. One day, she and her children travelled to visit her parents; they returned home to find that a coalition air strike had blown up their house. Seventeen people were killed, among them her husband and her in-laws. Now she lives in a tent with her daughters, including a nine-year-old who has a blood disorder and requires transfusions to stay alive. Transfusions are performed at a hospital outside the camp, but an emergency furlough from the authorities is maddeningly difficult to obtain, and Da’ad, who works at a grocery in the souk, can’t always afford the treatments. She has appealed to neighbors and to aid organizations in the camp, without success. “I can’t watch my child withering away in front of me day after day,” she said. “This is a prison, not a camp. I don’t know what crime my daughter committed.”

Local authorities did not comment on conditions in the camp. The U.S. State Department said in a statement that the “humanitarian needs at Al-Hol camp are vast and the international response is underfunded,” and noted that the U.S. is “committed to helping the international community address this shared security and humanitarian challenge.”

I tracked down eyewitnesses and collected corroborating evidence for the strikes that Da’ad and other prisoners described. (The Pentagon declined to comment.) Under U.S. law, civilians harmed in American military actions can be eligible for condolence payments. But most inmates don’t believe that they will ever see a dollar—and they hardly even think about the remote and seemingly toothless world of foreign laws. Afflicted by images they cannot unsee, they must take comfort in the knowledge that the haunting is shared.

Asma was from a stretch of Iraq that was overtaken by isis. When U.S.-backed forces closed in on her village, she and her husband, a taxi-driver, fled with their two daughters; her two brothers had joined isis, and she and her husband feared being branded sympathizers. They took refuge in Syria. Not long afterward, Asma’s husband was in a traffic accident. “I went running to the hospital crying,” she recalled. He died from his injuries. “I saw his body and hugged him and kept screaming.” Five months later, she went to visit a friend. When she returned home, she saw people gathered in front of her house. It was in smoldering ruins, from an air strike by pro-government forces. Both her daughters were dead. “I buried them in the dirt with my own hands,” Asma said. “They were little girls, the age of flowers.” Because a woman cannot live alone, Asma moved in with her brothers Mustafa and Saleh, the isis members, who, with their families, had taken up residence in Syria. She tried to suppress her grief, playing with her nieces and nephews and helping out around the house. One evening, she went to bed around midnight, and woke up in the hospital; Saleh was by her side, crying. He told her, “We are the only survivors.” Asma recalled, “I did not even feel the fractures in my hands and feet. I was screaming, ‘Where is Mustafa? Where are the boys and girls!’ ” Another air strike had wiped out the rest of her family, killing twelve people, nine of them children. She and Saleh fled to a different village, but two months later he was killed in a coalition air strike. In Al-Hol, Asma lived in a tent alone.

I met a young man named Hassan, who was a child when the civil war started; he hailed from western Syria but, through a series of displacements, wound up in the eastern part of the country. isis fighters commandeered the ground floor of the apartment building where he lived with his parents and siblings. Residents begged the militants to leave, but they refused. The residents had nowhere to go, so they remained in their homes. One day, Hassan was talking with his brothers when he heard warplanes. “I woke up to find myself under rubble, trapped between stones and iron,” he recalled. “I started calling for my parents, but nobody answered. My brother was next to me. And I then saw that he was not even a complete body. It was half a body, only the upper half, from his chest to his head.” Three days later, at the hospital, he was told that a coalition bomb had killed ten members of his family, including his parents: “I started howling, and the nurse tried to calm me and remind me of God.”

Deyaa was an Iraqi from Heet, a city that became part of the caliphate. He worked in livestock. One day, he and his wife drove beyond the city limits to collect fodder, and they took their children along. At dusk, as they were returning home, they noticed jets flying low. A terrific blast hit the roadside. Deyaa could no longer hear or see anything. He screamed his wife’s name but got no answer. Her head had been split open. Shrapnel had ripped apart his children’s bodies.

After several surgeries, Deyaa survived. “When they took me home, I couldn’t bring myself to enter—I just stood outside crying,” he said. “I stood like this for a long time, long enough for people to worry that I was losing my mind.” He made multiple attempts to escape the caliphate, but was eventually detained by Kurdish forces and shipped to Al-Hol. He said of his family, “They were the most valuable things I had, and the Americans took them away from me.”

Inmates who had never committed a crime still tended to blame themselves for their predicament—they’d fallen in love with the wrong man, sought refuge in the wrong town. Jihan was overtaken by bitterness and self-reproach. Should she have listened to her parents? Should she have forced Ahmed to quit isis? But how? Using a friend’s phone, she tried to contact her family, but they had changed their numbers. She had convinced herself that if she could only comprehend Ahmed’s path into isis, she could somehow rid herself of his stain. But nobody in Al-Hol had known him, and the authorities had no record of him.

To better understand Ahmed’s story myself, one afternoon I visited a tent not far from Jihan’s, where Abu Hassan, an Islamic State commander, lived. He was a heavyset man with a stern, watchful expression, and I found it easy to imagine him in a grainy jihadi video. His tent was larger than most, provisioned with embroidered floor cushions and velvet drapes. I’d heard that he came from an impoverished family in central Syria, and he confirmed this, describing a childhood spent on the streets with local toughs. “We drank, we smoked,” he told me. “We never talked about Islamic ideas.” They labored for pennies as pushcart venders and construction workers. He got a job painting the sides of buildings, and enjoyed “hanging between land and sky.”

When the revolution erupted, Abu Hassan and his friends joined the protests. “None of us had any idea about the Islamic State,” he recalled. “We were very poor, so we just wanted better jobs, a better economic situation, and freedom of expression.” After several people were detained and then brutalized in regime dungeons, he concluded that peaceful resistance was futile. He and his friends collected donations door to door, bought a few old hunting rifles, and declared themselves a unit of the Free Syrian Army.

As the uprising mutated into war, Abu Hassan found himself on the front lines, sleeping in bombed-out buildings and dodging mortars. At first, Free Syrian Army units received a hero’s welcome wherever they went. But in time the exigencies of fund-raising pushed rebel units—most of which lacked foreign backing—into thievery. He considered quitting. But then a right-wing battalion, Ahrar al-Sham, appeared on the scene; the group, which had a flush arsenal donated by Gulf states, didn’t have to resort to looting. Abu Hassan’s unit joined en masse. For the first time, Abu Hassan was surrounded by young men who spoke of order and responsibility. It was here that he initially heard Islamic ideas; he was amazed to see comrades act as if they were accountable to something greater than themselves.

Before long, isis emerged, announcing its intention to build a state that would promote justice and care for the poor. Abu Hassan and his crew signed up. He was unacquainted with the group’s global ambitions, hadn’t read a word of jihadi literature and knew none of its catechisms—such as “death to the rejectionists,” the Shia. But the terrible bloodshed of the previous years had unsettled all precepts of right and wrong, and it was isis’s message of order, in a world seemingly turned upside down, that resonated with Abu Hassan.

The most commonly told story of isis recruitment starts with a lone teen-ager in a Western country, watching YouTube clips in his bedroom and succumbing to indoctrination, then rushing off to wage jihad. There are those who fit this narrative, but the vast majority of isis recruits were Iraqis and Syrians, most of whom hadn’t had the slightest inclination toward religious extremism before they joined. As I met Abu Hassan and dozens like him in Al-Hol, various archetypes revealed themselves: the rebel who, closing his eyes and seeing the ghosts of dead relatives, is bent on revenge; the poor worker suffering the humiliations of a profoundly unequal society, then suddenly commanding fear and respect; the teen-ager looking for excitement who calculates that, by growing a rugged beard and sporting a bandolier, he might impress the neighborhood girls.

When religious radicalization occurred, it usually happened after a person joined isis. Membership in a militant organization can be a powerful socializing experience, rewiring one’s ideas about reality. That seemed to be the case with Abu Hassan. He was assigned to the isis secret police—the caliphate’s gestapo—and tasked with arresting his former pro-democracy allies. By all accounts, Abu Hassan morphed into a feared enforcer, his unit snatching citizens off the streets. According to some sources, at one point he was responsible for half the arrests in a city in the Aleppo governorate. Those people judged guilty were often marched to a field or an alley, sometimes in groups, and executed by firing squad. Their bodies were dumped in unmarked mass graves.

Many of the people arrested weren’t involved in the war. I located a falafel seller who’d been detained by Abu Hassan. He’d been accused of taking up arms against isis—a charge he’d found so absurd he almost wanted to laugh. Then isis investigators “hung me by a rope and started beating me,” he recalled. “They broke two of my bones, and I could breathe only with difficulty.” He was placed in a windowless box so tiny that he couldn’t sit down, and every so often he was taken out to be tortured again. He was released after nine months.

The falafel seller was fortunate; many people seized by isis never made it out. I collected the names of dozens of individuals arrested by Abu Hassan who weren’t heard from again. Their families are still searching for them. When I mentioned the names to Abu Hassan, he said that he hadn’t killed them personally, but they were all dead.

In the ideologically sundry society of Al-Hol, Abu Hassan had moderated his persona. He’d acted as a mediator between the community and the religious police, defending an aid organization’s construction of a school. The caliphate had become a distant memory. Abu Hassan had lost his worldly possessions and was living in a squalid camp. What did he now make of his grisly career? “I will never say I regret arresting those people, because our duty was to rule in the name of God,” he said. It was a matter of following the law. “If I’m in Las Vegas, and I commit a crime, and the punishment for this crime is death, what law will I be judged under? Las Vegas law, not Islamic law, of course.” In the same way, he explained, he’d merely been obeying orders. But sometimes in my conversations with Abu Hassan I detected flashes of brio, even pride: he had been an unremarkable, even disreputable, youth before the war, and in his view he and his comrades had done the extraordinary by burning conventional morality to the ground. When I asked about isis’s treatment of such minorities as the Shia, he said, “They are like a disease, and the only cure is to kill them. The cure of the disease is the sword of justice.”

Not long after arriving in Al-Hol, isis true believers easily cowed the other inmates, who were shell-shocked, heartbroken, and in mourning. The Islamic State’s men and women—more women, because the men were mostly dead or in other prisons—sought to resurrect the caliphate within the camp itself. Supporters on the outside took up collections for their imprisoned “sisters.” Female detainees formed the religious police, Al-Hisba, which targeted prostitution and other alleged misdeeds, often dragging women away on real or imagined charges. isis judges meted out sentences, including execution; before long, four to five people were being killed a month, most by unknown assailants. isis agents burned down N.G.O.-run schools and clinics. They murdered aid workers and assassinated suspected collaborators, like Hamid al-Shummari. The aim was to sever links to the outside world, rendering the camp population dependent on isis members and making it easier to cajole inmates, especially children, into joining the group.

isis cells are active in every sector of Al-Hol, but the heart of this mini-caliphate is the Annex, where non-Iraqi foreign nationals tend to reside. Many of the women there, unlike those in the rest of the camp, chose to join the Islamic State; they are among the most extreme of the true believers. One afternoon I toured the Annex, which is set apart from the other sectors. Tents were clustered together and encircled by alleys, forming little neighborhoods. Graffiti covered the walls in an array of languages. There was hardly a woman about. As I walked down the main street, I noticed eyes watching me through openings in the tents. Here and there, I saw children: sitting in a sewage ditch, gathered around a well. I approached a pair of boys, one blond and the other with East Asian features. They couldn’t have been more than four or five years old. I asked them where they were from, and the blond boy replied, in stilted, formal Arabic, “We don’t speak to infidels.” As I was leaving, I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder blade and turned to see rocks flying toward me. More boys appeared, eager to take part in the stoning. I ran.

I ended up deeper in the Annex, near a school that had been built by an aid group. It was now abandoned, after warnings from isis cells. A woman appeared. Speaking with a Lebanese accent, she told me she’d moved her tent by the school because other women in the Annex had threatened to kill her for not wearing a niqab. And she was just as afraid of the children, some of whom had been in the camp long enough to grow into teen-agers and terrorize residents.

The Kurdish authorities, who lack the manpower to enforce security, manage the camp’s nine sectors through occasional raids. Sometimes these operations net isis commanders accused of plotting attacks beyond the camp’s fences; occasionally, they have liberated enslaved Yazidi women. But the authorities are so under-resourced that they tend to treat the entire population as hostile. Detainees live in fear of raids; soldiers have beaten people in front of their tents. In Sector 5, I met a woman whose seven-year-old boy had been playing near the perimeter fence, then had crawled under it to pick wildflowers on the other side. Guards had shot him dead. “He was waiting to celebrate Eid,” she wept. “I had bought Eid clothes for him.”

When Jihan heard about this killing, which occurred not far from her tent, it brought back memories of the air strike near her house—the small bodies of children tossed about. Her desire to squeeze a child in her arms, to hear the word “mother,” was overpowering. She and Mahmoud were unable to conceive—an affliction all the more cutting in the camp, where it’s impossible to step out of a tent without running into children. Most do not attend school, and there are few diversions. You might see teen-age boys aimlessly hurling rocks into the distance. Younger children splash around in ditches or play with mud.

I met Tahir, a shy and polite four-year-old with large eyes. He was born in the camp; his father, who had belonged to isis, vanished in the bowels of the prison system. In Al-Hol, meanwhile, his mother was accused by isis members of collaborating with authorities. One evening, she was marched to a sewage ditch and shot. Tahir is now in the care of an ailing grandmother. I asked him if he knew what isis was, and he shook his head. I asked if he wanted to leave the camp, and he again shook his head.

For many children, the realm beyond the camp fence is mysterious, and possibly dangerous. I spoke to dozens of children, and they knew next to nothing about life outside Al-Hol. Many had not heard of Syria, Iraq, America, or even television. (When Abu Hassan, the isis commander, smuggled in a flat-screen television, his daughter exclaimed, “Look how big that phone is!”) I met Aisha, a seven-year-old, who explained that she was from Aleppo, but when I asked her what Aleppo was she drew a blank. She didn’t know why she was in the camp, and her days consisted of getting in line early to use the bathroom and of avoiding security guards, whom she believed would shoot if she got close. Naser, six years old, wasn’t sure what distinguished a camp from other living arrangements. Another child boasted that she’d once seen “moving drawings,” which I guessed was a cartoon, and she queried where she might see more. I asked a group of children if they’d ever seen a clown; one child said yes, but I realized that he was talking about a smuggler—in Arabic, the words sound similar. I explained what a clown looks like—white face paint, red nose—which inspired much discussion. A child announced that she had indeed seen such a being, but she called it a “snow bear,” and described a creature made of ice, with a carrot for a nose. Internet connections at Al-Hol are sporadic, hitting the camp like gusts of wind, and she must have seen a video on a phone. I asked the children what they thought lay beyond the fence. Among the answers I received: “nothing,” “hungry people,” “dogs,” “soldiers,” “stairs,” “houses,” “gardens,” “infidels,” “my father.”

Last spring, I arranged to bring clowns to perform for the children of Al-Hol. But, just as we were loading our car to head for the camp, two of the clowns dropped out, offering vague excuses. That left only Ali Batran, a portly man with a mischievous grin who hails from central Syria. During the caliphate’s rule, Ali was arrested five times for hawking cigarettes; once, he received forty-five lashings and was enrolled in a Sharia reëducation course. Still, unlike his compadres, he had no qualms about visiting a camp filled with his former tormentors. “Children are children,” Ali said. Besides, he could use the work; like everything else in Syria, the clowning industry had been degraded by years of war.

Ali felt that it was unnatural to perform solo. “Clowning is all about the collective,” he explained. I suggested that he recruit our driver, Abu Reem. Ali agreed, but he was particular about his art and insisted that Abu Reem undertake a few quick rehearsals. He was also keen that I not confuse Abu Reem with a professional clown, though he admitted that he, too, was something of a novice in the field. Ali had grown up poor, and as a child, looking for “an escape from the intense psychological pressure,” he discovered the theatre. He’d been landing roles in a variety of productions until the war put an end to all that. He’d hardly clowned in recent years, and now mainly worked polishing tiles.

In Al-Hol, several prisoners volunteered to gather children and prepare a tent. I also needed someone who could keep isis cells at bay, so I approached Abu Hassan. He’d expressed no remorse in our conversations, but I nonetheless suspected that he harbored doubts. The smuggled TV in his tent played wildlife videos on loop—lions stalking gazelles, snakes swallowing mice—and one day I asked about it. He told me they were for his daughters, aged six and eight. “I don’t want them to make the mistakes we made,” he said. “I want them to know about the world.” He wouldn’t say what these mistakes were. But he allowed that the suppression of clowns, which were haram in the caliphate, was overreach. “Clowns are good,” he said.

On the day of the show, the sun was brilliant and children crowded outside a U.N.-issued tent serving as a big top. Abu Hassan arranged the boys and girls into lines. No performance had ever been given in the camp, and the children discussed what they might see. One girl suggested that there was no such thing as a clown, that it was a ruse to get them to school. A boy said that he’d heard clowns came bearing gifts. I asked what he wished for most in the world, and he said a soccer ball. A boy standing nearby, who looked to be six or seven, raised his index finger—a gesture of the Islamic State.

Some thirty kids crammed inside: young boys in tracksuits, little girls in head scarves or niqabs. Balloons were littered about. Behind a partition, Ali and Abu Reem were assembling their costumes. More children were trying to force their way into the tent, which was at capacity, but Abu Hassan and his friends held them back. The commander looked pleased with himself about the crowd control.

Suddenly, a whistle pierced the air, and Ali appeared among the children. There were shouts of confusion. A girl in a leopard-print scarf burst into tears and fled in terror. Ali wore a neon wig, and a red nose that kept popping off. In the heat, his makeup ran, making him look like something that might poke its head out of a sewer. I asked him to sneak off for a touch-up, and he returned in better form, goose-stepping with Abu Reem. The clowns distributed candies, sang songs, cracked jokes; slowly, the children were won over. They began singing along. The boy who’d raised his index finger danced. The leopard-print girl reappeared, laughing and clapping.

Ali and Abu Reem retreated behind the partition for the second act: a puppet show. They engaged sock puppets in a complex drama about belonging and tolerance, following a script that Ali had apparently written. I asked Ali why he needed to be in full clown regalia while hiding behind a curtain; he told me that that was just the way things were. I left the tent and saw Abu Hassan, who hailed the event as a success: for a few moments, the children had been transported. “They forgot where they are,” he said. “This is a great gift.”

Suddenly, there was a shout. A woman in a black niqab was cracking a whip in the air, trying to force her way into the tent. Al-Hisba—the religious police. Her eyes screwed up in fury, she declared, “This is devil worship!” Abu Hassan tried to reason with her, arguing that the children had no other source of entertainment, but she unleashed a torrent of abuse. I cancelled the remainder of the show. Ali and Abu Reem gathered their accoutrements, and, as the woman threatened Abu Hassan with death, we fled.

One day, back when Hamid al-Shummari was still alive, Jihan received visitors. It was the pit of winter; freezing rain pounded the polyester and the muddy lanes, turning the camp into a squelching bog. A young woman entered the tent. She looked to be about eighteen years old. Her name was Rachel, and she told Jihan that she’d been enslaved by isis. Jihan had been living in the camp for nearly a year, but she couldn’t shake the memory of Ahmed, and in her grief and anger sought expiation. She had offered her tent as temporary shelter for isis victims, where they could talk through their trauma before moving into a tent of their own.

Rachel was accompanied by a girl named Raba, around three years old, whom she introduced as a friend’s orphaned daughter. Raba said to Jihan, “How are you, Auntie?,” and kissed her on the cheek. The child was dripping wet and shivering. Jihan found some dry clothes and swaddled Raba, who thanked her profusely. Jihan had never met a young child so stolid and polite; Mahmoud was also charmed by what he called her “sweet tongue,” and wondered where she could possibly have learned such graceful manners. Raba fell asleep in Jihan’s lap. Jihan carried her to the mattress on the floor, and, as she wrapped the child tight in a blanket, she felt her heart surge.

During her stay with Jihan and Mahmoud, Rachel gave contradictory stories of Raba’s origin. What was clear, though, was that the child was attached to Rachel, cuddling up next to her to sleep. After a few weeks, Rachel won her release from Al-Hol, through the intervention of a church. But she wasn’t permitted to take Raba, so she asked to leave her in Jihan’s care, promising to fetch her later. Jihan and Mahmoud agreed.

At first, Raba was inconsolable; once a week, Jihan arranged for her to speak with Rachel on a friend’s cell phone. But as the months passed the calls became less frequent, and finally Rachel ceased communicating altogether. When Jihan showed Rachel’s picture to Raba and asked if she missed her, Raba shook her head. “She stopped talking to me,” the girl said.

Raba was keenly perceptive, and she was eager to help Jihan and Mahmoud around the tent. Yet there was something forlorn about her: she didn’t play in the ditches like the other kids; in fact, she hardly even stepped outside. Jihan sensed that Raba needed shielding, though she wasn’t sure from what. She now dreaded the thought of getting a phone call from Rachel—or, worse, of someone showing up to claim Raba.

One day, Raba asked, “Why don’t we make tannour bread anymore?” The wood-fired flatbread is a specialty of country homes with clay ovens. Jihan had never baked tannour, and had no idea how it was made. “How do you not know? We used to make this bread,” Raba said, and proceeded to give step-by-step instructions.

Once, Jihan was in the tent when the earth shook. She emerged into the daylight to see the belly of a jet swooping directly above her. Suddenly, she heard Raba shouting, “Mama! Come back, Mama!” The word must have jolted through Jihan; no one had ever called her that.

Inside the tent, Raba was trembling. “The plane is here!” she shouted. Jihan held her and told her not to be afraid. Raba, eyes pooling, said, “Don’t you remember how the plane came?”

“It’s nothing,” Jihan said. “Come, let’s say hello to the pilot.”

Raba refused to budge. “Don’t you remember how the plane bombed us!” she demanded.

In the course of many months, Jihan pieced together the story of Raba’s past, which I subsequently confirmed and expanded on. Raba had lived in the countryside in eastern Syria, and her father may have been affiliated with isis. One day at dawn, Raba’s mother went outside to perform ablutions and took her along. Her mother must have heard coalition jets, because she hugged Raba protectively. Bombs struck the house. When rescuers arrived, Raba was found unconscious in her mother’s arms. Her mother was dead—an iron pipe in her back—and so were Raba’s father and her siblings. Raba was rushed to the hospital, and then, along with other orphaned children, shipped to Al-Hol. In the camp, she was discovered by Rachel, who had known her parents.

Jihan noticed the trace of a scar above Raba’s forehead, and her jumpiness at sudden sounds. She took Raba to a Ukrainian pediatrician—a woman who’d happened to be living in eastern Syria when the caliphate emerged, and was then banished to Al-Hol when isis’s empire collapsed. The doctor advised Jihan to tell Raba that her memories were all a dream, or a nightmare, and that she was safe now. In her tent, Jihan watched Raba exploring behind the curtain, fiddling with the crockery, and sleeping in a tight ball on the floor cushion, and knew that she was watching her own daughter.

Adoption, however, was almost impossible. Jihan had no papers. Raba had no papers. In fact, as far as the camp’s books were concerned, Raba likely didn’t even exist. For a while, Jihan had placed hope in Hamid al-Shummari, who worked his official contacts to try to register Raba as Jihan’s daughter. But, with Hamid’s murder, that door had violently slammed shut. Now Jihan began to realize that if she were somehow released she would be forced to leave Raba behind. Jihan had lost a husband, her parents, her brothers and sisters, her friends, her home, even her freedom—she couldn’t lose this little girl. She could no longer think of Al-Hol as a prison or a way station: it had to be her home. Here, she would raise her daughter, teaching her to read and write. She would watch Raba get married, and she would welcome grandchildren. Her bones would grow old, and she would be buried somewhere beneath the floodlights and the watchtowers.

If Jihan’s limbo felt permanent, it mirrored the world around her. Many of her neighbors, rafted together by war and dictatorship, and imprisoned for the sins of their husbands and fathers, have nowhere to return to. Their homes have been destroyed, or they have been disowned by family. Others elect to survive on camp rations rather than brave the ravages outside. The camp is in a region of eastern Syria controlled by Kurdish forces, who aren’t recognized by any government. The territory’s four million or so people are effectively stateless. Syria itself is merely lines on a map; as a nation, it no longer exists. The country is carved into three zones—one occupied by Russia and Iran, another by Turkey, the third by the United States—and each territory has its guns pointed at the others. It’s possible, and perhaps even comforting, for Western politicians to see all this as the best of bad options, as responsible statecraft. For long periods of time, the iniquities of the Middle East can appear frozen, and, therefore, manageable. A tyrannical government, bankrolled by foreign powers, stifles all political life; a theocracy seeks to commandeer body and soul; an occupying power dispossesses a native population, then subjects it to daily degradations. But at unpredictable moments these injustices erupt into the open—and into our consciousness—through great upheavals, or wanton acts of violence. We then ask where the rage comes from, even though it has been simmering under our noses all along.

This past autumn, I brought clowns back to Al-Hol. Ali Batran was eager to reprise his role, and had recruited two other performers. This time, I prevailed upon Abu Hassan, the isis commander, to tap into his network to hold off the religious police. I also had a fence erected around the big top. Ahmed al-Shummari, the adult son of Hamid, was there, helping supervise the children. Abu Hassan had brought his daughters, who wore matching Minnie Mouse jackets. Standing apart from the scrum, looking dignified in a sun hat and bracelets, was Raba. I introduced myself. As I described what the show would be like, she studied me with large, alert eyes. She was quiet but not shy; she told me that her favorite animal was a rabbit, and that she had been born in Homs.

Although it was blazingly hot, children squeezed into the tent: girls in ponytails and flower dresses, boys in tank tops and track pants. I spoke to an eight-year-old boy with long, lustrous hair; he told me that he belonged to the Cubs of the Caliphate—an isis youth group—and, with barely stifled ebullience, said that he’d never seen a clown.

With the blast of a horn, a voice bellowed, “Are you ready?” The children roared. Ali and his comrades burst through the curtain as Turkmen music blared on the stereo. The children took turns waltzing with the clowns and tumbling and tripping on Ali’s oversized shoes, provoking a riot of laughter. Abu Hassan’s girls stepped to the center. In an open flap, their father’s face appeared. “Don’t be shy,” he said, smiling. As drums pounded, the clowns coaxed Raba to the center. She swayed her hips in a tentative dance. The clowns waved gossamer scarves in the air, Ali’s nose popped off, and I saw a smile on Raba’s face.

Ali goose-stepped out of the tent, the children following as if he were the Pied Piper. One of the clowns, a teen-age girl waddling about in a penguin suit, produced a hula hoop, a device heretofore unknown in Al-Hol. Many of the kids were desperate to give it a whirl, but Raba wasn’t interested—she’d befriended Abu Hassan’s daughters. They drifted from the throng, playing something like ring-around-the-rosy among themselves. Then they sat in the shade. Raba showed off her bracelets and asked about the girls’ tent. How many partitions did it contain? In the gravel, she sketched her own tent, and said, proudly, “We have a kitchen.”

One of Abu Hassan’s daughters told Raba that she wanted to come over but didn’t know how to get there. Raba stretched out her arm: “We live all the way over there.” She was pointing past the tents, the guard towers, the barbed-wire fence, and the gravel road separating the sections—a distance of a kilometre, and the breadth of the known universe. “It’s really, really far,” Raba said. “But you’ll like my home.”

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