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‘I was a little bit naive’: German woman flees IS

Four years after leaving Germany to live under the Islamic State group, 19-year-old Leonora has fled the jihadists' last bastion in eastern Syria and says it's time to go home.

'I was a little bit naive': German woman flees IS
A file photo shows Raqqa in Syria during fights between soldiers of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and so-called Islamic State (IS) in 2017. Photo: DPA

“I was a little bit naive,” she says in English, wearing a long billowing black robe, and a beige headscarf with white spots.

US-backed forces are fighting the last IS jihadists in a final shred of territory in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border, causing thousands of people to flee.

Just beyond the frontline village of Baghouz, Leonora and her two small children are among the thousands of men, women and children to have scrambled out this week.

The young German woman says she first came to Syria aged 15, just two
months after converting to Islam.

“After three days, I married my German husband,” she tells AFP, at a screening centre for the displaced run by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

Leonora says she became the third wife of German jihadist Martin Lemke,
after he travelled to Syria with his first two wives.

SEE ALSO: German jihadist detained in Syria by forces, according to his wives

IS had the year before swept across large swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq, declaring a “caliphate” in areas it controlled.

Leonora first lived in the extremist group's de-facto Syrian capital of Raqa, but says she was just a housewife.

“I was just at home, in (the) house cooking, cleaning – stuff like this,” says the pale faced German, clutching the youngest of her two children, an infant aged just two weeks.

'Change house every week'

Syria's Kurdish authorities hold hundreds of foreign alleged IS fighters in
detention, as well as thousands of their wives and children in camps for the displaced.

The Kurds have repeatedly urged Western governments to take back their nationals, but these powers have been reluctant.

At first life in Raqa was easy, Leonora says, but that changed when the SDF started advancing against the jihadists, with support from US-led coalition air strikes.

The Kurdish-led SDF overran Raqa in 2017, after years of what residents
described as IS's brutal rule, which included public beheading and crucifixions.

“Then they lose Raqa, and we started to change our house every week because they lost every week a city,” she says.

When they came under attack by the Kurdish-led SDF, Leonora says the IS fighters left their families to fend for themselves.

“They left the women alone, no food, they don't care about you,” she says.The enemy was advancing “and you were sitting alone in an empty city with your kids”.

They ended up in a tiny patch on the eastern banks of the Euphrates in Deir Ezzor province.

The SDF have cornered IS into a patch of less than four square kilometres in recent days.

'Big, big mistake'

Eventually, she says, she picked up her children, and fled with her husband, and his second wife into SDF-held territory.

US-backed forces detained Lemke on Thursday.

Leonora claims Lemke worked mostly as a technician for IS.

“He makes technical stuff, computer stuff, repairs computer, mobiles,” she
says.

But investigations published in German newspapers portray Lemke, who is now believed to be 28 and originally from Saxony-Anhalt, as an influential figure among foreign jihadists in Syria.

More than 36,000 people have fled the SDF assault on the so-called “Hajin pocket” since early December, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor that relies on a network of sources inside the country.

Among them, 3,200 have been detained as alleged jihadists.

On arid farmland near Baghouz, a group of men sit on the ground as SDF and coalition personnel stroll nearby.

Not far off, a group of women and their children – most from neighbouring
Iraq – wait to be driven north to a Kurdish-held camp for the displaced.

After four years under a now near-extinct IS caliphate, Leonora says she wants to go home.

“I want to go back to Germany to my family, because I want my old life back,” she says. “Now I know that it was a big, big mistake.”

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IMMIGRATION

Germany to allow deportations of ‘suspect’ Syrians

Germany said Friday it would allow deportation of Syrians to their war-ravaged homeland from 2021 if they are deemed a security risk, five years after a massive refugee influx.

Germany to allow deportations of 'suspect' Syrians
A flight deporting refugees leaving from Baden airport on Thursday. Photo: DPA

The EU's biggest economic power and most populous member allowed in hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Syria's devastating civil war in 2015-16 but security officials said it was time to lift blanket protections
against expulsion.

“The general ban on deportations (to Syria) will expire at the end of this year,” Hans-Georg Engelke, state secretary at the interior ministry, told reporters.

“Those who commit crimes or pursue terrorist aims to do serious harm to our state and our population should and will have to leave our country.”

The decision, which drew vehement criticism from human rights groups, was taken at a telephone conference between federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, a hardline conservative who had long called for an end to the deportation ban, and his 16 state-level counterparts.

READ ALSO: Germany plans to deport 'dangerous' Syrian criminals

The Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in Chancellor Angela Merkel's right-left “grand coalition” government, failed in their bid to win a six-month extension of the protections, in place since 2012.

They argued that the still precarious security and humanitarian situation in Syria made expulsions there indefensible.

'First EU country'

Engelke, standing in for Seehofer who was in quarantine after a coronavirus exposure, told a news conference that an estimated 90 Syrian suspected Islamists were believed to be in Germany.

Calls for a change in stance have been growing since a Syrian man was
arrested in November on suspicion of carrying out a deadly knife attack in the city of Dresden.

Prosecutors said the 20-year-old, accused of killing one tourist and seriously injuring another, had a raft of criminal convictions and a history of involvement with the Islamist scene.

He had been living in Germany under “tolerated” status granted to people whose asylum requests have been rejected, but who cannot be deported.

Boris Pistorius of the SPD, interior minister of Lower Saxony, noted that on a practical level expulsions to Syria would remain next to impossible “because there are no state institutions with which we have diplomatic relations”.

But he sharply criticised the symbolic meaning of Germany becoming what he called the first EU country to lift the deportation ban.

Germany took in more than one million migrants including tens of thousands of Syrians at the height of the refugee influx 2015-16 when several EU member states shut their borders to asylum seekers.

'Disgrace'

The German foreign ministry has described conditions in Syria as “catastrophic” and noted that its nationals continue to be “exposed to dangers when they return” to their home country.

Government forces have regained control of large swathes of territory once held by rebels and Islamist groups, but opponents of the Assad government still face torture and death, according to human rights organisations.

However as Germany heads into a general election year to replace Merkel after 16 years in power, conservative politicians seized on the issue amid concerns among some voters about the security risk posed by refugees.

READ ALSO: German interior minister rules out deportations to Syria

“In such a situation, you can't tell the German population on the issue of whether someone poses a danger… that it is taboo to even think about sending them home,” Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann told the news conference.

German campaigners slammed the decision, calling it opportunistic and driven by political interests.

“The behaviour of the conservative interior ministers is a disgrace for the rule of law and irresponsible in its substance,” Guenter Burkhardt of refugee rights group PRO ASYL said in a statement, calling it a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Syria's war, which broke out after the brutal suppression of anti-government protests in 2011, has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions.

Germany has launched several criminal cases over alleged war crimes in Syria under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows a foreign country to prosecute crimes against humanity and war crimes.

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