PARIS (RNS) Sophie Kasiki, one of the few Western women to have seen the Islamic State group’s harsh “caliphate” in Syria and escaped, recounts her life in the jihadists’ stronghold Raqqa with detached calm and inner rage.
Born to a Catholic family in Cameroon and living in Paris since the age of 9, she converted to Islam as an adult. She traveled with her 4-year-old son to Syria in February 2015, to join three friends who had left for jihad a few months before.
About 220 French women have answered the Islamic State’s call to join the radical Muslim movement and provide support and offspring for the cause.
Kasiki could have been just another statistic.
But she rebelled, returned home and has written a nail-biting account of her experiences in her book “Dans la Nuit de Daech (In the Night of Daesh)," co-written with novelist Pauline Guéna and published in France in January. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
“I had to write this for myself and for others,” Kasiki, 34, said at a rare meeting with a few journalists in Paris. Sophie Kasiki is not her real name, nor are most other names in the book. Unlike other authors, she avoids interviews and will not let her face be photographed.
The book’s back cover says clearly: “She has decided to tell her story to prevent others like herself from falling for the Islamic State’s culture of death.”
Her story begins in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, where she was born in 1982. Orphaned at 9, she was taken in by an older sister in Paris. The abrupt move was difficult, but she thinks she adapted well.
After her studies, she became a social worker and grew close to several families she was helping. Among them were the “little ones,” as she called them, three men in their early 20s she names Idriss, Mohammed and Souleymane.
When they unexpectedly left for Syria in September 2014, Kasiki tried to console their mothers.
Shortly after that, Idriss contacted her by Skype and she became the go-between for the “little ones” and their families.
The men spoke to her often, urging her to come out to help people there. Kasiki, who worked mostly with Muslims, had converted to Islam shortly before that.
“I left my mother’s religion in Yaounde (the capital of Cameroon) and since then, maybe, a space inside me was empty. It was Islam that would take it,” she writes.
Her conversion was so private she did not even reveal it to her husband, who like many French has little time for religion.
When she left, she told him she was going to do humanitarian work in Turkey. In fact, she planned to help out for a month at a maternity ward in Raqqa. She knew about the Islamic State group but was not going to support it. It was to help the “little ones.”
Kasiki was quickly confronted with the harsh rules of ISIS’ radical interpretation of Islam. In Raqqa, she was given the apartment of a rich family that had fled abroad, and she was supplied with a niqab, abaya and black gloves to wear when she went outside.
“Mommy’s dressing up as Batman! Can I get a disguise too?” her son said with a laugh when she first covered up.
Her impression of day turning into night when she donned the full face veil inspired the title of the book.
The maternity ward turned out to be what she called a “baby factory” run by untrained foreign Muslims who looked down on the local women who gave birth there. All births are by Caesarean section, by orders of the Islamic State.
After about two weeks and telephone contact with her husband, Kasiki stopped working and said she wanted to leave. The “little ones” dropped their friendly masks and began pressuring her to stay. They also tried to take her son to the mosque, but she forbade it.
Soon she was put in the “madafa,” an enclosed home for women whose husbands were off fighting, or who were waiting to marry a jihadi or who, like her, were rebellious. “It wasn’t exactly a prison, more like a kennel,” she wrote.
There were several foreign women there, some listlessly waiting for their husbands to return or become “martyrs” and some dreaming of marrying a fighter. In the common room, the television showed ISIS decapitation videos and children’s cartoons about Islam in Arabic.
When a fighter came one day to marry a young Belgian woman, Kasiki and her son slipped out amid the confusion and hid with a Syrian family.
Contacted by her husband, the opposition Free Syrian Army soon smuggled her out to Turkey in late April 2015 at a price of 30,000 euros ($34,000). When she returned to Paris, French police arrested her for endangering a child and she endured two months of prison before finally being freed to restart her life.
Although eloquent and determined, Kasiki struggled to explain how she could have been lured by the “little ones” to go to Raqqa when she knew what was happening there and was not drawn by any kind of Muslim solidarity.
“I’m angry with myself because I trusted them,” she said. “I was going through a difficult phase and was thinking of going to work for a humanitarian organization. They told me about the maternity wards there that needed help and convinced me to come.”
Religion played almost no role in her decision. “I didn’t even say my five prayers a day in France, and I said even fewer there. They considered me an infidel,” she said.
It seemed to her that her friends didn’t go there for Islam, either.
“They felt rejected here in France, they were searching for something and found this extremism,” she said. “There they could be men, fighting with real weapons. They found their place.”
In the last paragraph of the book, Kasiki wrote that Idriss and Mohammed were later killed in battle. “There has been no news about Souleymane,” she added.
On her return, Kasiki vowed to restart her life “clean of all religion.” She has discussed faith with an imam and a priest but has not returned to any organized form of worship.
“I’ve had an intimate relationship with religion since I was a child and there’s still something there,” she said, but added: “I’ve taken a distance without rejecting religion.”
Adapting to life back in Paris has been difficult. She is back with her husband but they are moving because she has received threats after the book's publication. It’s too early to start work again and she said she doesn’t get out much.
Her son seems to be doing better. Kasiki said she often played with him in Raqqa and explained their effort to evade the ISIS religious police as if it were a child’s game of running away from “the naughty uncles.”
A child psychologist who examined him on return told Kasiki she had protected him well.
Despite her anger at the Islamic State and its enforcement of an extreme form of Islam, Kasiki said she would not play the role of turncoat against her adopted faith that many secular French might want to see.
“I don’t want to stigmatize Islam,” she said. “What I saw there was not Islam.”
(Tom Heneghan is a correspondent based in Paris)