ome jihadis from the Balkans who travelled to the Syrian conflict zone to support Islamic State told BIRN that they returned home because they became disenchanted with the brutality, poverty and oppression.
Hilmi, an ethnic Bosniak, travelled to Syria hoping that life in Islamic State’s‘caliphate would be an ideal religious environment – but he managed to escape 16 months later, disillusioned with what he had found there.
“There was nothing there, no electricity, no books, no internet, nothing,” Hilmi told BIRN.
“I had some 400 euros of savings, which were quickly spent on food. Then I started getting around $50 per month as I reported myself sick. My wife was helping the older women so sometimes she would get some allowance. I was going crazy and all the time I was thinking how to save my family and run away from there,” he recalled.
“Look,” he continued, opening his laptop and showing a video.
“There is no nature, there is no grass, everything died, was abandoned; look at this skinny sheep…the only thing we could do is walk around a bit,”he commented, before going through photos of his family and friends, some of whom never managed to return from Syria.
Hilmi, who holds dual Bosnian and Montenegrin citizenship, is just one of 250 people who returned to the Balkans after spending time in the war zones in Syria and Iraq- some of them, like him, because they became disillusioned with ISIS.
Although many of them deny that they went to fight, Balkan states treat them all as terrorists after a series of laws were passed in 2015 that criminalised any kind of involvement in foreign conflicts.
But although many of them were prosecuted after they returned, some have joined counter-messaging campaigns in attempts to convince other Muslims not to make the same mistakes that took them to the battlefields of the Middle East.
Life in the caliphate
Hilmi has been a Muslim believer his whole life, and when he heard that Islamic State had created a caliphate, he was eager to go and find out if it was really run according to sharia principles.
His destination was a province of Aleppo where his friend from the Montenegro capital Podgorica already lived. His friend assured him that nothing was lacking there, that the fighting was far away and that he and his family could stay there as his guests.
“My plan was to go and check, then return, sell my house and move to Syria permanently,” Hilmi recalled.
But when he arrived in February 2015, he got bad news- his friend had died on the battlefield near Kobane.
As the battles around Kobane increased in intensity, Islamic State declared a state of emergency, took away the passports of all newly arrived and informed them that they could not go back because “the perfect society has already arrived”.
With the help of a Bosniak living there who gave guarantees for Hilmi, they were moved to a house with refugees from Kobane. After a few months, they got a ruined property on the outskirts of a city near the Turkish border, where they lived for more than a year.
In Syria, Hilmi said he met a lot of other people from the Balkans.
“A lot of our people came, mostly Bosnians, but there were those from Serbia and Montenegro too. They were of a different sort, some were believers and good, but there were also criminals who were running from the law…Some of them were filming each other, posing with guns,” Hilmi recalled.
He said that the situation rapidly changed when the bombing by Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Russian backers intensified. The town became unrecognisable, the streets were empty, buildings were destroyed and many people died.
“We were helpless, we would just go under the stairs, hug our kids and pray God to save us,” he recalled.
Having swiftly become disillusioned with the Islamic State caliphate and having been denied his passport return, he was lurking for a chance to escape, and once even managed to reach the border with Turkey, but was prevented from crossing by Turkish border troops.
Later he met a Syrian who offered to help him to escape to Turkey for $1,500.
“I called my family at home and told them to sell everything I left in the house and send me the money,” he said.
His way out of ISIS-controlled territory involved crossing a minefield and barbed-wire fences on the border; he managed to survive thanks to his local guide.
When he entered Turkey, however, he was arrested and spent two-and-half-months in custody as a refugee.
“I moved from one prison to the other and I had only one thought– what did I do to my child?”
The Turkish authorities offered to release him, either to go to his home country or to some other state that was willing to accept him, but Hilmi decided to go back to the Balkans, where he was arrested soon after arriving for terrorism-related activities.
Mercenaries kill for ISIS
Unlike Hilmi, who claims he went to Syria in order to practice his religion and live in a model caliphate, many fighters from the Balkans went there for money.
With experience gained during the 1990s wars, they proved to be a valuable asset to Islamist militant forces in the Middle East.
“Let them speak to other people about God and houri [virgins believed by some to be provided to martyrs in heaven]. I know that God would never tell me to kill another person because of him,” Fisnik, a Macedonia-born fighter, told BIRN.
“I don’t want to lie – I am interested in money. I was in the wars in the former Yugoslavia, I participated in armed robberies, I was in prison,” he explained.
Fisnik lived in Serbia, Montenegro, Turkey and Germany, which helped him to connect with the jihadi recruiters.
“Our people around mosques in Europe easily connect with each other and they know what you can contribute,” he said.
Fisnik initially joined Al Nusra in the summer of 2014 with friends of Balkan and Caucasus who were originally living in Germany and Austria.
He claimed he was promised $2,000 dollars per month, plus the chance to carry out additional robberies in the field.
“Assad’s army had bad morale and low motivation… we had some success around Aleppo and people started talking about us,” he recalled.
The brutality he witnessed in Syria was much more extreme that anything he saw during the Balkan wars.
I was watching how, after the battle, they ripped the heads off the captured soldiers. At the beginning, it was horrible, as I didn’t even see this in Yugoslavia. Then later you get used to it,” he said.
After two months, Fisnik’s local commander informed him that he and his unit were now joining Islamic State.
“I didn’t care with whom I fought, as long as he pays us,” he said.
“New mercenaries came, even Christians who did it for money and adrenalin. After the battle, people would continue looting, robbing, arresting people for allegedly being spies, alcoholics, and so on. Often that was an excuse to torture, rape and burn,” he continued.
According to Fisnik, the largest amount of money he earned was when he transported some cultural artefacts to the Turkish border.
“These were statues and some other things that they allegedly smashed in front of the cameras,” he said.
After almost three months of fighting under the Islamic State flag, Fisnik’s commander disappeared – it was not clear whether he was killed or not – and his new chiefs then demanded that he kill civilians, which he said he was not prepared to do.
“I came for money, not to slaughter innocent people,” he insisted.
Fisnik said the price he was asked to pay to be allowed to leave was for him and four other fighters to kill five ‘spies’; among them two women.
“The alternative was that they kill us in the square,” he said.
Ex-fighter battles extremism
Disillusionment with the Islamic state caused Albert Berisha to set up an NGO when he returned from the conflict zone in Syria to help other ex-fighters get back into society – and out of the extremist ideology that led them to fight in a foreign war.
“The state has never understood that our goals were not to be terrorists,” Berisha told BIRN, referring to the 300 or so Kosovars believed to have fought in the Middle East in recent years.
“Each had his own history and goals. But the one important thing about those who have returned is that their return means they were disappointed by what they saw,” he said.
Berisha is not a typical jihadi. He graduated in political sciences from the University of Pristina and holds a master’s degree from the University of Tirana.
Berisha said he went to Syria from October 6 to 20, 2013, to help the Syrian opposition in their struggle against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, but never engaged in the fighting himself.
He claimed his reason for going was that he didn’t find any meaning in Kosovo society and wanted to help his Muslim brothers in their fight against a dictator.
On arrival in Syria, he asked to join other Albanian-speaking groups to “avoid language barriers”, and was taken to meet Lavdrim Muhaxheri, the Islamic State commander of Albanian fighters.
“I swear to God that I had never heard of him or met him before,” Berisha told his trial in Pristina after he returned.
He said he later searched the internet during the two available daily hours of electricity, trying to understand where he had ended up, and came across a video of Muhaxheri.
Because escaping from ISIS proved almost impossible, Berisha said he used Facebook to contact a friend in Kosovo to arrange an exit plan.
“He then sent me an SMS saying a relative of mine was sick and I had to return home, which I used as justification to return to Kosovo,” he told the court.
The first-instance court in Kosovo jailed him for three-and-a-half years for terrorism. His case is currently with the appeal court and he is awaiting the verdict while at liberty.
“The hardest things for me were the social prejudice, the lingering doubts and the constant pressures from all the [state] institutions – their tendency to fulfil their political or institutional agendas through us,” Berisha said.
“Even more difficult was the time after I was released from custody. By then, we [returning jihadis] had already become public faces [in Kosovo] and people began to stigmatise us even more,” he added.
“It is very difficult for people caught between two fires, when you do not know where you belong any longer,” hesaid.
His NGO, called INSTID, aims to combat religious extremism in Kosovo and deradicalise people who have returned from the Middle Eastern conflict zones.
“Knowing that most of them have been victims, I thought that further victimisating them was not a solution, and threatened to radicalise them even more,” he explained.
“So I decided to set up an institution to deal exclusively with this, so these people can become useful again in society and not be deprived of their freedom, which creates the potential for greater radicalisation and even for radicalising others in prison,” he said.
Die Morina and Labinot Leposhtica contributed to this article.
The article has been published as part of the Resonant Voices Initiative and has been produced in partnership with the Center for Investigative Journalism Montenegro.