Kazakhstan brought 595 Kazakh citizens back from Syria, the majority of whom were children: 406 children, 156 women and 33 men. According to the statistics, 24% of the returnees had spent more than 6 years in Syria. Forty-two per cent of them were there for 4-6 years, 24% for 2-4 years and only 6% had spent just 1-2 years. The numbers show that the majority of returnees has spent a very significant amount of time in Syria and they were heavily affected psychologically and physically as a consequence.
These operations demanded thorough preparation and huge diplomatic efforts. Kazakhstan had a privileged position as the country which had been the host for negotiations between Syria, Turkey, Iran and Russia. Kazakhstan hosted several rounds of Syrian peace talks in Astana and possessed first-hand information on the development of the conflict and had built good diplomatic relations with all parties. The first phase of the operation involved difficult preparations, demanding thorough and meticulous steps be taken. The very first task was to identify Kazakh citizens in Syria and Iraq and to understand the situation: how many men, women and children, who was in the camps and who was in the prisons. The most difficult part was to negotiate with both states and non-state actors in Syria and Iraq.
The Kazakh authorities had serious concerns regarding public opinion and how to manage and eliminate the stigma associated with being a former foreign fighter in society. The Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev gave a speech to address the population, the main purpose of which was to temper public opinion and encourage society to accept the returnees. Kazakhstan framed Operation Zhusan as humanitarian and, in doing so, created several important narratives. First, Kazakhstan declared that Zhusan was a humanitarian mission centered on saving the lives of Kazakh citizens. The second narrative was that those who had travelled to Syria were misled and deceived in the first place. On day one of the first phase of the operation, President Nursultan Nazarbaev had made a statement. He said that the operation had been sanctioned by him and it had rescued 47 citizens of Kazakhstan, 30 of whom were children. “These citizens were deceived and misled, and they have been held as hostages by terrorists. Our main goal is to ensure the security and integrity of our country. We will continue the work to repatriate our citizens from the conflict zones where they have been held against their will”.
The current Kazakh president, Kasymzhoomart Tokaev, who took the office following Nazarbaev also followed the same discourse. “The citizens of Kazakhstan who went to the battle zones decided to take such a rash step under the influence of the destructive and false propaganda of terrorists,” he said. He continued that innocent children should not suffer in a foreign land and should not be responsible for their parents’ mistakes. “The humanitarian operation will be continued. None of our citizens will be left (in Syria)” said Tokaev. The president praised the special services, diplomats and military officers for the success of Operation Zhusan and declared that it proved the ability of Kazakhstan’s government to resolve the complex issues involved.
Each phase of Operation Zhusan was followed by a press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where results of the operation were presented. These press briefings also stressed that the humanitarian operations were aimed at saving the country’s citizens, who had been led to a crisis-hit country under false pretenses and subsequently caught up in armed conflict. The Kazakh officials noted the importance of providing innocent children with an opportunity to live and develop in peace and security and to be fully-fledged citizens of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan also built a good media strategy to convey these messages to the population. A pool of leading media outlets was selected to work with them and in turn these media outlets were granted access to returnees for interview.
The Kazakh government started the preparation phase of Operation Zhusan immediately after the fall of the ISIS. The aforementioned diplomatic negotiations took place alongside a thorough identification process. The identification of each returnee was made with the help of parents and other relatives of those who were thought to be in Syria and Iraq. Parents and siblings brought photos and showed details of their conversations with their loved ones on Whats app or Telegram. The special services started the verification process with the information they possessed. Governmental bodies in Kazakhstan worked with international organizations such as the Red Cross to share information and to discuss logistics.
The Kazakh government prepared a rehabilitation center to host returnees in Aktau, which is a small city in north of Kazakhstan. Astana chose this city by two reasons: in this city there are both the airport and a venue convenient in which to accommodate returnees. One health and rehabilitation center, known as “Flamingo”, was built during the time of the Soviet Union near the Caspian sea and was chosen to host women and children. Flamingo was a center for children to take encourage their wellbeing and as such it was prepared to receive them. Five buildings that made up the center were adapted to receive returnees. One building was for administration and kitchens to cook five daily meals for returnees. Three buildings were prepared with living rooms made convenient and comfortable for the women with children. Medical personnel, social workers, security personnel and other officials arrived in advance to get ready to work with the returnees. They also were accommodated in one of the buildings on site.
For the first month of their stay at the rehabilitation center, all returnees were placed in quarantine. Returnees neither went beyond the center’s grounds nor met with their parents or relatives. Women and children were isolated while they received medical checks and any necessary urgent care. The very first step was to give them a shower and change their clothes, which were burned and replaced by the attending social workers. The most urgent medical assistance was provided to the wounded and starving. Many women and children who were wounded during bombings had splinters in their heads, back or legs. One woman who was wounded in an air attack had a splinter very close to her heart, which was successfully operated on in Astana. Doctors advised that some splinters be left untouched due to the possibility of additional complications. Two children who were disabled underwent surgery and are now able to use wheelchairs. A two-year-old baby was urgently operated on due to a heart defect. During quarantine time, all of them received medical assistance and provided with food rich of vitamins.
One further and very important part of the rehabilitation operation was to mobilize social workers, psychologists and theologians to work with returnees. The Kazakh government sought civil society organizations with experience of working with post-traumatic stress syndrome and the rehabilitation of survivors. The government involved organizations such as Ak-niet and Pravo to work along three lines: religious education, psychological therapy and resocialization. Ak-niet and Pravo mobilised dozens of theologians, psychologists and social workers and provided specialist training on how to work with the returnees.
Kazakhstan has become one of the few states which repatriated their citizens from Syria, 95% of whom are children and women. Therefore, Kazakhstan fulfilled its obligations under international law and complied with the resolutions of the UN Security Council. The current situation in camps in Syria considered as a humanitarian crisis where children are dying from diseases and malnutrition and the United Nations has been urging states to repatriate women and children.