Escaping ISIL: Returnees to Indonesia try to reclaim normalcy
Updated 11:43, 15-Jun-2019
Silkina Ahluwalia

As a 25-year-old, Febri Ramdani has big dreams and aspirations – dreams of attending university in Indonesia and eventually publishing his book, all of which are achievable for the ordinary person.

But Febri has a past, one that he hopes to completely put behind him.

When he was 22 years old, he and 25 of his family members packed their bags and made their way to Syria to live in ISIL's self-declared "caliphate." It was a decision that has weighed on him since then.

Febri's family left for Syria in 2015 in hopes of making big money and finding a better life. Their house, car and all assets they owned were sold overnight. Their decision initially didn't sit well with Febri and it took him almost a year to finally decide to join them in Syria.

According to his family, life under ISIL would reap more benefits. Today, Febri knows that it's all part of the terrorist group's propaganda, which promised a quality of life unattainable elsewhere. Febri's family was mainly seeking medical help and was convinced that they would get all that and more under ISIL's leadership.

After his family arrived in Raqqa, they realized that the benefits they were promised were nothing but a mirage. Febri arrived in Syria in these circumstances, in desperate need to reunite with his family.

"I decided to leave for Syria because I just missed my family and after researching online, I thought it was the right thing to do. I wanted to be with my mother again," he said.

The reunion was not without challenges. It took him months before he was reunited with all of his family members. He found out that only 19 of them were able to make it to Syria; the six others were deported back to Indonesia from Turkey after encountering issues at the border.

Febri Ramdhani is one out of 26 members of his family who fled to Syria to live in ISIL's "caliphate." /CGTN Photo

Febri Ramdhani is one out of 26 members of his family who fled to Syria to live in ISIL's "caliphate." /CGTN Photo

Life in Syria was nothing like he had imagined. A few weeks after arriving, he realized that ISIL had other plans for his family in the war zone.

"I heard gunshots and bombs almost every minute of every day. Many of the ISIL military members would try to persuade me to join the training but I would come up with excuses so I could get out of it. Because I did not come to Syria to join them as fighters. I just came to be with my family," recalled Febri.

His family had wanted out immediately after realizing they weren't getting anything out of living under ISIL's rule. They tried multiple times to contact the Indonesian embassy in Damascus but were informed that the diplomatic mission could only help after they leave areas under ISIL's watch. That was not going to be easy. 

Finally in 2017, after years of trying to get out of Syria, Febri's family managed to escape through a middleman.

Febri eventually returned to Indonesia in August 2017. Almost two years later, his name is still on the terror watch list, something he is hoping to clear in the near future.

There are hundreds of people like Febri in Indonesia, who were forced to join their families staying in the war zones.

Anti-terror experts believe they are victims but the Indonesian government still wants to make sure that during their time in the red zone, they were not radicalized by extremists.

Indonesia is one of a few countries to welcome returnees openly. But the government still does not have an official program on deradicalization.

Anti-terror expert Taufik Andrie believes the government still has a lot to do in this area.

"I do agree that we need to emphasize not only on the hard approach, bringing them to trial or sending them to prison, but more on how we can address the needs of those returnees and their intention of going back to their home country, Indonesia. What should we do in terms of not only the government but also in terms of the subject itself, the returnees and society?" said Taufik.

In the case of Febri, some of his family members made it to Syria, while others were deported immediately. That is another problem that the government needs to address.

"The deportees also need to be monitored closely because when they got sent back they were still high on (ISIL) ideologies, they're still curious about what's happening in Syria and they're dissatisfied about what the government has done to them. They lost hope and a lot of money," said Taufik.

He says it's still difficult to understand the deportees' situation with most of them ending up joining local terrorist groups after returning home.

The Social Affairs Ministry in Indonesia does have some programs lined up for those who've been heavily radicalized by terrorism but it's an ongoing process shrouded in confidentiality. The returnees and deportees go through intense therapy and counseling to help them reintegrate into society.

Febri, on the other hand, relies on his own friends and family for support. They have helped him restore his confidence. His plans of publishing a book based on his experience is still a dream he wishes to achieve.

"I'm looking for an editor and a publisher that can help me to release my book. I am done writing it and I hope that it will educate people to be more aware and do not believe one-sided news," he says. "There are always two sides to every story. For my family, we believed that ISIL propaganda was the only right and true thing but now we know better."  

Febri's ambitions prove that everyone deserves support, and most importantly, a second chance.

(Cover image: Febri is now looking to publish a book on his experiences in Syri, to educate others on the dangers of radicalism and extremism. /CGTN Photo)