AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
One of the many questions in this conflict is what will happen to ISIS members and their families who were detained in camps and prisons in northern Syria? The biggest camp is al-Hol. It holds some 70,000 people. It's rough and dangerous. ISIS diehards terrorize other residents and guards alike, and people are desperate. NPR's Ruth Sherlock managed to speak with some of the foreign-born women living there.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: It's usually difficult to reach residents of al-Hol. Phones are banned, so the women keep them secret. And those that speak to the media can be punished by ISIS hard-liners that try to police the camp. But now some residents, like this woman, are desperate enough that they'll take the risk.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We are scared. We don't know what's the next step. We don't know what's happening. Please help us.
SHERLOCK: Kurdish forces in northeast Syria have now struck a deal to hand over control of some areas to President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime is notorious for its brutality. A German woman who's been in al-Hol for months says the potential for a future Assad takeover has sent panic through the camp.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We expect the worst of the Bashar regime. We expect to be raped, plundered, tortured and our children, too.
SHERLOCK: Already control over al-Hol feels tenuous. Riots have broken out with CCTV footage showing women running full pelt in black burqas chased by guards. An older South African woman who, like the others, feels too unsafe to be named tells me that despite the barbed-wire fences and guard patrols, she knows of dozens of camp residents who have managed to escape.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The ones that actually got the proper smugglers, they have actually reached safely. That's what I've heard. And quite a large number of them have done that, have left this camp.
SHERLOCK: The camp holds thousands of Syrians and Iraqis, and there's a separate annex for some 9,000 foreigners from dozens of other countries. Uncertainty over who is in control is compounded by the continuing fear of ISIS.
CHARLIE WINTER: The amount of pressure that is ramping up on the population of the camp is enormous.
SHERLOCK: Charlie Winter is senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization in London. He says ISIS have circulated a letter that orders on pain of death civilians in northeast Syria to help those who escape. But also Winter says the worse the conditions get in al-Hol, the better it is for ISIS. That's because it's a propaganda coup.
WINTER: I mean, everything that the regime does should it get in control of that population - and it will do terrible, terrible things - will be directly linked back to the White House.
SHERLOCK: The South African woman in al-Hol says she fears an ISIS return and is too sick from a chronic disease to flee with smugglers, so she and thousands of others spend their days trying to survive.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: At present, we don't even have medical care because the doctors have been prevented from coming back in.
SHERLOCK: She says there are no toilets, and there's not enough food. The water is dirty. The camp holds thousands more children than it does adults. A grandmother back in South Africa, in the 10 months she's been in this camp, she says she's cared for five orphans from different countries. She cries as she talks about her family back in South Africa.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I don't know when I'm coming home.
SHERLOCK: All she wants is for the government to help get her out. But like dozens of other countries, South Africa, she says, has shown little interest in getting its nationals back. And she knows that every day that the war in Syria worsens, this prospect of return gets bleaker.
Ruth Sherlock, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.