Boys held as hostages by ISIS human rights activists
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Boys in the prison are sleeping in groups of about 15 in windowless cells, according to aid workers.
They take in the air and see the sun during visits to a walled courtyard, but receive no visitors. They are between 10 and 18 years old and have not been to school since their detention three or more years ago.
The battle between Kurdish-led militias and Islamic State fighters for control of a prison in northeast Syria has brought the plight of some 700 boys held there into the dark.
On Wednesday, a Syrian Democratic Forces spokesman said they had retook the compound after hundreds of fighters were reportedly killed. But the fate of hundreds of boys that the Islamic State has taken hostage and used as human shields is still in question.
They are among tens of thousands of children detained in prisons and detention camps across northeast Syria because their parents belonged to the Islamic State.
The Kurdish-led militia that runs the prison, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, says the children’s ties to Islamic State make them dangerous. He also criticized foreign governments for refusing to repatriate their citizens held in camps and prisons, including children.
But aid workers and human rights advocates say detaining children punishes them for the sins of their parents – and could fuel the very radicalization the authorities who locked them up say they want to prevent.
“Under international law, detaining children should be a last resort,” said Bo Viktor Nylund, Syria representative for the UN children’s agency UNICEF. “The whole aspect of these children as victims of their situation has not been taken into account.”
After days of fighting, the battle for the prison in the city of Hasaka has centered on a three-story building that houses the kitchen, tailoring workshop, clinic and barbershop, Farhad said. Shami, an SDF spokesman. The upper floors of this building are the children’s quarters, where the 700 boys were held.
Mr. Shami said he did not know how many boys had been killed or injured. But Letta Tayler, director of Human Rights Watch which tracks detentions in Syria, wrote on Twitter that she spoke with two men and a boy inside the surrounded building, and they said they saw many dead and injured boys. They also said they had run out of food and water and had burned their mattresses to cook before the food ran out.
The consequences of the civil war in Syria
After a decade of fighting, many Syrians wonder if the country can be put back together.
The detention crisis in northeast Syria has its roots in the collapse of the so-called Islamic State caliphate, which at its height was roughly the size of Britain and s extended to Syria and Iraq.
A US-led international military coalition joined the SDF to fight jihadists in Syria, pushing them back from their last patch of territory in March 2019.
The SDF held the survivors in an ad hoc network of prisons for men and camps for women and children, expecting the countries from which the fighters and their families came to take them back. But most countries refused, leaving detainees to languish for years in squalid and dangerous camps and makeshift prisons, with no legal recourse.
Tens of thousands of children, mostly Syrians and Iraqis, live in the two main camps in the region, along with thousands of children of other nationalities, said Ardian Shajkovci, director of American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute, which has studied the issue.
Between 200 and 220 children are believed to be in two rehabilitation centers run by the SDF-affiliated administration that governs the region.
The SDF has long resisted providing information on the number of boys in its prisons, but Mr Shajkovci said there were around 700 at the Hasaka facility and around 35 at another detention center in the city. of Qamishli. Most are Syrians and Iraqis, but about 150 are foreigners.
In 2019, when the New York Times first reported the presence of children in Hasaka prison, they were dressed in orange jumpsuits and crammed into normal cells near adult prisoners.
Since then, their conditions have improved slightly, according to aid workers. They were separated from the adults and moved to their own building on the north side of the compound, where there are three floors with around 15 cells each.
Aid groups brought them blankets, mattresses, hygiene products and clothes. They have shared bathrooms and their own yard where they have regular playtime.
Over the past 15 months, their numbers have risen from around 550 to 700, aid workers said, when the SDF moved some teenagers from the camps to prison. In some cases, this meant separating them from their mothers, who remained in the camps.
They were deported for various reasons: some after security incidents, others because the SDF believed they had reached a “dangerous” age, or because they feared impregnating women in the camps, according to aid workers and Mr. Shajkovci, the researcher.
Mr Shami, the SDF spokesman, denied that boys had been moved from the camps to prison, but said some had been taken to rehabilitation centers because they risked being radicalized in the camps, where many inmates remain staunch supporters of the caliphate.
He called all the boys in the prison “little ones of the caliphate,” the name ISIS uses for children trained in combat, and said they had been captured from ISIS bases and could have been trained to commit suicide attacks.
UNICEF’s Mr Nylund acknowledged that some of the boys could have played combat roles, but said it was difficult to determine each child’s background and some were clearly too young to fight. None of the boys have been charged with a crime or seen a judge.
While the battle for control of the prison still raged, none of these circumstances lessened the danger to the boys, Mr Nylund said. “These children are at very close risk of becoming both targets in the crossfire and potentially being re-recruited or recruited for the first time and ending up in the hands of ISIS,” he said. -he declares.
Mehmet Balci, founder and co-director of Fight for Humanity, a human rights group, visited the prison three times. Last year his The organization has launched an individual assessment project for the boys to provide them with educational, recreational and psychological support, he said in an interview.
His group has hired staff, purchased equipment, designed TV rooms for boys and held two training sessions with prison staff on child protection.
The Islamic State attack put everything on hold.
Mr Balci said the project could have improved the poor situation of the boys a little, but without changing what he saw as the fundamental injustice.
“Those kids shouldn’t have been there,” he said. “It’s not their place.”
Jane Arraf contributed reporting from Baghdad.