The Islamic State hostages: ‘these children should not have been there’

The boys in the prison sleep in groups of about 15 in cells with no windows, according to aid workers.

They get fresh air and see the sun during visits to a walled-in yard but receive no visitors. They range in age from as young as 10 up to 18 and have received no schooling since they were detained three or more years ago.

The battle between a Kurdish-led militia and Islamic State fighters for control of a prison in northeastern Syria yanked from the shadows the bleak plight of the nearly 700 boys detained there.

On Wednesday a spokesperson for the Syrian Democratic Forces said that it had retaken the complex after hundreds of fighters had been reported killed. But the fate of hundreds of boys whom the Islamic State group had taken hostage and used as human shields is still in question.

They are among the tens of thousands of children held in prisons and detention camps in northeastern Syria because their parents belonged to the Islamic State.

The Kurdish-led militia that operates the prison, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, says that the children’s ties to the Islamic State make them dangerous. It has also criticised foreign governments for refusing to repatriate their citizens held in the camps and prisons, including the children.

But aid workers and human rights advocates say detaining the children punishes them for the sins of their parents — and could fuel the very radicalisation that authorities who locked them up say they want to prevent.

“Under international law, putting children in detention should be a last resort,” said Bo Viktor Nylund, the representative for Syria for the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF. “The whole aspect of these children as victims of their circumstances has not been taken into account.”

After days of fighting, the battle for the prison, in the city of Hasaka, centered on one three-story building that houses the kitchen, clothing workshop, clinic and barbershop, said Farhad Shami, an SDF spokesperson. The upper floors of that building are the children’s ward, where the 700 boys were detained.

Shami said he did not know how many of the boys had been killed or wounded. But Letta Tayler, a director with Human Rights Watch who tracks the Syria detentions, wrote on Twitter that she had spoken with two men and one boy inside the surrounded building, and they said they had seen many dead and wounded 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 detention crisis in northeastern Syria has its roots in the collapse of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate, which at its height was about the size of Britain and stretched into Syria and Iraq.

An international military coalition led by the United States joined with the SDF to fight the jihadis in Syria, pushing them from their last patch of territory in March 2019.

The SDF detained those who survived in an ad hoc network of prisons for the men and camps for the women and children, expecting that the countries the fighters and their families had come from would take them back. But most countries have refused, leaving the detainees languishing for years in squalid, dangerous camps and makeshift prisons, with no legal recourse.

Tens of thousands of children, most of them Syrians and Iraqis, live in the area’s two main camps, along with thousands of children of other nationalities, said Ardian Shajkovci, director of the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute, which has researched the issue.

Some 200-220 children are believed to be in two rehabilitation centers run by the SDF-affiliated administration that governs the area.

The SDF has long resisted providing information about the number of boys in its prisons, but Shajkovci said there are about 700 in the Hasaka facility and about 35 in another lockup in the city of Qamishli. Most are Syrians and Iraqis, and about 150 are foreigners.

In 2019, when The New York Times first reported on the presence of children in the Hasaka prison, they were dressed in orange jumpsuits and crammed in normal cells near the adult prisoners.

Since then, their conditions have marginally improved, according to aid workers. They were segregated from the adults and moved to their own building on the north side of the compound, where there are three floors with about 15 cells each.

Aid groups have brought them blankets, mattresses, hygiene supplies and clothes. They have communal bathrooms and their own yard where they get regular recreation time.

Over the last 15 months, their number increased to 700 from about 550, aid workers said, when the SDF moved some adolescents from the camps to the prison. In some cases, that meant separating them from their mothers, who remained in the camps.

They were removed for a variety of reasons: some after security incidents, some because the SDF thought they had reached a “dangerous” age, or because of worries they would impregnate women in the camps, according to aid workers and Shajkovci, the researcher.

Young boys, many under the age of 16, sit in a crowded cell at a prison for former Islamic State members run by Kurdish-led forces in Hasaka, in northeast Syria, on Oct 22, 2019. The New York Times

Shami, the SDF spokesperson, denied that any boys had been moved from the camps to the prison but said some had been taken to rehabilitation centers because they were at risk of being radicalised in the camps, where many detainees remain steadfast supporters of the caliphate.

He called all the boys in the prison “cubs of the caliphate,” the name the Islamic State used for children trained to fight, and he said they had been captured in Islamic State bases and could have been trained to carry out suicide bombings.

Nylund of UNICEF acknowledged that some of the boys could have played roles in combat but said it was difficult to determine each child’s background and that some had clearly been too young to fight. None of the boys have been charged with a crime or have seen a judge.

As the battle for control of the prison was still raging, none of those circumstances mitigated the danger to the boys now, Nylund said.

“These children are at very close risk of falling both as 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.

Mehmet Balci, founder and co-director of Fight for Humanity, a human rights group, has visited the prison three times.

Last year, his organisation began a project to do individual assessments of the boys to provide them with educational, recreational and psychological support, he said in an interview.

His group hired staff members, purchased equipment, made plans for TV rooms for the boys and conducted two training sessions with the prison staff about child protection.

The Islamic State attack put everything on hold.

Balci said the project could have made a bad situation for the boys a little better, but without changing what he saw as the fundamental injustice.

“These children should not have been there,” he said. “This is not their place.”

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