Boys held hostage by concerned ISIS rights activists

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Male schoolboys in prison sleep in groups of about 15 in cells with no windows, according to aid workers.

They get fresh air and see the sun when they visit the walled courtyard, but there are no guests. They are between the ages of 10 and 18 and have not attended school since being detained three or more years ago.

The battle between Kurdish-led militias and Islamic State fighters for control of a prison in northeastern Syria has dislodged the bleak plight of the nearly 700 boys held there.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces said they had recaptured the complex after hundreds of fighters were believed to have been killed. But the fate of hundreds of boys held hostage by ISIS and used as human shields remains a question.

The children are among tens of thousands of children held in prisons and detention centers in northeastern Syria because their parents belong to the Islamic State.

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

But aid workers and human rights advocates say detaining the children will punish them for the sins of their parents – and could fuel the radicalization that authorities have locked up. say they want to stop.

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

Farhad Shami, an SDF spokesman, said that after days of fighting, the battle for the prison, in Hasaka city, centered on a three-story building that houses a kitchen, a garment factory, a clinic and hair salon. The upper floors of that building are the children’s quarters, where 700 boys are kept.

Mr. Shami said he did not know how many boys were killed or injured. But Letta Tayler, director of Human Rights Watch, which monitors detention camps in Syria, wrote on Twitter that she spoke to two men and a boy inside the surrounding building, and they said they had seen many dead and wounded boys. They also said they ran out of food and water and burned mattresses to cook before they ran out of food.

The detention crisis in northeastern Syria has its roots in the fall of the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State, which at the time was about the size of Britain and stretched into both Syria and Iraq.

An international military coalition led by the United States has joined the SDF to fight jihadists in Syria, push them from their last territories in March 2019.

The SDF holds survivors in a special network of men’s prisons and camps for women and children, in the hope that the countries to which the fighters and their families go will bring them back. But most countries have refusedleaving detainees languishing for years in squalid, dangerous camps and makeshift prisons, without legal recourse.

Ardian Shajkovci, director of American Institute of Targeting and Counterterrorismstudied the problem.

Between 200 and 220 children are believed to be in two rehabilitation centers run by the SDF-affiliated government in the area.

The SDF has long resisted releasing information about the number of boys in its prisons, but Shajkovci said there are about 700 children at the Hasaka facility and about 35 children in another detention center in the city. Qamishli street. Most are Syrian and Iraqi, but about 150 are foreigners.

In 2019, when The New York Times first reported the presence of children in Hasaka prisonthey wore orange jumpsuits and were crammed into normal cells near adult prisoners.

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

Aid groups have brought them blankets, mattresses, toiletries and clothes. They have shared bathrooms and private courtyards where they have regular leisure time.

Aid workers say their number has increased to 700 in the past 15 months from about 550, aid workers said, as the SDF transferred some teenagers from camps to prisons. In some cases, that meant separating them from their mothers, who remained in the camp.

They were removed for a variety of reasons: some after a security incident, some because the SDF thought they had reached a “dangerous” age, or because they were worried they would nourish the women in the camp, according to staffers. relief and Mr. Shajkovci, researcher.

Shami, a spokesman for the SDF, denied that any of the boys had been transferred from the camp to the prison but said some had been sent to rehabilitation centers because they were at risk of radicalization. in the camps, where many detainees remained staunchly supportive of the caliph.

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

UNICEF’s Mr Nylund acknowledged that some of the boys could have played a role in the fighting but said it was difficult to identify each of them and that some were clearly too young to fight. None of the boys were charged or met with a judge.

Mr Nylund said while the battle for control of the prison was still raging, none of these cases minimized the danger to the boys. “These children are at very close risk of both being targeted in the fighting and potentially being re-hired or recruited for the first time and eventually falling into ISIS hands,” he said.

Mehmet Balci, founder and co-director of Fight for humanity, a human rights group, visited the prison three times. Last year, his He said in an interview, the organization has started a project to assess the boys individually to provide them with educational, recreational and psychological support.

His team hired staff, purchased equipment, planned a TV room for the boys and conducted two training sessions with prison staff on child protection.

The IS attack brought everything to a halt.

Mr. Balci said the project might make the boys’ dire situation a little better, but would not change what he sees as fundamental injustice.

“These kids shouldn’t be there,” he said. “This is not their place.”

Jane Arraf Contribution reports from Baghdad. Boys held hostage by concerned ISIS rights activists

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