They get fresh air and see the sun while visiting the walled courtyard but no visitors. They are between the ages of 10 and 18 and have not attended any school since their arrest three or more years ago.
Fighting between Kurdish-led militias and Islamic State fighters for control of a prison in northeastern Syria has shaken the shadows of the plight of about 700 boys held captive there.
A spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces said on Wednesday that it had recaptured the complex after hundreds of fighters were killed. But the fate of hundreds of boys held hostage by the Islamic State group and used as human shields is still in question.
They are among thousands of children held in prisons and detention camps in northeastern Syria because their parents belong to the Islamic State.
The Kurdish-led militia, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF, which runs the prison, says the children’s relationship with the Islamic State makes them dangerous. It has also criticized foreign governments for refusing to repatriate their citizens, including children in camps and prisons.
But aid workers and human rights lawyers say the detention of children punishes them for their parents’ sins – and could further accelerate the extremism that the authorities want to prevent because they are detained.
“Under international law, detaining children should be a last resort,” said Bo Victor Nylond, UNICEF’s Syrian representative for Syria. “The whole aspect of these children is not taken into account as a victim of their situation.”
After days of fighting, the battle for the prison centered on a three-story building in the town of Hasaka, with a kitchen, clothing workshop, clinic and barber shop, said Farhad Shami, an SDF spokesman. The children’s ward on the top floor of the building, where 600 boys were detained.
Shami said he did not know how many boys were killed or injured. But Letta Taylor, a director of Human Rights Watch who tracks Syrian detainees, wrote on Twitter that she had spoken to two men and a boy inside the enclosed building and said they had seen many dead and wounded boys. They also said that they ran out of food and water and burned their mattresses to cook before the food ran out.
The crisis in northeastern Syria is rooted in the collapse of the so-called Islamic State caliphate, which was Britain’s height and spread to Syria and Iraq.
An international military coalition led by the United States joined the SDF to fight jihadists in Syria, pushing them out of the last part of their territory in March 2019.
The SDF detained those who survived an ad hoc network of prisons for men and camps for women and children, in the hope that the fighters and their families would return to the country they came from. But most countries have refused, saying there is no legal way to keep detainees in ineffective, dangerous camps and temporary prisons for years.
Ardian Shazkovsky, director of the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute, said thousands of children, mostly Syrians and Iraqis, live in the area.
About 200-220 children are thought to be in two rehabilitation centers run by the SDF-approved administration that manages the area.
The SDF has long refused to provide information on the number of boys in its prisons, but Shazkovsky said there are about 700 in the Hasaka facility and about 35 in other lockups in the town of Kamishli. Mostly Syrian and Iraqi and about 150 foreigners.
In 2019, when The New York Times first reported the presence of children in Hasaka prison, they wore orange jumpsuits and were locked in a common room with adult inmates.
Since then, their condition has 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, with three floors, each with about 15 rooms.
The relief team brought blankets, mattresses, hygiene supplies and clothes. They have communal bathrooms and their own backyard where they get regular leisure time.
In the last 15 months, their numbers have risen from about 550 to 700, aid workers say, when the SDF took some teenagers from camps to prisons. In some cases, this meant separating them from their mothers, who remained in the camp.
They were evacuated for various reasons: some security incidents, some because the SDF thought they had reached a “dangerous” age, or because of concern they would conceive women in the camp, according to aid worker and researcher Shazkovsky.
Young boys under the age of 16 sit in a crowded cell in the prison of former Islamic State members run by Kurdish-led forces in Hasakah, northeastern Syria, on October 22, 2019. New York Times
SDF spokesman Shami denied that any boys had been transferred from the camp to prisons but that some had been taken to rehabilitation centers because they were at risk of becoming radicalized in camps where many prisoners were staunch supporters of the caliphate.
He called all the boys in prison “children of the caliphate”, the name the Islamic State used for children trained for war, and said they were being held captive at Islamic State bases and could be trained to carry out suicide bombings.
UNICEF’s Nilund acknowledged that some boys could play a role in the war, but said that it was difficult to determine the background of each child and that some were obviously too young to fight. None of the boys were charged with a crime or saw a judge.
Since the fight for control of the prison was still going on, none of those situations could now reduce the boys’ danger, Nylond said.
“These children are at risk of falling prey to crossfire and possibly re-employment or re-employment for the first time and ending up in the hands of ISIS,” he said.
Mehmet Balsi, founder and co-director of the human rights group Fight for Humanity, has been jailed three times.
Last year, his organization launched a project to provide boys with educational, recreational and psychological support to assess them individually, he said in an interview.
His team recruited staff, purchased equipment, planned TV rooms for boys, and conducted two training sessions with prison staff on child protection.
The Islamic State attack has blocked everything.
Balsi said the project could have created a worse situation for the boys, but did not change what he saw as a fundamental injustice.
“These kids shouldn’t have been there,” he said. “This is not their place.”
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