The fate of more than 700 boys and teenage detainees has become central to the siege of a Kurdish-run prison in Syria that was overrun on Friday by jihadists, who are accused of using the boys as human shields.
As the siege around the Ghwayran prison in the Kurdish-run northern city of Hasakah entered a fifth day, Islamic State prisoners inside moved into a dormitory housing the boys, some of whom are as young as 12, in an attempt to prevent an assault by Kurdish forces stationed outside.
Leaders from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said there had been multiple deaths and injuries among the child prisoners. Save the Children, which has provided support to the prisoners over the past three years, urged renewed efforts to repatriate the boys, many of whom are from outside Syria and were caught up in the rise and fall of the so-called caliphate as the children of IS members.
The siege and allegations of the use of human shields have cast renewed light on the practice of holding child detainees and of the refusal of foreign governments to repatriate their citizens nearly three years after IS lost all its remaining territory in Syria’s far eastern deserts.
“What we are hearing from Ghwayran prison is deeply distressing,” said Save the Children’s Syria response director, Sonia Khush. “Reports that children have been killed or injured are tragic and outrageous.
“Responsibility for anything that happens to these children also lies at the door of foreign governments who have thought that they can simply abandon their child nationals in Syria. Risk of death or injury is directly linked to these governments’ refusal to take them home.
“All foreign children must be repatriated – with their families – without any further delay. The international community cannot have the blood of any of these children on their hands.”
Farhad Shami, the head of SDF media, said: “They are mostly not Syrian and we captured them during the time of the fall of Baghouz [the last holdout of IS territory in early 2019].
“We initially made camps for them near Raqqa and Deir Azzour, then they were moved to this prison.”
Many of the boys are alleged to have been drafted into the ranks of the so-called “Cubs of the Caliphate”, a child army used by IS leaders as cannon fodder, or as saboteurs that could more easily infiltrate civilian areas. “These young people were trained by Isis [IS] for suicide attacks and other military operations,” said Shami. “Now Isis has taking control of that part of the prison and we cannot fight or bomb them.”
Kurdish leaders released footage of scores of detainees surrendering outside the walls of the Ghwayran prison in the city’s south – one of the main detention centres for the remnants of IS in north-east Syria. The SDF said about 300 prisoners had given themselves up and claimed to have the prison fully surrounded by up to 10,000 troops.
Earlier fears that the attack on the prison in the early hours of Friday had freed hundreds of extremists appear to have been doused, with US officials and Kurdish leaders confident that only 20-30 IS members remain at large, most thought to be hiding in nearby neighbourhoods, which remained in full lockdown on Monday.
One escaper was caught wearing an abaya (a woman’s robe) on Monday. “There is still gunfire, we can hear it during day and night, and we can hear airstrikes sometimes,” said Hozan Ali, 37, a Hasakah resident. “Helicopters are flying over the area 24 hours a day. No one can enter the city or leave. Those Isis who are still here wear women’s clothes with niqab [full face coverings]. This is going on longer than we thought.”
In a statement, the Global Coalition Against Isis – the international coalition of countries aiming to destroy IS – said the IS assault on the prison was “a desperate attempt to replenish its depleted ranks and to regain lost momentum”.
It added: “The Coalition commends its Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) partners for their courageous response to the attack, and offers its condolences to the families of those killed. This and other recent attacks in Syria and Iraq remind us that Daesh [IS] is still a threat in the region. The Global Coalition remains committed to the enduring defeat of [IS]”.
Save the Children said it was in possession of audio recordings of one boy pleading for help. It had been providing the children with recreational spaces, relief supplies and fresh foods along with psychological support. Rehabilitation of children caught up in the horrors of IS has been a significant challenge for NGOs and Kurdish officials, who say they do not have the capacity for such mental health support.
“The boys must be able to receive the medical support they need for any injuries sustained in the attack, as well as access to mental health support to process and begin to recover from their experiences,” said Khush. “It is vital that all these children are supported to recover and re-integrate back into their communities safely, so that they can rebuild their lives.”
Kurdish leaders in north-east Syria have also warned repeatedly that IS was regrouping in the shadows of the region’s still battered towns and cities, preparing for an operation like the one launched on Friday, when about 100 men are thought to have attacked the prison after first igniting a car bomb at its gates.
Since then, at least 85 IS members are believed to have been killed in clashes, along with close to 45 SDF members and seven civilians. The UN says an estimated 45,000 civilians have been temporarily displaced.
Additional reporting by Nechirvan Mando