A distressing series of voice notes sent by an Australian teenager from a prison in northeast Syria underscores the plight of thousands of forgotten children who remain trapped in detention facilities in Syria and Iraq.
Hundreds of minors are believed to be holed up in Gweiran Prison, which has been at the center of a violent standoff between Islamic State group militants and U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters that began a week ago.
The Kurdish-led forces said Wednesday they took control of the last section of the prison controlled by Islamic State militants and freed a number of child detainees used as human shields. It ended a weeklong assault by the extremists on one of the largest detention facilities in Syria.
IS fighters stormed the prison on Thursday, aiming to break out thousands of comrades who simultaneously rioted inside. The attack is the biggest by IS militants since the fall of the group’s “caliphate” in 2019.
Dozens from both sides have been killed in the clash, which has drawn back in U.S.-led coalition forces who have come to the aid of their Kurdish allies. Thousands of civilians living nearby have been displaced.
The fighting appears to have left multiple child inmates killed or wounded, though numbers are not known.
Human Rights Watch provided The Associated Press with a series of audio messages sent by the 17-year-old Australian from inside the prison in which he appealed for help, saying he was injured in the head and was bleeding. The boy says his friends got killed and he has seen bodies of kids aged 8 to 12.
But who are these kids, and why are they there?
Cubs of the Caliphate
Some of the kids were children when their parents plucked them from their own countries after they decided to join the so-called Islamic caliphate declared in 2014 over parts of Syria and Iraq. Others were born there. Many attended IS-run schools where they were trained for combat.
While IS carried out massacres against residents and enslaved many of the women and girls, they also sought to re-educate young boys and tried to turn them into jihadi fighters. They recruited teens and children using gifts, threats and brainwashing. Boys were turned into killers and suicide bombers. IS videos showed kids carrying out beheadings or shooting captives in cold blood.
It was all part of a concerted effort to build a new generation of militants. They called them cubs of the caliphate.
Most were later captured by Kurdish-led forces during the U.S.-backed campaign that brought down IS three years ago, thrown into squalid, overcrowded detention centers and where they continue to languish.
Others were put in squalid camps in northeast Syria that hold families of suspected IS fighters, where they are exposed to violence, exploitation and abuse. Once they become teenagers deemed old enough to separate from their mothers, they are transferred to one of the detention centers where they join the fighters. The age cut-off rules are not exactly clear. Some as young as 12 were reportedly in Gweiran Prison, despite warning from rights groups that these youngsters are too young to be in adult facilities or to be held at all without justice.
Letta Tayler of Human Rights Watch estimates 600 minor boys, around half of them Iraqis and other non-Syrians, were inmates in the prison. Most are between 14 and 17 years old, though some are as young as 12, Tayler said. It is not clear how many of the boys in prison were trained by IS or whether any have committed any crimes.
Why they are still there
Mostly because their governments have refused to repatriate them.
Kurdish authorities have asked countries to repatriate their nationals, saying keeping thousands of detainees in cramped facilities is putting a strain on their forces and creating a new generation of militants.
“None has even been brought before a judge to determine whether they should be detained,” Tayler said. “These children, some we are told as young as 12, should never have been placed in this squalid overcrowded prison where their lives are clearly at risk to begin with. Their countries should have brought them home to help them rebuild their lives long ago.”
But home governments often see the children as posing a danger rather than as needing rescue.
Some former Soviet bloc states have let some of their citizens back in, but other Arab, European and African countries have repatriated only minimal numbers or have refused.
Kurdish authorities run more than two dozen detention facilities scattered around northeastern Syria holding about 10,000 IS fighters. Among the detainees are some 2,000 foreigners, including about 800 Europeans.
The foreign detainees have never been brought before a court, making their detention arbitrary as well as indefinite.
In addition, some 27,500 children are locked up at the sprawling al-Hol camp, which houses families of IS members.
Most of them not yet teenagers, they are spending their childhood in limbo under miserable conditions with no schools, no place to play or develop, and seemingly no international interest in resolving their situation.