Beirut, Lebanon – After almost a week of clashes with ISIL fighters, residents and Kurdish-led military personnel in the northeastern Syrian Hassakeh province celebrated a victory on Wednesday.
Six days ago, ISIL launched an attempt to free some 3,500 of its fighters held in Al-Sina’a prison, one of the largest in the Ghuwayran region. ISIL fighters stormed the prison in one of the most ambitious attacks since the fall of ISIL’s so-called caliphate to US-backed coalition forces and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in late 2019.
The attempted jailbreak and the ensuing clashes left more than 180 people dead. The United Nations has estimated that 45,000 residents have been displaced as a result of the ISIL attack.
The clashes around the prison also brought renewed attention to a longstanding problem: the hundreds of child detainees housed in the prison.
They are the sons of ISIL fighters, some recruited as child soldiers. The SDF calls them “Caliphate Cubs”. They come from around the world, but have been left in the prison for more than two years, as their governments have failed to repatriate them.
The SDF has said some 700 children are housed in the prison, while the UN’s children’s agency UNICEF put the number at 850.
“We’re talking about boys as young as 11 or 12,” said Sonia Khush, Syria response director with the UK-based charity Save the Children.
For nearly a week, the child detainees were trapped in the prison filled with armed ISIL fighters, deprived of food, water, and safety, in the crossfire of a battle with intense shooting and air raids in and around the prison, as the SDF and US forces surrounded the facility.
According to voice recordings obtained by Human Rights Watch (HRW), child detainees experienced days of deprivation and some were killed and wounded in the fighting.
Trapped detainees, including a 17-year-old Australian boy, said they went without food, water, and medicine for much of the week, and that some detainees as young as 14 and 15 years old were killed.
The 17-year-old was wounded after an Apache helicopter attack on the prison. Another prisoner told HRW a child detainee who “looked very young” died as he bled to death without access to treatment.
1/ UPDATES on Ghweran prison crisis in NE Syria: I have made contact with a Canadian man, an American man and an Australian boy inside the prison. They sound desperate. They say they've had no food or water for days; describe dead and wounded everywhere. They say they fear… pic.twitter.com/gs8pNb0Y9w
— Letta Tayler (@lettatayler) January 26, 2022
Children wasting away
The SDF has not yet provided figures relating to the number of children wounded or killed during the operation, and it is unclear where they are currently located.
Clara Moore, Syria-based researcher at the Rojava Information Center, said the children “almost certainly” will not leave custody.
“We don’t know what will happen to them – [the attack] underscores a different way of housing with them is necessary,” Moore told Al Jazeera. “But the AANES (Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria) and SDF still have material constraints.”
After the fall of ISIL’s “caliphate” in 2019, tens of thousands of women and children from dozens of countries were held in highly securitised displacement camps, while older teenage boys and men were imprisoned.
SDF officials and some analysts said the packed camps have become a hotbed for ISIL recruitment. Murders and other violent crimes are common, and some reports say that boys and young men have been smuggled outside of the camp to join the group’s fighters.
Officials, residents, and aid workers have called the situation a ticking time bomb.
Human rights and advocacy organisations have urged the international community to repatriate their detained nationals.
They say that if governments had repatriated their nationals from the prisons and camps, then many of the deaths and injuries over the past week could have been avoided.
“The suffering we’re seeing with thousands of locals and residents being displaced and children being used as human shields is avoidable,” Beatrice Eriksson, spokesperson for the Sweden-based children’s rights organisation Repatriate the Children, told Al Jazeera.
Only a few dozen children were repatriated from detention in northeastern Syria in 2021. A Save the Children report published in September urged Australia, the United States, Norway, Canada, and the European Union to step up repatriations.
The SDF have made similar calls, and said they have limited resources to hold tens of thousands of families and combatants on their own. They have said the threat of ISIL and the detainees are not just a local problem.
So far, the local authorities transferred two Swedish women and four children to a Swedish government delegation following the clashes, but there are thousands more waiting to go home.
The Al-Hol and Al-Roj detention camps in norhteastern Syria host 60,000 people, of whom 40,000 are children. 7,800 of them come from some 60 countries. The rest are from Syria and Iraq. The camps are run by the SDF, which has struggled to do so on its own due to limited capacity. Aid workers from international humanitarian organisations have been granted access to improve living conditions.
Once the boys become teenagers, the local authorities transfer them to adult prisons alongside suspected ISIL fighters. The UN has said they are at risk of indoctrination and ill-treatment, and many were held without any clear evidence of committing crimes. However, the SDF claimed they were “forced” to detain the children as a temporary measure.
“Most of the children [in the camps] are below the age of seven, they have not committed any crimes, they are victims who are being tossed around different armed groups,” Eriksson said.
UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism Fionnuala Ní Aoláin said in a statement the boys are held in “grotesque prison conditions”.
Human rights and aid workers told Al Jazeera that these children have been deprived of education and viable healthcare for more than three years.
Despite all this, about 60 countries with nationals held in northeastern Syria have shown little to no interest in bringing back those children.
Save the Children said last year that the children were “wasting away” in these camps and detention facilities, rife with murder and health risks.
“The solution is not to put these children in another prison, it’s to send them home. Governments need to step up and repatriate them,” Khush said. “How many more of these incidents do we have to go through?”