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 Al-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 Islamic State 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 Islamic State – also known as Isis – 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."
‘Cubs of the Caliphate’
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 ez-Zor, 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 Islamic State leaders as cannon fodder, or as saboteurs that could more easily infiltrate civilian areas. “These young people were trained by Isis for suicide attacks and other military operations,” said Mr Shami. “Now Isis has taken 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 Islamic State in northeast 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 Islamic State members remain at large, most thought to be hiding in nearby neighbourhoods, which remained in full lockdown on Monday.