Syrian prison revolt highlights plight of boys ‘living in fear’

Rights groups urge repatriation of children following Isis attack on Kurdish-run jail

The uprising by detainees at the Kurdish-run Ghwayran prison in the northern Syrian city of Hasaka has exposed the squalid and dangerous conditions suffered by 700 boys and teenagers incarcerated with 5,000 adult men.

During the revolt sparked by an assault by the Islamic State terror group, Kurdish ground troops responded with heavy fire and US-led coalition aircraft rocketed and strafed the prison while inmates, reportedly, held boys as human shields. Up to 90 adults were holding out on Friday in the boys' wing. The charity Save the Children said boys had been killed and wounded.

UN human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani stated: "We have previously warned about the squalid and insecure state of detention facilities run by the [Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces], where detainees are held in overcrowded conditions, do not have access to proper medical care and cannot see their families."

She said conditions were “a recipe for violence” and urged the international community to deal with this “ticking time bomb”.


Galway-born UN special rapporteur and human rights expert Fionnuala Ní Aoláin reported: “Boys as young as 12 are living in fear for their lives amid the chaos and carnage in the jail. They are tragically being neglected by their own countries through no fault of their own except they were born to individuals allegedly linked or associated with designated terrorist groups.”

Ms Ní Aoláin, who last year identified 57 states with nationals – including 7,800 children – held in Syria’s camps, said the “failure to repatriate these children, who should rightly be considered victims of terrorism and as children in need of protection under international law, beggars belief”.

She pointed out that many boys were separated from their mothers, “treated as a distinct class”, and “denied their most fundamental rights their entire lives”.

Their childhoods have been consumed by war. Beginning at five or six, hundreds were indoctrinated by Islamic State, also known as Isis, recruited as "caliphate cubs" and trained to be fighters or deployed as suicide bombers. They are trusted neither by their Kurdish jailers nor their home countries.

Consequently, when boys living in two violent camps – at al-Hol and al-Ro in northeastern Syria – holding 60,000 militants' relatives, 40,000 of them children, reach the age of 10, they are moved to prisons where they are at risk of radicalisation. The majority of imprisoned boys are aged between 10 and 14.

Some boys may be among the men who escaped from the Hasaka prison to join fugitive Islamic State fighters in the deserts of Syria and Iraq and mount attacks on government forces and civilians.

Unicef spokeswoman Juliette Touma told the Middle East Eye website children must be released from such "precarious" situations. Since many have been traumatised by atrocities, they are in a state of shock, "they need psychological rehabilitation and eventually they need to be reunited with their families". Foreigners must be repatriated and reintegrated into their societies, she said.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times