Syrian Democratic Forces soldiers hold a position in Hassakeh, northeast Syria, Jan. 27, 2022.

A prison battle in Syria puts the spotlight on the plight of child detainees

For years, human rights groups and families of the detainees have called for the repatriation of these prisoners, but this has become a highly political issue because home countries refuse to take them back.

The World

Syrian Democratic Forces soldiers hold a position in Hassakeh, northeast Syria, Jan. 27, 2022. Dozens of armed ISIS militants remained holed up in the last occupied section of a Syrian prison, US-backed Kurdish-led forces said Thursday. The two sides clashed a day after the Syrian Democratic Forces announced they had regained full control of the facility.

Baderkhan Ahmad/AP

A 17-year-old boy trapped at Al Sina’a prison in northeastern Syria managed to send frantic audio messages to his family in Australia amid fighting between ISIS followers and the Syrian Democratic Forces (also known as SDF) over the past week.

“I need help please. I’m very scared. There’s a lot of people dead in front of me. I’m scared I might die anytime. Please help me.” 

17-year-old trapped in Al Sina’a prison, Syria 

“I need help please. I’m very scared. There’s a lot of people dead in front of me. I’m scared I might die anytime. Please help me,” he said in a recording that The World obtained through Human Rights Watch, which has been in touch with the boy.

The 17-year-old, whose family did not wish for him to be identified publicly, is one of at least 700 children at the prison, according to the United Nations, along with at least 5,000 male detainees who have been locked up at Al-Sina’a prison since the fall of the so-called Islamic State in Syria in 2019.

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ISIS militants have been trying to free thousands of trained ISIS fighters being held at the prison — the majority of whom are from Syria and Iraq — but there are also individuals who traveled from Europe, the US and Canada to join the group.

For years, human rights groups and families of the detainees have called for the repatriation of these prisoners, but this has become a highly political issue because home countries refuse to take them back.

The intense clashes between the SDF and the inmates in the past week have put a spotlight on the plight of these children.

The SDF regained control of the prison on Wednesday.

Daring attack

The attack began last Thursday when two car bombs detonated outside the prison in Al Hasakah. In the chaos that followed, hundreds of detainees escaped into the city. The ones who stayed inside the prison took hostages and then clashed with SDF forces.

At one point, the fighting got so intense that the US-led coalition carried out airstrikes, while American and British ground forces also joined.

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“We provided some support, real-time surveillance, some airstrikes and some ground support, mostly in the form of Bradley Fighting Vehicles positioned to help assist security in the area,” John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson told reporters on Tuesday.

After the SDF retook full control of the prison, videos posted on Twitter showed ISIS members lined up outside the prison.

SDF soldiers celebrated by raising their rifles in the air.

“[It was] a Frankenstein’s monster of prison break, special forces direct action combat and a highly televised, high stake[s] game of hostage.”

Nicholas Hera, deputy director of the Human Security Unit, Newlines Institute

Nicholas Hera, deputy director of the Human Security Unit at the Newlines Institute in Washington, summed up the ordeal as “a Frankenstein’s monster of prison break, special forces direct action combat and a highly televised, high stake[s] game of hostage.”

He and other security experts say the clashes at Al Sina’a prison (also known Gweiran) is a reminder of the threats that ISIS still poses to the security of the region: “The Gweiran prison battle demonstrates that ISIS is not done.” 

Detained against international law

Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, responded to questions on Tuesday about the 17-year-old caught up in the fighting in Al-Sina’a prison.

Payne said she was seeking advice about the matter and that “Australia does not have diplomatic representation in Syria.”

The boy was with his family in Syria and had been in ISIS territory in 2019 when he and his mother were transferred to a camp in northeast Syria before they were separated; the boy was taken to the prison, according to Australian news outlet, ABC. 

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Letta Tayler of Human Rights Watch said she connected on Wednesday with the Australian boy, as well as an American man and a Canadian man trapped in Al Sina’a prison.

In an interview with The World, she expressed frustration with the slow response by countries whose citizens remain in camps and prisons across northeast Syria.

While ISIS has used children in its propaganda videos and trained them to fight, Tayler said not all of them participated in the group’s atrocities. Most of the children were either taken to Syria by their parents or were born there, she said.

“These boys have been deeply traumatized, many of them were dragged by their parents to live under ISIS or were born under ISIS. They are often deprived of contact with loved ones. They’ve gone from being held by ISIS to being held by the northeast Syrian authorities and now, they are caught in the crossfire from both sides.”

Letta Tayler, Human Rights Watch

“These boys have been deeply traumatized, many of them were dragged by their parents to live under ISIS or were born under ISIS,” she said. “They are often deprived of contact with loved ones. They’ve gone from being held by ISIS to being held by the northeast Syrian authorities and now, they are caught in the crossfire from both sides.”

When the so-called ISIS caliphate fell in 2019, the US-led coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces rounded up ISIS suspects and put them in camps — where they have remained ever since.

Adolescent boys are separated from their mothers in camps and transferred to different locations, including Al-Sina’a prison.

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This practice is against international law, Tayler said, adding that “none of these boys [have] been brought before a judge. None of these boys [have] been charged with any crime.”

The Kurdish authorities who control northeastern Syria have not released a list of the detainees’ nationalities. This is a highly political issue. Often the prisoners’ home countries don’t want them back. In some cases, they have stripped them of their citizenship.

“These children never should have been detained in this prison in the first place. Shame on their home countries for leaving them. For abandoning them,” Taylor said.

The situation is not too different for Iraqi or Syrian minors, said Nicholas Heras, with the Newlines Institute.

“They have nowhere else to go,” he said. “Either their tribe, clan or family hasn’t taken them back yet or, alternatively, they are so committed to ISIS’ ideology that there’s a process of deradicalization that has to occur.”

But so far, that hasn’t happened, or the process has been extremely slow. These children, along with their family members, remain stuck in camps or prisons in Syria’s northeast.

“Most countries are worried that you have highly radicalized young men who, if they go back to their countries of origin, could, in fact, become part of a terrorist cell and could cause problems and conduct attacks and support ISIS in their country’s border,” Heras explained.

The attack on the prison, he said, shows that the international community needs to take concrete steps to deal with hundreds of detainees still being held in northeastern Syria.