Soldiers with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces check a house in Hassakeh, Syria, Jan. 25, 2022. After breaking into the prison late Thursday, ISIS militants were joined by others rioting inside the facility that housed over 3,000 inmates, including

Three months after ISIS attacked a prison in northeast Syria, the fate of at least 100 child detainees remains unclear

Human rights groups say they are deeply concerned about the well-being of the children who remain injured or unaccounted for following an ISIS attack on a prison in northeast Syria. Many of the children's home countries refuse to them them back.

The World

Soldiers with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces check a house in Hassakeh, Syria, Jan. 25, 2022. After breaking into the prison late Thursday, ISIS militants were joined by others rioting inside the facility that housed over 3,000 inmates, including hundreds of minors.

Orhan Qereman/AP

Last January, ISIS fighters carried out a brazen and coordinated attack on a prison in northeastern Syria.

They set off bombs at the entrance of the Al-Sina'a prison, killing dozens of people initially, and later, hundreds more.

The fighting went on for over a week. In the end, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in charge of the prison managed to take back control, with some help from US forces.

Related: Former ISIS member is found guilty in US federal court

But roughly three months later, the fate of about 100 children, who were held at the prison, remains unclear — and human rights groups say they are deeply concerned about their well-being.

During the battle at the prison, one teenager, who said that he’s from Australia, sent audio messages to his family.

“I just got shot by an Apache [a type of helicopter], my head is bleeding. I have injured my head and my hand. There’s no doctors here who can help me,” he said.

The audio messages were shared with The World by a human rights group. The name of the boy was bleeped out for his own safety. But he says he is 17 and that he was held in the prison for three years.

That was back in January.

Related: For many Syrians, Russia's invasion of Ukraine feels painfully familiar

Letta Tayler, from Human Rights Watch, who’s been following this teenager’s case, said that she hasn’t heard from him since.

“I cannot stop thinking about this boy. Because his text messages to me and his communications with me were just so devastating.”

Letta Tayler, Human Rights Watch

“I cannot stop thinking about this boy. Because his text messages to me and his communications with me were just so devastating.”

Aid groups say that there were at least 700 minors at al-Sina’a prison at the time of the attack. But Kurdish authorities have not provided detailed figures. SDF spokesman Farhad Shami did not respond to repeated requests for an interview with The World.

But earlier this month, the United Nations said that at least 100 children, some as young as 10 years old, are still unaccounted for.

“We have no idea if they are alive, wounded, sick or dead,” Tayler from Human Rights Watch said.

UNICEF told The World in an email that it does not have any updates about the children.

In February, The New York Times reported that the bodies of two teenagers had been found in the area.

Related: Despite killing of ISIS leader, the terror group is not defeated, experts say

The majority of the prisoners who were held at al-Sina’a are from Iraq and Syria. But new documents show that besides the Australian boy, there are minors who were born in Austria, France, Germany, Sweden, the UK and at least one American teenager.

In response to questions about the American minor, a US State Department spokesperson said via email that the agency can’t comment on specific cases, but that “the US government has repatriated 15 adult US citizens and 24 US citizen minors from Syria and Iraq.”

Sasha Hoffman, a researcher with the Rojava Information Center, a volunteer media group in northeastern Syria, said that the physical damage to the prison has not been repaired and that the prisoners have been moved to a new location.

“The compound where the ISIS members are being held right now is this new compound and they will not be transferred back to the old facilities,” Hoffman said.

What to do with the families of suspected ISIS members has been a major issue since the fall of the so-called caliphate in 2019. Thousands of women and children remain in camps or prisons in Syria and Iraq. Some are citizens of countries that are not willing to take them back.

In March, Save The Children said that “it will take 30 years before foreign children stuck in unsafe camps in northeast Syria can return home, if repatriations continue at the current rate.”

The charity didn’t comment for this story.

Some countries have repatriated their citizens who were in detention at the prison but the pace has been very slow.

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

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, and her colleagues, have written letters to governments that have minors who are citizens of their countries in detention, calling for their repatriation.

In a letter to the British government dated Feb. 1, 2022, they wrote that the “boys were primarily brought to Syria or Iraq by parents or other family members, or were born in Syria to individuals who traveled there. An unknown number of children were allegedly conceived from acts of rape and sexual coercion during the conflict or forced marriage.”

They also sent a letter to American officials.

“These are children. They have no responsibility for the circumstances of their birth. They did not choose to go or be born in northeast Syria. And they deserve to be treated with the full compassion and the rights of the child.”

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism

“These are children. They have no responsibility for the circumstances of their birth,” Ní Aoláin told The World. “They did not choose to go or be born in northeast Syria. And they deserve to be treated with the full compassion and the rights of the child.”

In fact, she said, they should be treated as victims of ISIS, not accomplices, given how the terror group indoctrinated children for its own purposes.

“The prison is not the solution to this problem,” she added.

The US and other countries provide some funding for these prisons.

In 2020, The Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS, led by the US, gave more than $2 million to the Kurdish authorities running the detention facilities. Some of that aid was in the form of riot gear and security equipment.

Last year, the British government said it would give $20 million to upgrade the main prison in Syria.

The coalition also sent in more armored vehicles to northeastern Syria in February, adding that the vehicles had “quickly proved their worth” in the fight to take back the Al-Sina’a prison.

But Tayler, of Human Rights Watch, sees this as shifting the burden onto the Kurds, “who have a lot on their hands.”

“They are an undermanned, cash-strapped force, fighting a war on various fronts. And what I find unconscionable is that the home countries of these boys outsource management of their citizens inside a warzone.”

Experts like Tayler say these prisons remain a target for ISIS. And keeping young boys locked up, without due process, under inhumane conditions, could lead to security threats in the future.

“The longer that they know that their home countries have shut the door on them and thrown away the key, the more they might think, ‘Well, OK, I might as well join ISIS.’” 

Tayler said that it’s time for these children’s home countries to step up and find a political and humane solution.