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Witness: Great challenges and an uncertain future inside the rehabilitation centers for “ISIS boys” in Syria


Rehabilitation centers for children of “Islamic State” fighters have recently been opened in Syria in order to keep them away from extremist ideology. However, these centers face many difficulties, and they also receive criticism from human rights organizations.

For at least four years, thousands of children have been growing up in a camp in northeastern Syria that houses families of Islamic State fighters. These children are growing up in an atmosphere in which the group’s extremist ideology is still prevalent, where they have almost no access to education.

Fearing the emergence of a new generation of militants from al-Hol camp, Kurdish officials who control eastern and northern Syria are piloting a rehabilitation program aimed at rescuing children from the clutches of extremist ideology.

But this, in turn, means removing them from their mothers and families for an indefinite period of time, a practice that has raised concerns among rights groups. Even if they are rehabilitated, the children’s future remains uncertain, given the reluctance of their countries of origin to take them back.

“If these children remain in the camp, it will lead to the emergence of a new generation of extremists who may be more fanatical than those before them,” said Khaled Ramo, co-chair of the Office of Justice and Reform Affairs of the Kurdish Autonomous Administration.

Drawing and music classes

Recently, a media team was allowed to visit Urkesh, a rehabilitation center that opened late last year. The center houses dozens of boys and adolescents who were taken from Al-Hol camp. They range in age from 11 to 18, and represent about 15 different nationalities, including France and Germany.

In Urkesh, boys learn painting and music, all with the theme of tolerance. They also learn skills for future jobs such as sewing or barbering. The boys get up early and have breakfast at 7 in the morning, then have lessons until 3 in the evening, after which they can play football and basketball. They live in dormitories, where they are expected to keep order and make their beds. They are also allowed to contact parents and siblings.

Authorities did not allow the AP to speak to the boys at the center, citing privacy concerns. During a separate visit to al-Hol, residents did not respond to reporters and refused to be interviewed. The Associated Press also contacted the families who were released from the al-Hol camp, but none of them responded. The newness of the program makes it difficult to assess its effectiveness.

Legacy of militant thought

However, the center highlights how the US-backed Kurdish authorities are grappling with the legacy of the Islamic State, years after the group was defeated in a brutal war in Syria and Iraq that ended in 2019.

Al-Hol camp is home to about 51,000 people, mostly women and children, including wives, widows, and family members of other ISIS militants. Most of them are Syrians and Iraqis. But there are also about 8,000 women and children of 60 other nationalities living in a part of the camp known as the annex. These are generally considered to be some of the most hardline ISIS supporters among the camp’s residents.

The camp population has decreased from 73,000 people, mostly due to the Syrians and Iraqis who have been allowed to return home. But other countries have largely refrained from taking back their citizens who traveled to join ISIS after the extremist group seized large parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014.

“We have to keep them away from extremist ideology”

Although the camp is run by Kurdish-led security forces, they are struggling to maintain control. So, the extremism of ISIS is still widespread, as its followers terrorize others, especially in the annex, which houses more than five thousand children.

Children in al-Hol camp have little to do and little opportunity for education. Less than half of the 25,000 children in the camp attend reading and writing lessons at education centres.

During a recent AP tour of al-Hol, some boys threw rocks at reporters. One of them gestured by putting his finger to his throat in a gesture indicating decapitation while looking at the journalists.

“Once these children reach the age of 12, they can become dangerous and can kill and beat others,” Jihan Hanan, the camp director, told the Associated Press. And she continues, “So we had a choice, which is to put them in rehabilitation centers and keep them away from the extremist ideology that their mothers carry.”

long standing problem

As soon as the boys turn 13, ISIS loyalists make them marry young girls — another reason to keep them away from the camp, says Sheikmous Ahmed, head of the Office of Displaced and Refugee Affairs in the Autonomous Administration.

So far, the number of children undergoing rehabilitation remains small, about 300, and all of them are boys from the annex. Ninety-seven are located in the recently established Urkesh Center near the border town of Qamishli, about a two-hour drive from al-Hol. The rest are in the al-Houri centre, another center that began receiving boys for rehabilitation in 2017, as Kurdish forces retook territory from the Islamic State in Syria.

Al-Houri highlights a long-standing problem: Some boys have been living in the center for years because they have nowhere else to go. The only alternative is to send them back to al-Hol camp. Officials say that only four of al-Huri’s children have been able to find a new place to live.

“This is not rehabilitation.”

“While the intention of moving these boys to separate detention centers may be well-intentioned, it is not rehabilitation.” So says Letta Tyler, associate director of conflict and crisis at Human Rights Watch. “This is the indefinite detention without charge of children, who are themselves victims of ISIS.”

Tyler adds that removal from the family may be appropriate if the child was victimized by the mother or a relative. Otherwise, the breakup may cause more trauma. “For many of these children who survived unimaginable horrors under ISIS and in the camps where they have been confined since the fall of ISIS, the mother and other family members are their only source of stability,” she continues.

Separation from the mother “should only be a last resort, dealt with by the state on an individual basis after families return, in line with its laws,” says Catherine Achilles, media director of the Syrian Response Office at Save the Children International.

The options available are few

As for Jihan Hanan, the director of al-Hol camp, she says they have few options, and one suggestion is to set up rehabilitation centers in or near the camp. Hanan continues, “Perhaps in the future we can agree on something with international organizations regarding these centers, because they are the best solution for these children.”

But Kurdish officials and humanitarian agencies agree that the only real solution is for the countries of origin to take back their citizens. “Once returned home, children and other ISIS victims can be rehabilitated and reintegrated. Adults can be monitored or prosecuted as appropriate,” says Letta Tyler of Human Rights Watch.

The United Nations-backed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria had called in March for the expedited deportation. She added that the suffering experienced by the camp residents “may amount to the war crime of outraging personal dignity.”

Until a solution is found, the centers create “a suitable environment to pave the way for intellectual change for these children,” says Remo, the Kurdish official.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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