In Syria camp, forgotten children are molded by IS ideology

Hogir Al Abdo
Associated Press
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Al-Hol, Syria — At the sprawling al-Hol camp, children pass their days roaming the dirt roads, playing with mock swords and black banners in imitation of Islamic State group militants. Few can read or write. For some, the only education is from mothers giving them IS propaganda.

It has been more than two years since the Islamic State group’s self-declared “caliphate” was brought down. And for more than two years, some 27,000 children have been left to languish in al-Hol camp in northeast Syria where families of IS members have been housed.

Children gather outside their tents, at al-Hol camp, which houses families of members of the Islamic State group, in Hasakeh province, Syria, Saturday, May 1, 2021.

They are spending their childhood in a limbo of miserable conditions with no schools, no place to play or develop and seemingly no international interest in resolving their situation.

Only one institution is left to mold them: sympathizers and remnants of the Islamic State group who operate within the camp, even as it is run by the Kurdish-led forces that defeated the militants.

Kurdish authorities and aid groups fear the camp will create a new generation of militants. They are pleading with home countries to take the women and children back. The problem is that home governments often see the children as posing a danger rather than as needing rescue.

“These children are ISIS’s first victims,” said Save the Children’s Syria Response Director Sonia Khush. “A 4-year-old boy does not really have an ideology. He has protection and learning needs.”

A boy gestures with his hand on his neck in an indication of the threat of beheading, at al-Hol camp, which houses families of members of the Islamic State group, in Hasakeh province, Syria, Saturday, May 1, 2021.

In the fenced-off camp, multiple families are often crammed together in tents; medical facilities are minimal, access to clean water and sanitation limited.

Some 50,000 Syrians and Iraqis are there. Nearly 20,000 of them are children. Most of the rest are women, the wives and widows of fighters.

In a separate, heavily guarded section of the camp known as the annex are another 2,000 women from 57 other countries, considered the most die-hard IS supporters, along with their children, numbering 8,000.

During its nearly 5-year rule over much of Syria and Iraq, IS aimed to entrench its “caliphate” by indoctrinating children in its brutal interpretation of Islamic law. It trained children as fighters, taught them how to carry out beheadings using dolls, and even had them carry out killings of captives in propaganda videos.

A boy holds a book as he walk at al-Hol camp, which houses families of members of the Islamic State group, in Hasakeh province, Syria, Saturday, May 1, 2021.

A Russian-speaking woman in the annex, who identified herself as Madina Bakaraw, said she feared for the future of the children, including her own son and daughter.

“We want our children to learn. Our children should be able to read, to write, to count,” said the 42-year-old. “We want to go home and want our children to have a childhood.”

Some former Soviet Union states have let back some of their citizens, but other Arab, European and African countries have repatriated only minimal numbers or have refused.

“Those children are there through no fault of their own, and they should not pay the consequences of their parents’ choices,” Ted Chaiban, Mideast and North Africa director of the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, told the AP. Chaiban visited al-Hol in December.

A boy stands next to his mother at al-Hol camp, which houses families of members of the Islamic State group, in Hasakeh province, Syria, Saturday, May 1, 2021.

If home countries won’t repatriate, at least they should help set up facilities to improve children’s lives, said Shixmus Ehmed, head of the Kurdish-led administration’s department for refugees and displaced.

“We have suggested schools be opened, as well as rehabilitation programs and fields to do sports,” Ehmed said. “But so far, there is nothing.”

Amal Mohammed, a 40-year-old Iraqi in the camp, said her wish is to return to Iraq where her daughters can live a normal life.

“What is the future of these children?” she said. “They will have no future … Here they are learning nothing.”

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