At the sprawling Al-Hol camp, children pass their days roaming the dirt roads, playing with mock swords and black banners in imitation of ISIS group militants. Few can read or write. For some, the only education is from mothers giving them ISIS propaganda.
It has been more than two years since the ISIS 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 ISIS members have been housed.
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 ISIS 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 areI SIS’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.”
“The camps are no place for children to live or grow up,” she said. “It does not allow them to learn, socialize or be children ... It does not allow them to heal from all that they have lived through.”
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 militants.
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 ISIS supporters, along with their children, numbering 8,000.
The ISIS influence was clear during a rare visit by The Associated Press to the camp last month. Around a dozen young boys in the annex hurled stones at the team, which was accompanied by Kurdish guards. A few waved sharp pieces of metal like swords.
“We will kill you because you are an infidel,” screamed one child who looked around 10. “We are ISIS.”
Another child slid his hand across his neck and said, “With the knife, God willing.”
At a market inside the annex, one woman looked at a reporter and said, “The ISIS endures” — a slogan of the group.
During its nearly 5-year rule over much of Syria and Iraq, ISIS 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 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.”
The women in the camp are a mix. Some remain devoted to ISIS, but others became disillusioned by its brutal rule or by its defeat. Others were never ideologically committed but were brought into the “caliphate” by husbands or family.
The camp began to be used to house the families of ISIS fighters in late 2018 as US-backed Kurdish-led forces recaptured territory in eastern Syria from the militants. In March 2019, they seized the last ISIS-held villages, ending the “caliphate” that the group declared over large parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
Since then, Kurdish administrators have struggled to repatriate camp residents in the face of local opposition to their return. Earlier this year, hundreds of Syrian families left the camp after a deal was reached with their tribes to accept them. Last month, 100 Iraqi families were repatriated but still face sharp opposition among their neighbors.
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 UN children’s agency, UNICEF, told the AP. Chaiban visited Al-Hol in December.
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.”
In the camp’s main section, UNICEF and Kurdish authorities set up 25 learning centers, but they have been closed since March 2020 because of COVID-19. In the annex, authorities have been unable to set up learning centers. Instead, children are largely taught by their mothers, mostly with ISIS ideology, according to UN and Kurdish officials.
In late March, the Kurdish-led forces assisted by US forces swept through the camp, seizing 125 suspected ISIS operatives, including Iraqis and Syrians.
Those sleeper cells had been killing residents suspected of abandoning the group’s ideology, working as informants or defying its rules. At least 47 people were killed this year, according to Kurdish-led forces, while US officials put the number at 60.
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.”