BEIRUT, Lebanon — The boys in the prison sleep in groups of about 15 in cells with no windows, according to aid workers.
They get fresh air and see the sun during visits to a walled-in yard, but receive no visitors. They range in age from as young as 10 up to 18 and have received no schooling since they were detained three or more years ago.
Now, their lives are at risk in a pitched battle over control of the prison.
Islamic State fighters who attacked the prison on Thursday to free their comrades are holding the boys hostage as human shields. A Kurdish-led militia backed by American troops is trying to retake the prison. Hundreds of fighters have been reported killed.
The battle has yanked from the shadows the bleak plight of the nearly 700 boys detained at the prison in Hasaka, Syria. They are among the tens of thousands of children held in prisons and detention camps in northeastern Syria because their parents belonged to the Islamic State.
The Kurdish-led militia that operates the prison, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or S.D.F., says that the children’s ties to the Islamic State make them dangerous. It has also criticized foreign governments for refusing to repatriate their citizens held in the camps and prisons, including the children.
But aid workers and human rights advocates say detaining the children punishes them for the sins of their parents — and could fuel the very radicalization that the authorities who locked them up say they want to prevent.
“Under international law, putting children in detention should be a last resort,” said Bo Viktor Nylund, the representative for Syria for the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF. “The whole aspect of these children as victims of their circumstances has not been taken into account.”
After days of fighting, the battle for the prison, in the city of Hasaka, is now centered on one three-story building that houses the kitchen, clothing workshop, clinic and barbershop, said Farhad Shami, an S.D.F. spokesman. The upper floors of that building are the children’s ward, where the 700 boys were detained.
About 500 ISIS members, both attackers and the adult prisoners who joined them, are believed to be inside the building holding the workers and boys hostage, Mr. Shami said. Fifteen workers and about 20 boys managed to flee on Monday, he said, but ISIS was using the others as human shields, complicating S.D.F. efforts to retake the building.
Mr. Shami said he did not know how many of the boys had been killed or wounded. But Letta Tayler, a director with Human Rights Watch who tracks the Syria detentions, wrote on Twitter that she had spoken with two men and one boy inside the surrounded building, and they said they had seen many dead and wounded boys. They also said they had run out of food and water and had burned their mattresses to cook before the food ran out.
The detention crisis in northeastern Syria has its roots in the collapse of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate, which at its height was about the size of Britain and stretched into Syria and Iraq.
An international military coalition led by the United States partnered with the S.D.F. to fight the jihadists in Syria, pushing them from their last patch of territory in March 2019.
The S.D.F. detained those who survived in an ad hoc network of prisons for the men and camps for the women and children, expecting that the countries the fighters and their families had come from would take them back. But most countries have refused, leaving the detainees languishing for years in squalid, dangerous camps and makeshift prisons, with no legal recourse.
Tens of thousands of children, most of them Syrians and Iraqis, live in the area’s two main camps, along with thousands of children of other nationalities, said Ardian Shajkovci, director of the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute, which has researched the issue.
From 200 to 220 children are believed to be in two rehabilitation centers run by the S.D.F.-affiliated administration that governs the area.
The S.D.F. has long resisted providing information about the number of boys in its prisons, but Mr. Shajkovici said there are about 700 in the Hasaka facility and about 35 in another lockup in the city of Qamishli. Most are Syrians and Iraqis, but about 150 are foreigners.
In 2019, when The New York Times first reported on the presence of children in the Hasaka prison, they were dressed in orange jumpsuits and crammed in normal cells near the adult prisoners.
Since then, their conditions have marginally improved, according to aid workers. They were segregated from the adults and moved to their own building on the north side of the compound, where there are three floors with about 15 cells each.
Aid groups have brought them blankets, mattresses, hygiene supplies and clothes. They have communal bathrooms and their own yard where they get regular recreation time.
Over the last 15 months, their number increased to 700 from about 550, aid workers said, when the S.D.F. moved some adolescents from the camps to the prison. In some cases, that meant separating them from their mothers, who remained in the camps.
They were removed for a variety of reasons: some after security incidents, some because the S.D.F. thought they had reached a “dangerous” age, or because of worries they would impregnate women in the camps, according to aid workers and Mr. Shajkovci, the researcher.
Mr. Shami, the S.D.F. spokesman, denied that any boys had been moved from the camps to the prison but said some had been taken to rehabilitation centers because they were at risk of getting radicalized in the camps, where many detainees remain steadfast supporters of the caliphate.
He called all the boys in the prison “cubs of the caliphate,” the name ISIS used for children trained to fight, and said they had been captured in ISIS bases and could have been trained to carry out suicide bombings.
Mr. Nylund of UNICEF acknowledged that some of the boys could have played roles in combat but said it was difficult to determine each child’s background and that some had clearly been too young to fight. None of the boys have been charged with a crime or seen a judge.
And none of those circumstances mitigated the danger to the boys now, Mr. Nylund said.
“These children are at very close risk of falling both as targets in the crossfire and potentially being re-recruited or recruited for the first time and ending up in the hands of ISIS,” he said.
“We are calling on all parties to save the lives of these children, with a cease-fire, with negotiations, whatever it takes,” said Mehmet Balci, the founder and co-director of Fight for Humanity, a human rights group, who visited the prison three times.
Mr. Balci’s organization began a project last year to do individual assessments of the boys to provide them with educational, recreational and psychological support, he said in an interview.
His group had hired staff, purchased equipment, made plans for TV rooms for the boys and conducted two training sessions with the prison staff about child protection.
The ISIS attack had put everything on hold.
Mr. Balci said the project could have made a bad situation for the boys a little better, but without changing what he saw as the fundamental injustice.
“These children should not have been there,” he said. “This is not their place.”
Jane Arraf contributed reporting from Baghdad.