The Kids of the Islamic State: A Childhood Stolen

Families as they tried to escape from Baghouz, the last Syrian town under the control of the Islamic State to fall. The IS leaders escaped, leaving behind almost 25,000 of their followers. Credit: Jewan Abdi/ IPS
Families as they tried to escape from Baghouz, the last Syrian town under the control of the Islamic State to fall. The IS leaders escaped, leaving behind almost 25,000 of their followers. Credit: Jewan Abdi/ IPS
  • by Jewan Abdi (hassake, syria)
  • Inter Press Service

IPS spoke to her inside the small tent where she has spent the last five years with her two children at Roj camp. At 780 km northeast of Damascus, it holds around 3,000 individuals with alleged links to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IS).

This transnational Jihadist group managed to set up an unrecognised quasi-state. By the end of 2015, the self-proclaimed caliphate ruled an area with an estimated population of 12 million people living under an extreme interpretation of Islamic Law.

After an intense conflict mainly with Kurdish forces backed by Washington, IS lost control of all its Middle Eastern territories in the Spring of 2019. Rozana and her two children were then captured in Baghouz, the last village under the Islamists´ rule to fall.

Since then, a tent where a few toys and books are stored in a separate corner has been the closest thing to a home for her and her children.

“This is no childhood for them,” says Rozena. “They’re missing the most basic things: from fresh air to clean water, not to mention a proper school…”

Some, however, have managed to escape from the camp since it was established. “I know people who have paid up to 15,000 USD but I don't have such an amount. My only chance to leave this place with my two kids is to be repatriated”, says Rozena.

But Guyana is one of the countries that refuses to repatriate its nationals. Rozana says she's tried “absolutely everything” with her government, but that there's been no reaction so far. “My kids are certainly not a threat, and neither am I,” she insists.

She also fears that they might get radicalised inside the camp. “Half of the people here still stick to IS’s radical ideology. I can teach my kids the best I can, but they will learn other things from playing with other kids,” explains the captive.


Although some Syrian citizens have been taken to court in Syria’s northeast for alleged links with IS, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) lacks international recognition and, hence, is unable to try foreign individuals.

Figures shared with IPS by the AANES point to over 31,000 children from families once linked with IS still under their custody. Many are born out of forced marriages or rape. Most of them languish in Al Hol camp, in the outskirts of Hassake.

At 655 Km northeast of Damascus, it's a vast area for thousands of makeshift tents battered by the relentless rains during winter and burning sunshine during summer.

In conversation with IPS, Al Hol camp director Jihan Hanan says there are people from 50 different nationalities. But the kids pose a major source of concern.

“We have only two schools for them, but not all the children are attending these centres, especially the ones from 12 to 18 years old. They´re the most vulnerable here in the camp and many radicalised women trying to brainwash them,” explains Hanan.

She also points to “deadly attacks” in the past. “We had to conduct special security operations. Today the attacks are limited to thefts and threats, and they target NGOs too,” adds the official.

According to her, IS sleeping cells inside the camp are posing a major threat. “They are the most dangerous groups, and they are always approaching the children to recruit them,” she warns.

A taste of home

Repatriation to their countries of origin is seemingly the only way out for many. US State Department sources point to more than 3,500 repatriated to 14 countries as of 2023.

A 2022 study conducted by Human Rights Watch gathering the experiences of more than 100 children revealed that most of them are attending school, with many excelling in their studies. 82 percent of survey respondents described the child’s emotional and psychological well-being as “very good” or “quite good.”

“Notwithstanding the ordeals they survived both under IS and subsequently in captivity in the northeast Syrian camps, many are reintegrating successfully in their new communities,” concludes the report.

Sweden is one of the countries that has repatriated most of their citizens in 2022. But policies changed after the arrival to power of a new government allied with the far right, in September 2022.

“These people chose to go there to join IS, one of the cruellest terrorist organisations we have seen, so there's no obligation on the part of Sweden and the Swedish government to act for these people to come home,” the Swedish foreign affair minister Tobias Billström said in an interview with Swedish TV4 on March 13.

But not everyone agrees. Repatriate The Children is a Swedish NGO working and advocating to send children home. “It's a purely political decision to leave these children there and not repatriate them,” RTC co-founder and spokesperson Natascha Rée Mikkelsen tells IPS over the phone from Copenhagen.

“They have already experienced things that no child should see, like war, unsafety, no proper education or no access to proper health care. By leaving them stranded in this environment, the risk of being part of IS ideology remains high,” adds the human rights advocate.

“If we don't help these children, I cannot imagine how their lives will be in the future. And this is not only the Kurdish administration’s responsibility,” stresses Mikkelsen, who also labels the constant Turkish airstrikes as “one of the region’s main destabilising factors.”

The AANES has repeatedly stated that they lack the resources to cater for these thousands of families. Top United Nations officials have also called on governments to repatriate their nationals from the camps.

“Every country should take care of their citizens, especially the women and the children,” Abdulkarim Omar, the representative of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria to Europe, tells IPS over the phone from Brussels.

“We believe it is going to be a long process, that’s why we urge the countries to help us, especially with their citizens,” adds the Kurdish official, who also highlights the need to improve the conditions of alleged IS prisoners under Kurdish custody.

When asked about the possibility of the outside world ignoring the problem, Omar is blunt: “If no action is taken in the short term, we are soon to face a whole new generation of terrorists that will be a threat to all the world.”

© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service