ISIS children living in a rehabilitation centre in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria are slowly learning how to live a normal life.
“I dreamed of being a great boxer like Denis Lebedev, Russia’s most famous boxer,” said Nicolai as he recounts how he quit his homeland for Syria six years ago.
When Nicolai’s father chose to join ISIS in 2014, he travelled with his family from the cold of Russia’s Saratov to the hotbed that is the Syrian conflict. The family first flew to Istanbul and made the journey by land to the border city of Antakya. Afterwards, they were smuggled to the Syrian city of Idlib. The father dreamed of achieving an illusion. The family soon lost contact with him as he surrendered to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) during ISIS’ last stand in Syria in the battle of Baghouz in March 2019.
Nicolai, his mother and siblings soon found themselves seeking refuge at the sprawling al-Hol displacement camp in Syria.
“My father heard about the ‘caliphate’ on the internet and decided to join it,” Nicolai told Asharq Al-Awsat. “My mother agreed to travel with him. I was only 10 at the time and didn’t understand what was happening.”
According to Nicolai, his father worked at a reception department for ISIS where foreigners and displaced were received and their documents processed. The mother stayed at home and the family moved around from one Syrian city to the other, including al-Tabqa, Raqqa and the towns of the northern Deir Ezzor countryside.
While living in ISIS-held territories, Nicolai witnessed indescribable brutality at a very young age. “Months after our arrival, I was leaving a mosque when the imam told us to gather in al-Tabqa’s square. There, they killed and beheaded a detainee. The corpse was later hung. It was the first time I witness such an atrocity,” he recalled.
This was one of many horrific images that are seared into his memory. ISIS also sought to terrorise the locals with its harsh rulings and field executions, which it carried out in public squares.
ISIS had swept through Iraq and Syria, seizing large swathes of territory and imposing its harsh rule before being driven out completely in spring 2019.
Nicolai, with some 120 children whose ages range between 12 and 17 years old, now spend their days at the al-Ahdath prison in the town of Tall Marouf in Qamishli in the northeastern most point in Syria. The facility is a rehabilitation centre overseen by the autonomous authority in northern and eastern Syria. The detainees, former members of the so-called “cubs of the caliphate”, spend their days receiving lessons and vocational training.
Director of the Houri Centre for the Protection and Education of Children, Sarah Afrini, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the facility is divided into a section for children of ISIS fighters. It currently houses between 70 and 130 children from 17 countries. The second section is dedicated to children – currently around 50 – who have committed crimes and hail from northeastern Syria. The centre receives children between the ages of 12 and 17. When the turn 18, they are usually transferred to the prison where ISIS fighters are held. A new batch of children is then admitted to the centre.
Each child is given his own bedroom, equipped with an air conditioner and surveillance camera. The children are barred from using the internet, mobile phones or tablets.
Widodo, 17, came to Syria from Indonesia with his father. He joined the “cubs of the caliphate” in early 2015 just days after arriving in Syria. He explained that he was eager to join the group when he realised that many Indonesians were also members. “I believed that I would earn an education that I was forced to abandon when my father decided to join the organisation,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.
They ended up living in one of the world’s harshest conflict zones.
Widodo’s life changed when his mother fell ill after she could not tolerate living in Syria. “I was forced to quit the faction and remained home. People thought I had lost my mind.”
He will soon be transferred to the prison holding ISIS fighters. He spent two years of rehabilitation at the centre. Two younger sisters, residing in al-Hol camp, and his father, who is detained by the SDF, are all that remain of his family.
Afrini told Asharq Al-Awsat that the majority of the children are usually illiterate when they arrive at the centre. Instead of teaching them how to read, ISIS made them sit through lessons on ideology and weapons training. “The greatest challenge is how to eliminate such ideology and introduce them to knowledge, learning and music and return them to a normal life,” she said.
She said that progress has indeed been achieved. “We are talking here about children who dreamed of becoming fighters or suicide bombers. They were forced to see the world as black, now, they must see all the colours,” she added. Syrian children are more receptive to the rehabilitation program than foreigners, she revealed. “The children’s only sin is that they are here through the fault of one of their parents.”