A new report by Human Rights Watch claims that ISIS militants abducted, tortured and abused Kurdish children from the Syrian city of Kobani.
The children, aged 14 to 16, were among 153 Kurdish boys whom ISIS abducted on May 29, 2014, as they traveled from Aleppo to Kobani.
The report reveals that they endured repeated beatings with cables, “as well as being forced to watch videos of ISIS beheadings and attacks.”
“Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, children have suffered the horrors of detention and torture, first by the Assad government and now by ISIS,” said Fred Abrahams, special adviser for children’s rights at Human Rights Watch.
The Syrian government and ISIS are both committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, U.N. investigators said in their most recent report.
Nadim Houry, the deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch, spoke to Syria Deeply about the alleged abuse and what the rise of ISIS means for Syrian human rights.
Syria Deeply: U.N. reports claim ISIS is systematically committing war crimes. Who is being targeted by ISIS and why?
Houry: We’ve documented arrests, torture, persecution and disappearances of different categories of people who oppose ISIS. Some include minorities, like the Yazidis in Iraq, and other Arab-Sunnis that opposed their rule. The two infamous and gravest violations were against the Shaitat tribe in eastern Deir Ezzor and another tribe in Iraq because they opposed and fought against ISIS. We’ve also documented disappearances of activists and civic leaders in Raqqa during the process of taking over the town last year. Recently we issued a report on abuses against Kurds.
Syria Deeply: Why did ISIS single out and target Kurdish children?
Houry: ISIS has taken and kidnapped different people before. It’s not clear why they kidnapped these children. They bargained some of them for ISIS fighters held by YPG, the Kurdish Armed Forces. The children were driving through ISIS-controlled territory, from Aleppo to Kobani, which made them easy prey, and were kidnapped in May, before the current fighting. The children were used to put pressure on the YPG. They eventually released all the students after the ill treatment we documented over many months.
Syria Deeply: What kinds of conditions were the children exposed to?
Houry: The children were held in an abandoned school in the town of Minbij. They were separated into different rooms, so it was a form of forced confinement. It increased into full detention mode after some children tried to escape. The children had to take compulsory religious education classes, as well as forced to watch ISIS films of them fighting, which included films of beheadings and attacks. Children that did not obey or were seen as opposing ISIS were beaten and a number of them were tortured. ISIS used electric cables to beat the children on the soles of their feet and backs. One of the children we spoke to said they put children in tires, a very typical torture method in Syria where they immobilize someone by putting them in a tire with their feet exposed so that they can beat them on the soles of their feet.
Syria Deeply: Your report says: “The ill treatment of children inflicted by ISIS has to be understood within the broader picture of the tragedy of the conflict that has affected children.” How have children been exposed to abuse at the hands of all parties in conflict?
Houry: We documented arrests and torture of children by Syrian government forces from the early days of the protests in Syria in 2011. This has continued. Kids are being held with adults in the same atrocious circumstances. There have been attacks on schools by government forces, airstrikes, shelling and also attacks that include car bombs and shelling by groups opposed to the government. We’ve documented the militarization of schools being used by fighters of different sides as barracks, which denies the children the ability to go to school and also makes schools a dangerous place for learning. We’ve seen the use of child soldiers. ISIS has a systematic process in place to brainwash kids and to train and turn them into fighters. Other groups are also doing this.
Syria Deeply: We have heard reports of Yazidi being abducted and sold into slavery. How are women being treated under ISIS rule?
Houry: They are imposing their strict interpretation of sharia law on women. It includes forced full covering of women, restrictions on their movements and basic freedoms. When it comes to Yazidi, there have been even more grave violations of their rights. Not only are they holding hundreds of Yazidi men, women and kids, but they are actually separating the young women and teenage girls from their families and forcing many of them to marry their fighters. They are forcing Yazidi women to convert, raping and sexually abusing them.
We had some Yazidi women saying ISIS fighters were “buying and trading girls.”
Syria Deeply: The U.N. has passed two resolutions aimed at curbing support for ISIS. How are these resolutions being implemented? What more can be done?
Houry: The resolution is an important step forward. The resolution establishes better border controls to restrict the number of foreign fighters making it to ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The airstrikes are trying to weaken revenue sources and reduce military assets. Two things can be done better: understand the root causes that drive radicalization and how to curb that support, and improve the capacity of countries to reduce the fundraising and financial support that may come from them to ISIS.
Syria Deeply: What does the rise of ISIS and its predominant ideology mean, in a broader sense, for Syrian human rights?
Houry: It’s had a devastating impact. Many Syrians are facing two bleak choices: Syrian government barrel bombs, or ISIS’s advance and own brand of horrendous violations from imposing their interpretation of sharia law, to their approach to dealing with minorities or any Sunni-Arabs that don’t agree with them. It’s also made aid delivery much more difficult in parts of Syria under their control. It has made reporting on the Syrian conflict more complicated because of the high risk of kidnapping and violence. It really has contributed dramatically to the worsening of the human-rights situation in Syria. ISIS is committing horrendous violations, in many cases crimes amounting to crimes against humanity and an incredible amount of war crimes.
At the same time, one should keep in mind that there are other actors committing horrendous human-rights violations. It’s important to keep documenting violations taking place by other groups like Shia militias in Iraq, the Syrian government and other non-state actors, from Jabhat al-Nusra to “mainstream” rebel groups.