Kurdish forces continue to recruit school children as child soldiers, despite a public pledge not to do so, according to witnesses and relatives.
It had previously emerged that the Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s military wing – the Public Protection Units – had been recruiting at schools under their control since the start of 2014. Later the same year, Human Rights Watch also issued a damning report on the many groups involved in the fighting that recruit child soldiers.
In response, the chief of the Public Protection Units in the al-Jazira area of northern Syria, Kanaan Barakat, told Human Rights Watch that the recruitment of children was unacceptable. If it was happening, he said, it was not the party’s policy.
“The Kurdish security forces in Afrin, Ain al-Arab [Kobani] and al-Jazira areas disapprove of the recruitment of children for fighting and for checkpoints. Some children had volunteered and their enrollment in any military activities is a matter of individual mistakes,” he said.
People in the area, however, say they still see child soldiers regularly.
Yasser al-Hassan, 46, an engineer in the oil fields of Rmelan, a town in the northeastern al-Hassakah Governorate, told Syria Deeply that armed boys and girls man checkpoints between al-Qamishli and Rmelan.
“Many children died at the fronts in Ras al-Ein, Yarubia and Hassakeh,” he said, adding that he had personally attended the funerals of a number of child soldiers.
“The recruitment is still ongoing under the excuse of defending the area and claims these children volunteered by themselves. But that’s not true, because most teachers in schools are members of the Public Protection Units and they brainwash children and convince them that joining and fighting with them is a sacred matter and that everyone must volunteer to fight with the units.”
Al-Hassan continued, “Many of my friends and family members left Syria for either Iraq or to Turkey just to prevent their children from being recruited, either by the teachers or by other children fighting in the Public Protection Units who try to convince their friends to join.
“Other children only join to make some money because their families need money due to their financial situation after four years of war,” he said.
In June 2014, an Arabic report by the Violations Documentation Centre, a monitoring group, said it had documented the deaths of 223 children under the age of 18 who were fighting with different opposition groups, including those fighting not only for the Kurds but also for ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic Front.
Human Rights Watch, in its report entitled “‘Maybe We Live and Maybe We Die’: Recruitment and Use of Children by Armed Groups in Syria,” shortly thereafter demanded a halt to the use of child soldiers by all sides in the conflict and warned that countries financing these groups could be prosecuted. The report featured the stories of 25 children, who spoke in detail about their recruitment by armed groups.
Syria Deeply earlier this year also detailed the recruitment of child soldiers by ISIS.
Muhammad Taj al-Deen, 37, a tailor in al-Qamishli city, told Syria Deeply that his 14-year-old nephew was killed last December fighting on behalf of the Public Protection Units near Abu Qassab village, in southern al-Qamishli. The boy was killed with nine other students while fighting with the units against ISIS, he said.
“My nephew, Butan Taj al-Deen … dropped out when he was in elementary school due to the lack of teaching staff … [he] wasn’t good at school so when he quit his parents didn’t care much and they sent him to work in the vegetable market in town, which is ruled by party members. Every day he brought back with him lots of vegetables and 200 Syrian liras (about one dollar).
“It was a very good salary so his family didn’t pay much attention to the threat their son was under. We later heard he joined the Public Protection Unit.
”We didn’t take this seriously and his family thought he was just going to guard the market along with other members of the party, but three months later we received the news of his death.
“I still can’t believe he was killed. I have no idea how he and his younger friend Hassan Ibrahim joined the party together and both got killed together too. How could a 13- or a 14-year-old child carry weapons and fight? And when did the Protection Units manage to train them enough to take them to the fronts?
“What happened with Butan and his friend Hassan is a crime. How could it be that children are recruited and taken to fighting fronts, dragged to a certain death against highly experienced fighters of terrorist organizations?”