“Blueberry,” 14-year-old Ahmed Bilal says with a smile as he reminisces about his old life in the United States. “I’ve never seen blueberries in Syria.”
Bilal came to Syria at the age of 8. At that time, he didn’t know why.
Now, she is locked up in the Huri center in the country’s northeast, the foreign sons of IS terrorists who have been abandoned by their home countries. Their fathers are all missing, in jail or dead.
Bilal says he is Turkish-American and has never been charged with any crime.
Jager Kameshlo, the center’s director, says the Huri Center has more than 100 boys from 22 countries, and some as young as 12. He says the staff is careful in calling it a “school” and that the boys take classes in math, science, English and Arabic.
However, the main point of the center is to prevent the boys from becoming terrorists when they grow up. When the boys turn 18, they are somehow transferred to the prison.
Kameshlow acknowledges this sad state of affairs for the boys who did not choose Syria or IS; But he blames his home countries, which have often ignored calls to collect their citizens from camps and detention centers across the region.
“We are carrying the weight of 25 countries on our shoulders alone,” he says.
Bilal hopes that his relatives in America will find a way to bring him back. He misses school, hamburgers and the weekly family barbecue. He says that he doesn’t see how anyone can think of him as a criminal, no matter what his father did.
“It’s not my choice whether I come or not,” he says, fidgeting with his hands and looking at the ground.
swept away from al-hol camp
Like most of the boys at the centre, Bilal was brought here from the al-Hol camp, which houses about 60,000 women and children. They are the family of IS militants who fought in Baghouz, the battle that ended IS’s territorial rule in early 2019.
One day, about two months ago, says Bilal, he was going to the market in Al-Hol, and the guards asked him to come with them. “They said, ‘You’re going to a good place with PlayStation,'” Bilal explains. He laughs again, looking around to see where they actually brought him.
In al-Hol, women openly preach extremism, and the self-proclaimed Hesba, or religious police, enforce strict IS rules. Children insult journalists, threaten and throw stones at them, and some whisper their plans to become mujahideen, or Islamic State warriors.
“In the camp, women live under IS,” explains Farhad Shami, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, the semi-autonomous region’s main military force. “Those who break these laws are killed. Every month we see one or two people killed by IS women.”
More than 70 people have been murdered in al-Hol since January.
When boys are between 12 and 14 years old, they are taken from the camp without their mother’s consent or often without her knowledge.
“He didn’t return to the tent that night,” says a woman from Al-Hol Camp Market. She is an ethnic Uighur from China who calls herself Aisha.
Women in Al-Hol are wary of journalists and refuse to discuss most topics. But when the case of missing sons comes to the fore, they talk among themselves and demand answers. Ayesha says, “Every mother has tears in her eyes.”
In between, Bilal’s eyes also tear when he is asked if he remembers his father, who was killed in Baghouz. His mother and sisters are in al-Hol and al-Roz, another camp that houses foreign IS families. His elder brother is in jail.
As a young child in Raqqa, the de facto capital of IS, he remembers that his family had a large private garden with pomegranate trees, and hears the sound of bombs. Now at the Hori Center, he gets occasional calls from his mother.
The call is short, he says, because his mother is afraid to raise the suspicion of the religious police by speaking in English on the phone.
“They tell us not to think about ISIS stuff here,” Bilal says, shaking his head. “They say just imagine how much you want to go home.”
‘Threat to the world’
According to Shami of the SDF, adult prisons in northeast Syria are also filled with 12,000 suspected IS militants from 55 countries. The prisoners were never charged with a crime or prosecuted, and the buildings in which they were held were schools or government offices, not prisons.
Guards call the situation “a ticking time bomb”, with IS sleeper cells waiting for their chance to escape to the outside. Last month, the SDF discovered a car bomb outside a prison and detonated it before killing anyone.
“It is a threat to our region,” says Shami. “But it is also a threat to the world.”
Like other officials, Shami says the solution for adult prisoners would be an international court established in Syria. “Don’t the victims and their families here deserve justice?” he asks.
But for the boys at the Hori Center, Kameshlow says, the only real solution for their governments is to take them back. Syrian boys can be prosecuted for crimes and either sentenced to prison or sent home. But there is no future for the alien boys outside of endless captivity.
In the center there is a green courtyard lawn which is surrounded on four sides by a low building. Most of the rooms have bunk beds on the walls. In addition to classes, there are some activities, such as crafts, board games, and mandatory morning exercises. Football games are sometimes played.
Armed guards also patrol the roofs, which are secured with razor wire.
Bilal says his main focus at the center is to try not to forget how to speak proper English, as classes are taught in Arabic. He has family in America, he says, and he is waiting for them to come.
Another boy, 16-year-old Mohamed, has been there for two years and has less optimistic goals. “They call it a school, but it’s a prison,” says Mohamed.
Bilal seems distraught by the idea, but quietly agrees. “Yeah, I think we’re in jail.”