The boy walked in worn out men’s trainers many sizes too large and stood apart as the fighters searched the cluster of women and children being evacuated from the last ISIS-held territory in Syria on a frigid March winter day.
The fighters were from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US-backed group that until last month was battling the last ISIS fighters holding territory in the Euphrates River valley. The boy was from Aleppo, but like more than 60,000 ISIS supporters and their children hailing from over 40 countries, he had ended up in Baghouz. The farming hamlet near the Iraqi border is where the extremist group had chosen to make its last stand.
The boy spotted a pile of meals the SDF fighters had discarded some time in the past month that they had been screening evacuees in this desolate desert area. He picked up an egg, peeled it and ate it, then he picked up two more and ate them too. Then he opened a plastic styrofoam container and scooped grey mashed potatoes into his mouth. Finally satiated, the boy turned away from the fighters searching the niqab-clad women for weapons, explosives and cellphones, and stared across the windswept plain.
A young SDF fighter saw the boy standing alone and spoke to him in Arabic. The boy told the fighter his name is Mohamed and his age is 12 years old, though he looked younger. His parents were dead, he said. He didn’t know if he had any relatives.
“Your jacket is very big,” the fighter said.
“It is a little big,” he agreed, pulling it tighter around his frail frame.
The fighter gave him a bag of bread and told him: “After an hour we will take you away from here.”
In the weeks since the the SDF declared military victory over ISIS, Syrian Kurdish forces and international NGOs have been struggling to deal with the huge number of people who fled from Baghouz. Among this unpopular and unloved cohort, unaccompanied children like Mohamed are the most vulnerable, most in need of support, and entirely innocent of the sins of their parents. The Syrian Kurds say they are unable to take care of them alone and few countries are rushing to their assistance.
After its rapid expansion across Iraq and Syria in 2014, the caliphate declared by ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi came under a sustained assault from a global coalition. Driven out of Iraq in 2017 and restricted to the Euphrates River valley in eastern Syria by late 2018, civilians under ISIS were forced into an extended retreat that left the dregs of the group surrounded in Baghouz this winter.
When they finally fled the final redoubt, those identified as civilians – nearly all women and children – were taken in trucks to Al Hol, a squalid tent city 200 kilometres to the north. The women arrived with only what they could carry, the children clothed in castoff garments.
Kurdish authorities denied The National permission to visit the overcrowded camp recently, but aid agencies report that conditions are dire, particularly for children who have been living in deprivation for so long.
At least 100 children have died either en route to Al Hol, or shortly after arriving there, according to the International Rescue Committee. Most of those who died suffered from treatable ailments, including pneumonia and hypothermia. Nearly a third of children screened by Save the Children were suffering from acute malnutrition, the aid organisation said.
The nearest hospital is two hours away by rutted roads and is so crowded that it only accepts the most severe cases. Photos from the facility show grubby infants with bulging eyes lying in rows of cots in crowded wards. Staff say most are infested with lice and scabies and many are wounded from bombings. Others are traumatised and mute.
The nationalities of some are unknown. Others have, or are entitled to, foreign citizenship.
At least 3,704 foreign-born children were taken into ISIS territory, according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. Many more were born under the caliphate and their births were never officially registered. An unknown number were killed in the fighting.
In a chaotic environment where Kurdish forces and international NGOs have found themselves stretched to their limits, even getting an accurate count of the children is difficult. Few children have identification papers, meaning aid agencies are reliant on what people in the camp tell them. “You can never tell if the information given to us is actually factual or not,” said Sara Al Zawqari, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who visited Al Hol recently.
There are at least 6,972 foreign children at Al Hol camp, according to Save the Children. Of those, 3,397 are under five years old. They represent more than 40 nationalities, not including Iraqis, who the organisation counted separately. Among them are 355 unaccompanied children.
So far, western governments have been slow to repatriate their children or refused their return outright.
Germany has repatriated fewer than 10 children, the country's foreign ministry said on April 5. Last month, France repatriated five orphaned children, and is dealing with other returns on a case-by-case basis.
The British government insists that the camps where children are held are too dangerous to reach. But the ICRC says it is willing to help repatriate children if it receives an official request.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last month that he would not send officials to help repatriate three orphaned Australian children. “I’m not going to put one Australian life at risk to try and extract people from these dangerous situations,” Mr Morrison told reporters.
Last month, the Danish government announced that it will not recognise the children of ISIS members as Danish nationals. “They are born to parents who have turned their backs on Denmark, and therefore should not belong in Denmark,” Integration Minister Inger Stojberg told Danish Radio.
It is a situation that has outraged humanitarian actors.
“No child should be left to die slowly from a preventable disease or have their future written off when their life has barely begun,” Helle Thorning-Schmidt, former Danish prime minister and chief executive of Save the Children, said last month.
“Governments around the world must step up and take responsibility for the lives of children of their respective nationalities.”
After visiting Al Hol in March, the ICRC’s Fabrizio Carboni described the overcrowded camp as an apocalyptic scene. “We’re leaving hundreds of obviously innocent children there,” the agency’s regional director for the Middle East said. “Hundreds of kids are alone in this hellish place.”
He had a message for foreign governments whose citizens are languishing in the camp: “What have these kids done? Nothing… For states who have nationals in Al Hol: you have to remember the best interests of these children.”
The repatriation of foreign children needs to be accelerated, Kurdish authorities say. "Huge numbers of kids need rehabilitation," the Kurdish administration's top foreign affairs official AbdulKarim Omar said, adding that his administration lacked the resources to do so. "If not, they are ticking time bombs."
Save the Children has been working in the camps for the past year and a half and the group’s Syria director Sonia Khush says she is disappointed by the lack of interest in saving the most innocent of ISIS’ victims.
"We were hoping that governments would be more proactive with taking these children back but that hasn't really happened," Ms Khush told The National. "I appeal to foreign governments to enable these children to have a normal life back home, they are victims and they've done nothing wrong. They have rights just like other citizens do."
With appropriate help, these children can be saved, Juliette Touma, Unicef’s head of communications for the Middle East region, says.
“The good thing about this story is that there is hope,” she said. “If they are given the assistance they need, they can recover.”