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Fueling the Flames of War.. The Plight of Kurdish Children in Northeastern Syria 

Ali Eid – Farhad Ahmed (pseudonym)

Translated by: Nabil Nabo

In the heart of Qamishli, northeastern Syria, the anxious parents of young Kurdish girl, Laura, awaited her return from school. To their shock, she had vanished, drawn into the clutches of a recruitment camp, emerging alongside a group of young girls, gripping a gun in her trembling hand.

Fearful of reprisal, Laura, now anonymous, courageously shares her haunting tale of being thrust into combat camps in 2018 at the tender age of 13. Snatched from the vicinity of her school, she recounts the relentless nightmare that has plagued her ever since.

Laura’s eyes well up as she reflects, “From the moment we arrived, they forced us into military uniforms and captured images of us, depicting us as fighters.” She spent a harrowing four months held captive across three camps, each housing a multitude of girls and boys who had fallen prey to deceitful recruitment tactics.

Laura’s account represents just one of many shocking stories emerging from the systematic recruitment of children in northeastern Syria. These practices take place in hidden enclaves nestled among mountains or remote training centers, where young lives are callously thrust onto the frontlines of combat and death.

The intricate details of these recruitment operations come to light through witness testimonies. While grieving families label these acts as abductions, the armed parties behind them contend that they are executed with the children’s purported consent.

According to a range of testimonies and gathered documentation, Kurdish girls and boys bear the brunt of these recruitment efforts. They are ensnared through the operations of the “Revolutionary Youth Movement” (Joanne Shoreshkar), an entity accused of unwavering loyalty to and association with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). These recruitment activities occur under the auspices of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the military arm of the Autonomous Administration. Various groups affiliated with the Autonomous Administration contribute to these recruitment endeavors.

Inside the recruitment centers, there is an absence of the typical joys of childhood—no games, no music, and no comforting tales. Instead, an alarming amalgamation of ideology, culture, and war propaganda pervades the atmosphere. The tale may conclude with the tragic news of a child’s demise accompanied by a haunting photograph.

Syria Indicator delves into documents while amplifying the voices of child victims and their grieving mothers and fathers. 

The Devastating Truth: When Childhood Becomes a Sacrifice for War

Laura’s voice trembles as she recounts her traumatic experiences, having been taken against her will by individuals affiliated with Gwanin Shoreshkar. “They trained us to wield weapons and filled our minds with political teachings, particularly centered around Siruk Abo,” Laura reveals, referring to Abdullah Ocalan. She further adds that the organization’s members would instruct the girls, saying, “Your entire existence should revolve around war, and your ultimate aspiration should be martyrdom.”

These details confirm the unsettling reality of indoctrinating children, molding them into individuals ready to sacrifice their lives for their leader or on the front lines. Tragically, this ideology claimed the life of Simaf Muhammad Hussein, a child who was kidnapped by “Joanne Shureshkar” and subsequently recruited into the ranks of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In April 2022, Simaf’s death was recorded during a Turkish airstrike on a camp in the Zab district of Kirkuk Governorate, Iraq, known as “Makhmour.” Hailing from the city of Al-Malikiyah in Al-Hasakah Governorate, Simaf was posthumously recognized as a fighter by agencies closely associated with the Labor Party.

The testimonies gathered from families interviewed paint a distressing picture. Their children have been transformed into combatants deployed to the front lines in Syria, Iraq, and border regions adjacent to Turkey.

The “Revolutionary Youth Movement – Joanne Shoreshkar” is an armed group that has been authorized by the “Autonomous Administration” in the northeastern region of Syria. The group is known for being the youth wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and is closely associated with the Internal Security Agency (Asayish). Additionally, the group boasts a women’s faction called the “Young Women’s Union”.

Deceptive Tactics: Kurdish Girls Lured into Combat Training

In a shocking revelation, Laura, a young Kurdish girl, discloses her distressing experience of being enticed with false promises of entertainment and music, only to find herself trapped within the confines of a secluded combat training camp. Meanwhile, Dalal, the sister of Muhammad S., recounts how “Joanne Shoreshkar” employed a young girl to encourage her brother’s involvement in the youth movement, enticing him with financial rewards and the allure of luxury cars. These deceitful attempts persisted for a period of two months.

Dalal (a pseudonym) reveals that her brother, Muhammad, born in 2000, was recruited at the tender age of 15 in September 2015. Initially, his presence was denied, but after 15 days, it was acknowledged that he had been recruited. Dalal shares that he underwent a 40-day training course in the “Dahr al-Arab” area near their city before being transferred to the Qandil Mountains and Şengal “Sinjar” in northern Iraq. His fate remains unknown, with no news of him since that time, and he should now be 22 years old.

Testimonies obtained during the investigation expose how “Joanne Shoreshkar” capitalizes on vulnerable children, deploying agents to monitor them in public parks, neighborhoods, and workshops where children frequent. Through enticing tactics, they persuade youngsters to join their ranks, promising a better life. The legal distinction between kidnapping, deception, and persuasion is negligible, as the focus lies in the recruitment of children into armed forces or their engagement in hostilities. Regardless of the method employed, the outcome remains the same.

Adham Khalil echoes a similar tale of his son, Muhammad, who he asserts was “kidnapped” near their home in Aleppo’s Afrin region. Through restaurant surveillance cameras, the identity of the “kidnappers,” three individuals affiliated with “Joanne Shoreshkar,” was uncovered. Adham recounts his visit to the “Astaro” military headquarters in Afrin, where the camera-monitored personnel admitted his son’s presence but demanded the exchange of one of his infant daughters for Muhammad’s release—an offer he vehemently rejected.

Adham continues his search for his son, revealing that Muhammad has been transferred to a camp associated with the “PKK” in Rumailan, Qamishli. He is now serving in the so-called “Afrin Youth Column.” These distressing accounts shed light on the plight of Kurdish youths, caught up in the web of recruitment amidst ongoing conflict.

Muhammad Adham Khalil, who was kidnapped on December 13, 2016, when he was 15 years old (Exclusive - Syria Indicator)
Muhammad Adham Khalil, who was kidnapped on December 13, 2016, when he was 15 years old (Exclusive – Syria Indicator)
A copy of the family record, the names of the father, mother, and children (3 daughters and Muhammad) - (exclusive - Syria Indicator)
A copy of the family record, the names of the father, mother, and children (3 daughters and Muhammad) – (exclusive – Syria Indicator)

A copy of the family record, the names of theAlmost seven years have passed since Muhammad’s abduction, leaving Adham in the dark about his son’s fate after being enlisted at the tender age of 15.

Ideological Casualties: The Tragic Victims of Belief

Activists and witnesses shed light on the underlying ideological motives driving the recruitment of children, particularly by supporters of the PKK.

Hoshang Ossi, a Kurdish writer and former party member, revealed the justifications sought by Kurdish factions for recruiting children, with the PKK being the foremost promoter of such practices. Ossi personally documented this phenomenon in the northeastern region of Syria.

Farouk Haji Mustafa, director of the “Bergav” Organization for Democratic Development and Media, acknowledged that certain youth are driven by impulse and engage in national struggles to demand their rights. He emphasized the importance of understanding the convictions and aspirations of these youth in relation to existing ideologies.

PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan with Kurdish children carrying weapons (Source: basnews)
PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan with Kurdish children carrying weapons (Source: basnews)

Ossi affirmed that the Workers’ Party serves as the foundational institution behind this approach, with “Joanne Shureshkar,” the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, and the SDF branching out from it.

He extensively documented this approach based on official publications of the Labor Party, The Workers’ Party portrays child recruitment as affiliation, but in reality, it involves kidnapping. This disturbing phenomenon is specific to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Hoshang Osi, a writer and former member of the PKK

He extensively documented this approach based on official publications of the Labor Party, dating back to the 1990s, which included records of children’s births, affiliations, and tragic losses of life during infancy.

Ossi further exposed the Workers’ Party’s discourse on the affiliation of children, highlighting that the reality is one of kidnapping rather than voluntary association. He noted a recent trend wherein the party’s military wing conceals the birthdates of deceased children to obfuscate the fact that they were kidnapped or recruited as minors, thus avoiding scrutiny of their practices.

According to Ossi, PKK actions demonstrate its disregard for the lives of children, and any justifications put forth are ultimately crimes against humanity, irrespective of the underlying ideology.

Child Recruitment: Legal and Ethical Concerns

The recruitment of children poses legal questions regarding its classification. According to legal advice from the “Syrians for Truth and Justice” organization, recruiting children under 15 is classified as a war crime. Recruiting children aged 15 to 18 is considered a violation of international law, as the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibits armed groups from recruiting children under 18. Global efforts are underway to criminalize this practice.

According to Item 26, Paragraph (b) of Article 8 in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, it is considered a war crime to conscript or enlist children under the age of fifteen into national armed forces or involve them in active participation in hostilities. This provision highlights the importance of protecting children from the horrors of war and emphasizes the need to hold accountable those who exploit and endanger their lives in conflict zones.

Farouk Haji Mustafa, director of the “Bercav” Organization for Democratic Development and Media, denied the recruitment of children at the age of 9 but acknowledged the presence of youth between 15 and 17. Mustafa denied such claims considering discussions about younger ages as political exploitation.

However, Mustafa’s statements contradict the findings documented by “Syrians for Truth and Justice.” The investigation uncovered cases such as the abduction of Ibrahim Shawqi Youssef (9) and Muhammad Shawqi Youssef (10) from Aleppo’s Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood for compulsory conscription by the Revolutionary Youth in May 2022. Media pressure led to their release after one day. Another case involved the kidnapping of 13-year-old Lorraine Khaled Hussein from Qamishli, who was forced into recruitment within the ranks of the SDF.

These incidents are not isolated, as dozens of children under the age of 15 were documented to have been recruited in 2021 and 2022. Despite Mustafa’s denial of recruiting children under 15, he acknowledges that children under 18 should not be involved in partisan military or political activities, asserting that their place should be in schools and universities.

Breach of UN Agreement: SDF Violates Commitment to End Child Recruitment

In a significant development in June 2019, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the United Nations reached an agreement to halt and prevent the recruitment of children under the age of eighteen. The action plan, signed by Major General Mazloum Abdi of the SDF and Virginia Gamba, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, took place at the United Nations Headquarters.

The agreement was prompted by the inclusion of the “People’s Protection Units,” a faction operating under the command of the SDF, in the Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict for their involvement in the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers. As part of the plan, the SDF committed to ceasing and preventing the recruitment and use of children, ensuring the dismissal of current child soldiers within its ranks, and implementing measures to prevent and address future instances of child recruitment.

"SDF" leader Mazloum Abdi, and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba, during the signing of the action plan to end and prevent child recruitment at the United Nations headquarters on June 29, 2019. (The official website of the Syrian Democratic Forces)
“SDF” leader Mazloum Abdi, and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba, during the signing of the action plan to end and prevent child recruitment at the United Nations headquarters on June 29, 2019. (The official website of the Syrian Democratic Forces)

“SDF” leader Mazloum Abdi, and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba, during the signing of the action plan to end and prevent child recruitment at the United Nations headquarters on June 29, 2019. (The official website of the Syrian Democratic Forces)

Kidnappings and Recruitments Persist: Investigation Reveals Disturbing Trend

A comprehensive investigation conducted by “Syria Indicator,” in collaboration with human rights organizations and activists, has unveiled a distressing reality: the ongoing kidnapping and recruitment of young girls and boys by the Revolutionary Youth Movement (Joanne Shoreshkar), licensed by the Autonomous Administration authority.

Recent cases brought to light through the joint efforts of the investigation and “Syrians for Truth and Justice” organization involve Hala D. (15 years old) and Muhammad H. (14 years old), both abducted by the Revolutionary Youth in Aleppo’s Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood on January 18 and February 28, 2023, respectively.

Testimonies collected from various regions under the Autonomous Administration indicate a systematic approach to these kidnappings. The investigation, having interviewed families and relatives of 20 victims between 2021 and 2022, cross-referenced their accounts with data obtained from Syrians for Truth and Justice, validating the methodology behind these cases of abduction and recruitment.

Shockingly, the investigation has documented the recruitment of 55 underage girls and 42 boys during the period from 2021 to 2022, bringing the total number of recruited children to 97. Analysis reveals a clear focus on the recruitment of female children, accounting for 56.7% of the abductees, while males represent 43.3%.

These operations, described as recruitment, deception, or even “kidnapping” by affected individuals, have been reported in various regions and cities under the control of the Kurdish Autonomous Administration and its military wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The persistent nature of these incidents demands urgent attention and action to safeguard the rights and well-being of these vulnerable children.

Recruitment Concentration: Aleppo and Al-Hasakah

According to data analysis, recruitment operations targeting children are concentrated in two key governorates under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the military arm of the Autonomous Administration in northeastern Syria. These governorates encompass the majority of territories once held by the “Islamic State” in Syria, including Raqqa and Hasakah, parts of Deir ez-Zor northeast of the Euphrates, areas around Manbij and Ayn al-Arab – Kobani in Aleppo governorate, and the vicinity of Tal Rifaat. This information is based on the latest update from liveuamap‘s control map.

Examining cases of disappearance and “kidnapping” for recruitment purposes, the analysis reveals that the highest number of affected children originates from Aleppo governorate, accounting for 57.7% of cases, followed by Al-Hasakah with a rate of 38.1%. In comparison, the percentage of such cases in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa governorates does not exceed 3%.

 From Laura’s Return to Others’ Rescue: The Search for Missing Youths in Syria

Laura’s family spared no effort in their search for her after learning of her kidnapping and recruitment. They approached her school, relatives, and friends’ families, discovering she had joined the “Revolutionary Youth.” The family embarked on a challenging journey, visiting various centers connected to the group but all centers denied having the girl child and the parents found no trace of Laura.

After enduring four arduous months in the youth camps, Laura was granted a three-day leave. Seizing the opportunity, she reached out to her parents, seeking their help to avoid returning. She revealed the hardships she endured, including early wake-up calls, inadequate food, and indoctrination with thoughts of warfare and death.

Laura’s account aligns with numerous testimonies collected and verified during the investigation. It revealed a pattern: children start in Revolutionary Youth centers, which are associated with the People’s Protection Units under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). From there, they are transferred to camps like Mount Qandil on the Iraq-Iran border or locations near Kirkuk and the Turkish border.

Heartbroken Parents: Victims of Abductions and Denials

Laura’s testimony reveals that she could hear her parents searching for her while she was confined inside the Revolutionary Youth center, with the organization denying her existence. The investigation corroborates this claim by matching testimonies from other families who experienced similar obstacles in meeting their abducted children at the recruitment or training centers operated by Joanne Shoreshkar and affiliated units of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The investigation conducted an audio and video interview with Helen Musa Musa’s father, who recounts the day his 14-year-old daughter was kidnapped in May 2022 by Joanne Shoreshkar members in a public park on her way back from school in Qamishli. Desperate to retrieve his daughter, Musa even threatened to set himself on fire, but he was handed a lighter and challenged to follow through. For a week, the kidnappers withheld information, claiming that Helen was in their custody and refusing to return her.

The public park in Qamishli, where Helen was kidnapped. (exclusive: syria indicator)
The public park in Qamishli, where Helen was kidnapped. (exclusive: syria indicator)

During this ordeal, the family faced further threats and intimidation. Musa recalls how the Asayish police officer, affiliated with the Autonomous Administration, threatened his wife, who suffers from paralysis, with physical harm and summoned her to their branch. The police officer cruelly declared that she would tie her up by her hands and feet. The mistreatment and harsh conditions endured by the family became unbearable, especially considering the loss of their beloved child.

Another testimonial comes from Zilan, the mother of Jihan Saleh Walo, who was kidnapped at the age of 15 from Tal Rifaat by Joanne Shoreshkar’s women’s house in February 2022. Zilan shared a heartbreaking image of her daughter’s toys, meant for play instead of weapons, emphasizing that Jihan left home and never returned.

A picture of Jihan's toys, and her picture with her brother, left (private)
A picture of Jihan’s toys, and her picture with her brother, right (private)


Silent Responses: Responsible Parties Avoid Accountability 

Despite sending a detailed list of questions to the authorities in the Autonomous Administration regarding the recruitment of numerous children by “Joanne Shoreshkar” and its connection to the People’s Protection Units and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), no satisfactory answers have been provided. Riyad Darar, head of the Syrian Democratic Council (MSD), dismissed the questions as baseless accusations without evidence. When presented with documented testimonies from parents, Darar refused to engage further. Similarly, Kanaan Barakat, head of the internal body in the Autonomous Administration, declined to comment and insisted on an in-person meeting. The investigation team also reached out to SDF spokesperson Farhad Shami, but as of now, no response has been received.

Consequences and Recommendations: Upholding Agreements for Child Protection

Despite the passage of more than three years since the agreement between the United Nations and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), child recruitment remains an ongoing issue, as uncovered through the investigation conducted in collaboration with Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ). While some child soldiers have been demobilized, the recruitment operations persist, primarily carried out by the “revolutionary youth,” according to the SDF’s statements.

To address this concerning situation, legal experts emphasize that proving the recruitment of children could lead to the blacklisting of offending groups and subsequent accountability. Syrians for Truth and Justice Director, Bassam Al-Ahmad, outlines the following recommendations for the Autonomous Administration authorities in northeastern Syria and the SDF:

  • Demonstrate full and transparent commitment to the signed agreements aimed at preventing the recruitment and use of children in military operations, including those with Geneva Call in July 2014 and the United Nations in June 2019.
  • Immediately release child soldiers and facilitate their reunification with their families. In cases where vulnerability to domestic violence exists within the family, ensure their transfer to civil authorities for protection.
  • Monitor the functioning of the “Child Protection in Armed Conflict” offices, which should receive complaints related to child recruitment. Impose severe penalties on leaders who violate the prohibition on child recruitment, including those associated with the “Revolutionary Youth Movement” and the “Young Women’s Union.”
  • Dissolve the groups and bodies involved in recruitment operations, specifically the “Revolutionary Youth Movement” and the “Young Women’s Union.” Hold all individuals and entities involved accountable for their actions.

This investigation has been conducted in collaboration with Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ)

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