NORTHEASTERN SYRIA — The prisoners cover the floor like a carpet of human despair. Many are missing eyes or limbs, some are bone-thin from sickness, and most wear orange jumpsuits similar to what the Islamic State, the terrorist group they once belonged to, dressed its own captives in before it killed them.
Upstairs, jammed into two cells with little sunlight, are more than 150 children — ages roughly 9 to 14 — from a range of countries. Their parents brought them to Syria and ended up dead or detained. The children have been here for months and have no idea where their relatives are or what the future holds.
“I have a question,” said a boy from Suriname inside his cell. “What is going to happen to us? Are the kids going to come out?”
Rare visits to two prisons for former residents of Islamic State-held territory in northeastern Syria by The New York Times this week laid bare the enormity of a growing legal and humanitarian crisis that the world has largely chosen to ignore.
As the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate collapsed in Syria, tens of thousands of men, women and children who had lived in it ended up in squalid camps and crowded prisons run by the Kurdish-led militia that had partnered with the United States to defeat the jihadis.
But now that a military incursion by Turkey against Kurdish forces has set off a new wave of violence and weakened their control over the area, uncertainty has grown over the fate of the huge population of people who survived the toppling of the Islamic State and have been warehoused since then in prisons and detention camps.
Most of their home countries have refused to take them back, fearing that they harbor extremist thoughts or could carry out attacks. So their governments have instead chosen to leave them in the custody of a Kurdish-led force that lacks the resources to house, feed and protect them, much less to investigate the adults and provide the children with education and rehabilitation.
Little about the minors’ conditions in the Kurdish-run prison appeared to meet international standards that, even for suspected criminals, prioritize children's well-being, consider detention a last resort and require specialized physical and emotional care.
One crowded cell held 86 minors — from Syria, Iraq, Mauritius, Russia and elsewhere. Another held 67 adolescents and a boy who said he was 9 and from Russia.
When asked where his parents were, he shrugged and said, “They got killed.”
Later, he asked of his captors, “Why don’t they bring us fruit?”
The confusion surrounding the detainees has only grown since President Donald Trump started pulling US forces out of the area, a decision that cleared the way for Turkey to begin its assault on America’s pivotal allies in the war against the Islamic State in Syria.
Prison crowding has increased because Kurdish fighters, who are viewed as a threat by Turkey, moved hundreds of prisoners away from the border to facilities farther from the battle zone, Kurdish officials said. And fighters who worked as prison guards have slipped off to the front lines to fight the Turks, leaving the facilities more vulnerable to prisoner uprisings or attacks by the Islamic State to free its comrades.
“We are 100% sure that if they have the opportunity to escape from the prison, it will be very dangerous for us,” said Can Polat, an assistant warden at a prison with more than 5,000 men. “Holding these people here is not only a danger for Syria, it is a danger for the whole world.”
The detention crisis in northeastern Syria is a bleak byproduct of the war against the Islamic State.
As the terrorist group was rolled back, losing its last patch of territory in Syria in March, Kurdish fighters found themselves in charge of about 11,000 men and tens of thousands of women and children. Many of them were foreigners, from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Arab world, and most of their countries refused to take them home, even to put them on trial, much less integrate them into society.
So with help from a US-led international coalition, the Kurds established camps and a prison system, housing detainees in former government prisons they had taken over and in makeshift lockups in schools and other facilities.
Polat’s prison is a converted industrial institute that holds more than 5,000 people. One-quarter of them are Syrians, the rest hailing from 29 other countries, including Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, the Netherlands and the United States.
The facility opened around the collapse of the Islamic State in Syria, which caused such an influx of prisoners that many were given orange jumpsuits provided by the coalition to replace their old clothes, Polat said.
Since the Islamic State often dressed its captives in orange before killing them, many of the captives gasped when they saw the new outfits, thinking they were about to be killed, too.
The Kurdish guards assumed that most of the men had been fighters and still followed the Islamic State’s ideology, but the prisoners themselves played down their roles in the world’s most fearsome terrorist organization.
A Palestinian man with a broken leg said he had come to Syria because he “wanted to help.” A mechanic from Trinidad said he had not fought because he had been too busy fixing cars. A tall, muscular Russian said he had been a cook — in an elementary school.
In dozens of interviews in two prisons, no one admitted to being a fighter.
Most wanted to return to their countries or hoped to get amnesty for renouncing the Islamic State.
“There are some who say, ‘I was a fighter and will continue on that path,’ and others who say, ‘No, I was tricked,’” said Basil Karazoun, who said he had joined the terrorist group for protection after defecting from the Syrian military.
Like most of the prisoners, he feared being handed over to Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, whose forces have been accused of widespread abuse and killings of detainees. After Trump announced that he was pulling troops out of Syria, the Kurds — worried about being overrun by Turkey once the Americans abandoned them — announced that they had reached an agreement to allow Syrian government forces into the area.
“It’s a fact that if we fall into the regime’s hands, there will be mass executions,” he said. “That is how the regime thinks.”
Another cell in the prison held 99 men, most of whom had lost limbs, including Abdelhamid al-Madioum, who described himself as an American who had lived near Minneapolis.
In an interview, he said that he had worked at a Jamba Juice in high school, that his best friends were an atheist and a Christian, and that he had been studying engineering before joining the Islamic State in Syria, where he had hoped to study medicine.
But a few months after he arrived, he said, he was hit by an airstrike that shattered his body and tore off his right arm. Around the time he was captured by Kurdish fighters this year, he said, his wife was shot dead and he lost track of his two young sons, aged 2 and 4.
“I made a mistake,” he said. “I’ll admit it. I’ll admit it 1,000 times.”
It was unclear why some minors were put in prison, while most of the children of Islamic State fighters and followers have been taken to detention camps. Their cells were crowded, with no free space between their mattresses and blankets. When a guard swung open a hatch on the cell’s door, the children crowded around to peek outside.
Under UN standards for juvenile justice, even minors suspected of crimes should be detained only as “a measure of last resort and for the shortest possible period of time,” pending trial.
While the Islamic State did train boys for combat, it was unclear if that was true of the boys in the prison. None were awaiting trial, because the Syrian Kurdish authorities do not try foreigners.
The UN also says detained juveniles should receive “all necessary individual assistance,” including education, medical care and counseling.
The boys in prison, however, said they received almost no services.
“The situation is pretty bad here, so if they could hurry up and decide,” said a 16-year-old boy from Mauritius. “Months like this without knowing what is going to happen, people could start going crazy. They could say these guys were terrorists before with ISIS, but they are still human.”