IRBIL, Iraq — An estimated 148 Kurdish students kidnapped by Islamic militants in northeastern Syria while traveling to their final exams in late May remain in the hands of the extremists, who are subjecting the children to intensive attempts to radicalize them, leaving parents concerned that some of the students will join the radicals.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which has since taken over large swaths of northern and central Iraq, abducted more than 600 children on May 30 as they attempted to travel from Kurdish villages along the Turkish border to the rebel held portions of Aleppo for their final exams. After releasing hundreds of female students and the younger children, the militants kept 150 older boys with the promise they would all be released after a ten-day period of Islamic instruction.
Kurdish self-defense forces and militias associated with the Kurdish Workers Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PKK, regularly battle ISIS along a series of strategic frontlines in the area and both sides have regularly taken prisoners, which, according to the PKK spokesman in Qamishli, could mean that ISIS plans to demand ISIS prisoners held by the Kurds in exchange for the students.
“We are waiting for their demands to determine if there should be a prisoner swap,” said Raydour Khalil in a telephone interview. “The self-defense forces are doing what they can to gain the release of the children.”
But Kurdish journalist Multu Civiroglu says that the families he has interviewed fear the worst after two students were released after five days to deliver messages and phone numbers.
“On June 5th ISIS released two students,” he said by email. “Those two students were given a phone number so that families can contact their children. (they said) ISIS takes care of students and feed them well. Children are “educated” daily by ISIS about how to pray and Sharia. They are also forced to pray five times a day. There is a common idea in Kobane that ISIS is trying to recruit children to join ISIS and Jihad.”
Parents who have called the number in an effort to contact their children say that both ISIS and their children ask them to start political demonstrations against the PKK and its Syrian self-defense force militias, know by their Kurdish acronym as the YPG.
This, say the families, who did not want to be identified for fear of both ISIS and the Kurdish authorities, has raised tensions within the town of Kobane, where most of the abducted children are from. Authorities are trying to manage widespread horror and outrage in a community terrified about the fate of so many children.
Human Rights Watch released a report last week accusing the YPG and PKK military and political groups of a litany of human rights abuses against the Arab population of northern Syria, which it is competing against for territory in civil war-torn Syria, and against ISIS prisoners and even Kurdish political dissidents.
Although ISIS had promised to release the students after 10 days of Islamic instruction, no releases since June 5th have taken place, and parents who have spoke to their children say they’re deeply concerned that some of the kids are becoming radicalized after weeks of lectures on the need for Muslims to engage in Jihad.
“It seems like ISIS is trying to use the children as a bargaining chip to pressure YPG,” said Civiroglu. “Families also worry that their children may be brainwashed and used in suicide attacks. Human Rights Minister in Kobane Canton, Hersho Faruq Shahin, on Thursday told me on the phone that ISIS considers those children as prisoners and wants to use them to secure release of their members who are in YPG custody. He added that despite numerous attempts to get those children released, their efforts brought no result yet.”