Escape from Hell Surviving the Horrors of Al-Hawl Camp

A Ticking Time Bomb

Around 60,000 women and children are currently being held captive in al-Hawl and Roj camps in northeast Syria. The largest of these prisons is al-Hawl camp, which was originally established for Iraqi refugees of the 1991 Gulf War.

Between 2019 and 2021, during battles involving the Islamic State (ISIS) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), tens of thousands of people evacuated to the camps, whose numbers rose steadily, especially in the aftermath of ISIS losing their final territorial foothold.

Al-Hawl camp. [Delil Souleiman / AFP via Getty Images file]
The SDF rule the camps and residents are forbidden to leave their confines, effectively making them prison camps. Inadequate shelter lacking protection from the elements, poor sanitation, insufficient access to water and an absence of infrastructure result in conditions described by the UN as inhumane. According to statistics by the World Health Organization (WHO) children make up 65% of the camps’ prisoners,of whom the rest are mainly women. A plenitude of backgrounds and nationalities can be observed within their demographics, although the majority of captives are Iraqi and Syrian nationals.

 Unfit for Habitation

In a 2020 report published by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), al-Hawl was dubbed to be “more like a prison camp” and said to hold tens of thousands of displaced women and children in inhumane conditions. Regarding the nature of these conditions, the report provides details of numerous human rights violations.

It states, “most of the tents are built using a poor, highly flammable type of plastic, which is also ineffective in protecting residents from the harsh climatic conditions that characterize the region.” It further states that fires have broken out resulting in the deaths of “at least nine civilians, including four children and one woman,” between April 2016 and October 2020.

During the same period, 54 civilian killings took place – mostly of children, while the victims were in the custody of the SDF. Such as the murder of Ali Adham Muhammad Khalaf, who was found strangled to death in 2018. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights published an article in November 2022, which detailed the “heinous killing of two young Egyptian girls,” in al-Hawl. The pair of 15-year-olds had been suffering from stigmatization after being raped, a few days prior. They were later found murdered in a sewage ditch with stab wounds.

Children of al-Hawl. [Baderkhan Ahmad / AP file]
The report mentions many inhumane living conditions, including food and drinking water shortages, inadequate sanitation facilities, lack of medical care and lack of access to education. Beyond the aforementioned violations, the SDF has treated “entire sectors of the camp, which include hundreds of people” worse than others, based on unproven allegations of connection to ISIS.

L24 managed to interview Umm Yahya, a 30-year-old Dagestani prisoner in al-Hawl Camp. Issues such as ideology, living conditions and hopes for the future were discussed. She exclaimed, “numerous challenges confront us daily. The most pressing issue is the absence of proper medical care, leaving us vulnerable and without essential treatment.” She summarizes her and her fellow detainees’ state, as one of “profound deprivation.”

Recipe for Disaster

 Mothers held captive in al-Hawl are often stuck between a rock and a hard place, posed with the painful dilemma of either trying to retain custody of their children, or sending them away to secure a better future elsewhere. A common practice of the Kurdish authorities is to take the “boys to normal prisons for adults from the age of 12,” not because of any crimes committed, but because of their parents’ alleged deeds and connections and the fact they happen to be male. Such actions may push these boys towards radicalization.

Umm Yahya relayed, “One of the most agonizing challenges I experienced was the painful separation from my child.” She spoke of sending her son to Russia, in the knowledge she will likely never see him again, as a “heart-wrenching” necessity in order for him to escape the prospect of incarceration, for no sin of his own. She goes on to declare, “children in al-Hawl camp are severely neglected. There is a glaring absence of education and developmental opportunities.” She also voiced fears regarding their growth and potential – “concerns loom large regarding their overall well-being and their prospects for a hopeful future.”

Women walk by in camps holding ISIS female prisoners. [DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images]
When Umm Yahya began to question her ISIS indoctrinated inmates, and change her ideology, they “turned hostile” and the revelation of her rejection of their radicalization was “met with strong rejection in return.” She spoke of a wave of animosity washing over her and concluded, “the response from my fellow inmates was deeply negative, reflecting the immense challenges I faced in breaking away from the group’s beliefs.”

It can be argued that such an environment must be profoundly counter-productive in the rehabilitation of al-Hawl’s detainees and a recipe for disaster for the tens of thousands held captive there. Serious concerns are raised regarding their futures and that of the surrounding region and beyond, if they are further pushed towards a problematic and violent radical ideology, exacerbated by inhumane treatment and indiscriminate suppression.

Escaping the Rot

The SDF’s approach in dealing with their prisoners doesn’t seem to be bearing any fruit. SNHR’s report found that SDF had violated many principles of international human rights law, including arbitrary deprivation of liberty, freedom of movement and the right to education and health care. Detainees were not provided any opportunity to “defend themselves, to know the reasons for their detention, or to challenge them through the opportunity to obtain a fair trial.”

With no end in sight, acceptable living conditions or hope for rehabilitation, detainees are compelled to strive day and night and by whatever means necessary, to secure their futures. For some there are a few possible ways of escaping their plight – escape or smuggling, both highly dangerous options are the main avenues. Huge sums of money, in the region of $16,500, must be paid and multiple dangers overcome – in an arduous and lengthy journey – in order to obtain freedom.

Women being transported in trucks. [Syria TV]
L24 had the opportunity to interview Safiya R from Russia, also in her 30s who managed to escape the camp and is currently residing in Idlib. She claimed that they faced “constant searches and beatings,” during their detention. She spoke of spending hours, hidden in the vehicles of smugglers, while their children were given “sedatives,” during the ordeal, which have been known to cause blindness and even death. Yet, in desperation their mothers were willing to take the risk. Safiya narrated her perilous and frightening experience, in which they “faced raids” and were forced to bury their personal belongings, as others constantly sought to exploit their situation and vulnerabilities.

Safety in Idlib

After traversing hundreds of kilometers and enduring countless difficulties, Safiya R. speaks of life after al-Hawl, expressing her relief and gratitude at having obtained peace, security and better prospects for her children. When arriving in the liberated areas of Idlib, she recalls the reception she was given. “We lived in fear that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) was our enemy and they would take us away, beat us, and that life in Idlib would not be pleasant for us.”

“They knew us, knew where we lived, and that was it,” she said, “It is important that if you focus on your home and children and do not try to harm any Muslims here, no one will think of making your life difficult.” She shared that neither she, nor those close to her, suffered under HTS, which was a major surprise to them, since they had been conditioned by ISIS to believe that they would be severely maltreated. She concluded, “we only experienced good treatment and received help in everything we asked for.”

Security forces in Idlib. [Syrian Salvation Government]
When asked how to help others rehabilitate and escape, Safiya R. mentioned the first obstacle is the huge sum of money. She describes it as “an unattainable amount for most of these women’s families. They collect money from everyone, getting into debt for many years. That’s why the likelihood of a repeated escape attempt is minimal if they are captured.” She suggests that things can improve if safe routes are organized and if educational efforts are made to dislodge the “us versus them” mentally, some prisoners hold. More robust steps towards repatriation and establishing habeas corpus rights for the thousands still held captive in SDF camps, must be made, in order to present a more effective and long-term solution.

Defusing a Ticking Time-Bomb

The dire conditions and lack of opportunities in the SDF prison camps pose a serious threat, with potential for radicalization and future dangers, as prisoners, including children, are subjected to inhumane treatment and denied basic necessities and rights.

Efforts must be made to address this crisis and defuse the ticking time-bomb. The international community should come together to provide assistance for repatriation or rehabilitation programs focusing on education, mental health support, and initiatives to counter extremist ideologies. The liberated areas with limited capabilities have shown how this dilemma could be partially solved, but it is by no stretch of the imagination a comprehensive solution.

ISIS women in Al-Hawl. [Getty Images]
Responsibility must be taken, rather than abandoning the women and children to languish. Failure to address their plight not only prolongs human suffering but also risks perpetuating a cycle of radicalization. Failure to address their situation, may result in this time bomb exploding in devastating fashion.


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