Syria rehab centre seeks to tame detained ‘cubs’

TAL MAAROUF, Syria: Thirteen-year-old Hassan may have committed atrocities for the IS group, but instead of jailing him immediately, the Kurdish authorities in northeastern Syria enrolled him in a rehabilitation centre. He was one of around 80 teenagers sporting trainers and tracksuits as they filled their lungs with chilly morning air in the courtyard of the Hori Centre in Tal Maarouf. Aged 12 to 17, they had all been detained by Kurdish fighters or the US-led Western forces who supported them during the battle to destroy the militants’ self-styled “caliphate”.
Some are children of IS families, whose parents may be in jail, while others were directly recruited — forcibly or voluntarily — by the militant group.
After their capture, they were selected for “rehabilitation” in line with the “second chance policy” of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) which controls the region.
Local officials admit their prisons are full and say they are hoping a constructive approach can help mend ties with local tribes that once backed the militants.
It was early 2018 when Hassan checked into the Hori Centre, months after the opening of the sprawling complex of red-brick rooms and dorms framing a rectangular lawn.
As the son of a senior IS commander in the Syrian city of Raqa, once the de facto capital of the militants’ proto-state, he regularly witnessed beheadings.
The Kurdish forces who captured him found a picture that shows him proudly holding a severed head, but whether the boy ever killed anyone himself isn’t clear.
“When he arrived, like many of them, he didn’t say hi, didn’t shake our hands and didn’t look us in the eye,” said Roka Khalil, one of the centre’s two directors.
The centre is run by two secular women and its boarders are asked to shave and give up their traditional garments for Western-style clothes.
Moving there was a culture shock for Hassan.
Like other teenagers IS called the “cubs of the caliphate”, he had been subjected to the group’s efforts to impose its brand of violence and religious conservatism on an entire generation. Now, some of those youngsters are housed in dormitories where they have no access to phones or the Internet but where staff are available day and night, said Abir Khaled, the centre’s co-director. — AFP