Late last year, members of a youth group held an introductory computer course in the Syrian town of Amuda. It was no ordinary extracurricular activity: its purpose was to recruit children for military service, and during the course the organizers convinced two local girls to leave the house and take up arms.
“It was a kidnapping by indirect means, not with the barrel of a gun,” said Shams Antar, the aunt of one of the girls, 16-year-old Hadiya Abdul Raheem Antar. Hadiya and her friend Ayana persuaded a third classmate who had not taken the computer class, 15-year-old Afeen Jalal Khalil, to follow their military adventure, Shams Antar added.
On November 21, 2021, the three girls disappeared. Hadiya and Ayana were picked up by a car after school, while Afeen drove away outside her house that evening. Hadiya and Afeen are still missing today; Ayana’s parents managed to bring her home through a relentless pressure campaign.
An undated image of Afeen Khalil (courtesy of the Khalil family)
“They chain children of both genders, especially girls, using these lessons – whether it’s music lessons, computer lessons, drawing lessons, language lessons,” said Antar, who works as a author and feminist activist. For years, she has fought against the recruitment of children in northeastern Syria, which is under the control of the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. When his niece Hadiya was abducted, Antar’s cause became personal.
“During these classes, they fill their minds with party ideology,” she said, referring to Syrian adherents of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a far-left organization that led a decades-long struggle on behalf of Turkey’s oppressed Kurds. minority. The group responsible for recruiting the children is the Revolutionary Youth, known as Ciwanen Soresger in Kurdish, which is widely suspected of taking orders from the PKK.
A page from the Khalils’ “family book” showing that Afeen is under 18 (Courtesy of the Khalil family)
In a 2020 interview with Al-Monitor, a member of the Revolutionary Youth General Coordinating Committee said the movement offers activities, such as sports and music lessons. The Revolutionary Youth “works to protect young people from attacks directed against them, whether physical or psychological”, Nasser Afrin said.
Afrin strenuously denied that the revolutionary youth were recruiting children. However, he noted that the group’s training committee runs “cultural academies, thought academies, even military academies.”
After being recruited by the Revolutionary Youth, children are trained and sent to fight in one of the PKK’s military units, Shams Antar said. “Given that the party has branches in Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria, we don’t know [exactly] where they are sent,” she added.
Some parents in northeast Syria are accepting their children going to war to win rights long denied to the Kurdish people by authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. But many others want their children to grow up with some semblance of normal life. They are heartbroken by the disappearance of their children and desperately search for a way to get them back.
“She’s a child. Even though she made a decision [to take up arms], It is not false ? She’s 16, is that the kind of decision she can make? said a father whose daughter was taken away last year by the revolutionary youth, speaking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.
“I used to lose my mind when she was 10 minutes late coming home from school. Now she’s been gone for two months,” said Belqees Hassan, mother of Afeen, one of the Amuda’s missing daughters.” How can I describe how I feel? Imagine, a mother who lost her daughter. Afeen’s 16th birthday came and went earlier this month without her parents being able to talk on the phone or find out where she is.
An undated image of Hadiya Antar (courtesy of the Antar family)
“We went to all the offices of the [governing] Autonomous administration — all their ministries. No one has given us any information about her whereabouts or her whereabouts,” Hassan said. “Please quickly get our story to the UN so they can end these violations and bring our child back as soon as possible.”
Few anxious parents go public with their plight. Many remain silent, fearing reprisals. But talking to the media can pay off; Al-Monitor has learned of two cases since mid-2021 when children were sent home after their parents repeatedly made statements to the press.
It is difficult to obtain comprehensive estimates of the number of children affected. The Syrian Rights Organization for Truth and Justice documented nine boys and eight girls captured in the last three months of 2021, including the three Amuda girls.
A UN report from April 2021 documented more than 400 cases of recruitment of children into the PKK-linked Syrian Kurdish People’s and Women’s Protection Units from July 2018 to June 2020. Although the report does not mention the name of the revolutionary youth, it is likely that the movement is the cause of many incidents. .
Khalid Jaber, co-chairman of the Hasakah branch of the Child Welfare Office which is part of the ruling Autonomous Administration, told al-Monitor that his office had returned 214 recruited children to their families since it was began operating at the end of 2020. He added that the combined branches of the Child Protection Bureau received 333 complaints of child recruitment across northeast Syria.
Parents interviewed by Al-Monitor described the Child Welfare Office as a well-meaning actor genuinely concerned about bringing children home. But his powers are limited. “Every day we hear of another girl going missing, while every month one comes back,” said activist Shams Antar.
Antar organized three protests late last year attended by families of girls recruited to secure their return. Protesters held signs that poignantly captured their anguish, including: “Military recruitment strikes terror into the hearts of mothers”, “Afeen Khalil loves to read and is afraid of the sound of gunfire” and “Daughters are our candles, don’t put out our candles.” The third and final event December 7 was warmly welcomed.
“The Asayish of women [police] came, they wanted to disperse us,” Shams Antar said. “They hit us, grabbed me and dragged me into a car. From the car, I saw others being hit, falling to the ground – they were manhandled. It was extremely shameful. We were protesting peacefully…we didn’t shout any hostile slogans, nothing political. Following this incident, “we no longer dare to organize demonstrations, because of the threats, but I continued to write and speak to the media”.
Most of the key decision-makers in the Syrian Democratic Forces that protect the region and in the autonomous administration that governs it come from the ranks of the PKK. At the same time, government leaders in northeast Syria have emphasized an inclusive Syrian national identity, separate from the PKK and its armed struggle for the rights of Kurds in Turkey.
In theory, the autonomous administration’s “Syrianization” program could lessen Turkish hostility by diluting the PKK’s influence, as well as guarantee the administration greater international legitimacy and possibly a role in talks to end at war. As part of a bid for international recognition, General Abdi signed a pledge with the United Nations in July 2019 to “end and prevent the recruitment and use of children under the age of 18”.
But the Revolutionary Youth continued its recruiting activities unhindered and without regard for political identity. They target boys and girls from pro-local government families, those from the opposition and everyone in between. No Kurdish child in northeast Syria is immune to indoctrination and military service. Clamping down on this practice could go a long way to bolstering the good faith of the Autonomous Administration and the Syrian Democratic Forces as legitimate and human rights-respecting government actors.