Exclusive: Inside an overcrowded prison for Daesh militants
These men allegedly have killed, maimed, raped and rampaged in the name of a toxic ideology.
The ear-piercing silence and the stifling stench of human sweat is what hits you first when you enter the fortified prison cells where thousands of Daesh militants are kept in captivity.
Until a year ago, it would have been outlandish even to imagine these fierce Daesh foot soldiers to be lying listless and hopeless on the floor in their orange jumpsuits, their bodies crammed against one another.
These men allegedly have killed, maimed, raped and rampaged in the name of a toxic ideology that struck terror on the rest of the world. But today, trapped in an overcrowded prison in Al Hasakah in northeast Syria, they are awaiting mercy and pardon.
Khaleej Times got exclusive access to one of the high-security prisons in Al Hasakah, becoming one of the few media outlets in the world allowed to report from inside the prison, where more than 5,000 Daesh militants are held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a largely Kurdish military. It is one of the seven detention centres under the SDF control. The Kurdish forces say they are holding approximately 12,000 Daesh prisoners, including 4,000 foreigners who had signed up to fight for the now-doomed Daesh.
Violent, dangerous men
The imposingly tall walls, topped by barbed wire, are not considered safe enough to guard the prisoners. The Turkish invasion of Kurdish towns in October had emboldened them to attempt jailbreaks several times.
"One of the men played dead for two days. His body was lying on the floor and we had to finally go in to remove the body. But as soon as our guards opened the door, the prisoners mounted an attack and some managed to get out of the cell and charged through the corridor. Eventually, we managed to overpower them and get them back in," said the SDF Commander who is the head of the prison.
Many were sleeping under their grey winter blankets. "They are dangerous men. Many of them are violent. Be careful," warned a guard.
The SDF men guarding the prison cover their faces with black hoods in for fear of future revenge acts against them.
On the first floor, green-painted thick iron grills separate a spacious corridor into different blocks. Each block has two cells, one facing the other. The iron doors with heavy locks don't even allow air to pass through. The only 'window' connecting the prisoners to the outside world is a small square hole that guards open to offer food and water thrice a day.
Through the square hole, you can see scores of men lying on the floor, packed like sardines.
There are Asians, Europeans, and Africans. They don't have an inch of space to move about as 80 to 100 men share a room with attached toilets.
"They are not allowed to come out," said one of the guards who accompanied this reporter to the cells.
As we started shooting through the hole, some men turned their back at the camera while others covered their faces with their hands. There was utter silence. Not even a whisper until we finished visiting four cells on the same floor.
Wounded and hopeless
On the ground floor of the prison, there is a clinic to treat wounded and ill prisoners. The commodious hall that doubles up as hospital facility caters to hundreds of prisoners. "We are treating them for severe wounds. Many are injured in the battlefront. There are also prisoners with diabetes, blood pressure and other general ailments," said a prison guard.
A few dozen beds fall severely short of the prisoners' needs. Hundreds of men were seen huddled on the floor and lying crammed to each other.
Many were maimed and were on crutches. One man was seen to have his intestines hanging out of his body from a bullet wound.
Some men had taken off their shirts, and bones stuck out of their emaciated bodies and transparent skin. Their hollowed out eyes looked gaunt. A ghostly, unnerving silence hung in the air thick with regrets, revenge, and even dashed hopes.
Many of the men want to go back home. But their countries have refused to allow their return, citing national security concerns and insufficient evidence to prosecute them. Local SDF forces say they want the respective countries to take the prisoners back, indicating they don't have the infrastructure to run the prisons.
"We are doing our job. But we don't know for how long we can do this. It is a high-risk job to keep these dangerous men guarded 24 hours. Any security breach will result in them breaking free, regrouping and fighting for Daesh again," said the SDF Commander in charge of the prison.
Gross human rights violations
Many human rights organisations have raised the red alarm over the inhumane conditions in the overcrowded jails and called out governments for turning a blind eye.
"Governments that can guarantee fair trials and humane treatment should be bringing home their citizens to investigate, rehabilitate and, if appropriate, prosecute at home, not leave them to rot behind bars in a war zone with no way to challenge their detention," Letta Tayler, senior crisis and conflict researcher and counterterrorism expert at Human Rights Watch, told Khaleej Times.
"Foreign detainees who are at risk of torture and unfair trials if returned home should be resettled in third countries."
Tayler said the UN, the international coalition against Daesh, donors, and the detaining authorities should immediately improve conditions for all prisoners in northeast Syria, regardless of nationality.
"Among other things, that means ending overcrowding, providing decent food and medical care, and granting all prisoners their fundamental right to challenge their detention. If detainees continue to be held inhumanely, the international community's fears of radicalisation and Daesh resurgence inside these prisons could become a reality."
While thousands of Iraqi and Syrian Daesh suspects have been prosecuted and sent to jails in these two countries, the fate of the foreign fighters remains undecided.
Worst is the plight of their wives and children who are languishing in squalid detention centres. Their pleas of repatriation have so far fallen on deaf ears, and only vanishingly-small number of Daesh kids and foreign wives of the militants have been repatriated.
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