Kurdish commanders have broken earlier pledges to stop the forced recruitment of children, saying it is necessary to protect individual homes.
RMELAN — After being called out by rights groups last summer, Kurdish military forces pledged to end their use of child soldiers and to protect them from armed conflict. But 10 months later, witnesses and relatives say Kurdish forces continue to recruit schoolchildren.
Yasser al-Hassan, 46, an engineer in the oil fields of Rmelan, a town in the northeastern al-Hassakah Governorate, says that armed boys and girls man checkpoints between al-Qamishli and Rmelan. "Many children died at the fronts in Ras al-Ein, Yarubia and Hassakeh," he says, adding that he had personally attended the funerals of a number of child soldiers.
"The recruitment is still ongoing under the excuse of defending the area and claims these children volunteered by themselves," he continues. "But that's not true, because most teachers in schools are members of the Public Protection Units, and they brainwash children and convince them that joining and fighting with them is a sacred matter and that everyone must volunteer to fight with the units."
Al-Hassan says that many of his friends and family members left Syria for either Iraq or Turkey just to prevent their children from being lured into fighting, either by the teachers or by other children in the Public Protection Units who try to convince their friends to join.
"Other children only join to make some money because their families need money due to their financial situation after four years of war," he says.
Accountability for recruiters
In June 2014, an Arabic report by the monitoring group Violations Documentation Center said it had documented the deaths of 223 children under the age of 18 who were fighting with different opposition groups, including those fighting not only for the Kurds but also for ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic Front.
Shortly thereafter, Human Rights Watch demanded a halt to the use of child soldiers by all sides in the conflict and warned that countries financing these groups could be prosecuted. The report featured the stories of 25 children, who spoke in detail about their recruitment by armed groups.
Earlier this year, Syria Deeply also detailed the recruitment of child soldiers by ISIS.
Muhammad Taj al-Deen, 37, a tailor in al-Qamishli city, says that his 14-year-old nephew was killed last December fighting on behalf of the People's Protection Units near Abu Qassab village, in southern al-Qamishli. The boy was killed with nine other students while fighting with the units against ISIS, he says.
"My nephew Butan Taj al-Deen dropped out when he was in elementary school due to the lack of teaching staff," he recalls. "He wasn’t good at school, so when he quit, his parents didn't care much, and they sent him to work in the vegetable market in town, which is ruled by party members." Every day, he brought back lots of vegetables and 200 Syrian liras (about $1).
"It was a very good salary, so his family didn't pay much attention to the threat their son was under," al-Deen says. "We later heard he joined the People's Protection Units. We didn't take this seriously, and his family thought he was just going to guard the market along with other members of the party, but three months later we received the news of his death."
Al-Deen is still in shock that his nephew was killed. "I have no idea how he and his younger friend Hassan Ibrahim joined the party together and both got killed together too. How could a 13- or a 14-year-old child carry weapons and fight? And when did the Protection Units manage to train them enough to take them to the fronts?
He characterizes what happened with Butan and his friend Hassan as a crime. "How could it be that children are recruited and taken to fighting fronts, dragged to a certain death against highly experienced fighters of terrorist organizations?"
When it emerged last year that the Kurdish People's Protection Units had been recruiting at schools under their control, at least one official denied that it was sanctioned. Kanaan Barakat, a Kurdish military chief northern Syria, told Human Rights Watch that recruiting children was unacceptable. If it was happening, he said, it was not the party's policy.
"The Kurdish security forces in Afrin, Ain al-Arab Kobani and al-Jazira areas disapprove of the recruitment of children for fighting and for checkpoints," he said. "Some children had volunteered, and their enrollment in any military activities is a matter of individual mistakes."