Kurdish boys from the Syrian town of Kobane were repeatedly beaten with an electric cable and a hose while in the custody of Islamic State militants and forced to watch videos of the terror group's beheadings and attacks, Human Rights Watch reported on Tuesday.
The taking of 153 of these children hostage and the accompanying physical abuse amount to war crimes under international law, contributing to the astonishing assortment of offenses against humanity that the Islamic State (also known as ISIS/ISIL) is believed to have committed — including summary mass executions and the selling of sex slaves.
The group has captured stretches of Iraq and Syria, declaring an Islamic caliphate in the territory that essentially erases borders between the two countries. Its fighters have killed or driven away Shia Muslims, Christians, and other minorities, including the Kurds, who do not share their ultra-radical variety of Sunni Islam.
The Kurdish boys, aged 14 to 16, were abducted by the Islamic State on May 29 as they traveled home to Kobane after attending middle school exams in Aleppo. About 100 girls who were traveling with the boys were also detained, but they were sent home within a few hours. Meanwhile, the boys were held at a school in Manbij, a town 34 miles southwest of Kobane — some for as long as six months.
Four of the boys were interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Turkey, where they fled after being released in September, and described abuses they suffered at the hands of the Sunni militants.
'They beat us with a green hose or a thick cable with wire running through it. They also beat the soles of our feet.'
A 15-year-old boy recounted the story of a child who muttered "Oh Mother!" when he was found in another group's room. Extremists tied up the boy, suspended him with his hands and one foot fastened together behind his back, and admonished him to call on God instead of his mother.
"It's important to remember that children have been robbed of their childhood and rights throughout the Syrian war, first by the Assad government and now by groups like ISIS," Emma Sinclair-Webb, who conducted the interviews with the four boys in Turkey, told VICE News. "Children die in barrel bomb attacks every day or are left with no family, displaced and alone."
The terror group's kidnapping of the Kurdish students is reminiscent of Boko Haram's abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria earlier this year — but unlike the kidnapping in Nigeria, the Islamic State has released all of the Kurdish boys.
Roughly 50 of the captive students either escaped or were released between June and September. Militants released around 75 more toward the end of September, among them the four boys interviewed by Human Rights Watch.
The Islamic State freed the remaining 25 students on October 29, according to Syrian Kurdish officials and media reports. Many of them are now traveling to Turkey for refuge as ISIS forces continue to attack Kobane. The predominantly Kurdish town, which is located on the Syrian border with Turkey, has been the focus of a siege by the militants for more than a month despite US-led airstrikes to displace them.
Fred Abrahams, special advisor for children's rights at Human Rights Watch, said that news of this abuse makes the international effort to stop it all the more crucial.
"This evidence of torture and abuse of children by ISIS underlines why no one should support their criminal enterprise," Abrahams remarked. "Governments in the Middle East and the West should swiftly implement the UN Security Council resolutions aimed at curbing support for ISIS."
The UN Security Council passed resolutions in August and September calling on member states to adopt measures to stop the flow of weapons and money to the Islamic State and other terror groups, including tightening border controls and increased screening to prevent foreign fighters from joining the insurgency.
"To stem ISIS abuses, governments need to tackle its fundraising and recruitment," Abrahams said.
Sinclair-Webb believes that militants were driven to abduct the boys by "a mixture of an indoctrination motive and for purposes of possible prisoner swaps, which didn't fully work out in this case" — although apparently 15 of the boys were exchanged for Islamic State fighters being held by the People's Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish armed group that has been defending Kobane.
The four boys whom Human Rights Watch interviewed described being forced to pray five times a day and undergoing intense religious instruction.
"Those who didn't conform to the program were beaten. They beat us with a green hose or a thick cable with wire running through it. They also beat the soles of our feet," one boy told interviewers. He and his peers described their captors as hailing from Syria, Jordan, Libya, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia. "They made us learn verses of the Koran and beat those who didn't manage to learn them."
The students were given 150 Syrian pounds (US$1) and a DVD with religious material when they were released, but didn't know why they had been freed.
Boys from families with members fighting for the YPG were particularly singled out for abuse, the children said.
"It was really those whose families were close to the YPG who suffered most," said one of the students. "They [ISIS] told them to give them the addresses of their families, cousins, uncles, saying, 'When we go to Kobani we will get them and cut them up.' They saw the YPG as kafir [unbelievers]."
Each day seems to bring fresh documentation of human rights abuses committed by the Islamic State, including the recent emergence of video footage of militants enthusiastically discussing the selling of Yazidi women as slaves.
Follow Olivia on Twitter: @OliviaCrellin