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HASSEKA, SYRIA - "It's like we are holding a ticking bomb in our hands," a guard in a prison in northeastern Syria told us in February. The facility holds roughly 5,000 accused Islamic State militants from all over the world.
A month later, the metaphorical bomb went off. Prisoners rioted on Sunday, overrunning one floor of the prison and smashing interior doors.
Later that night, wearing a black mask and flanked by men carrying AK-47s, Rubar Hassan, the prison's director, appeared before news cameras, appealing for international help. More than a year after the territorial defeat of IS in Syria, officials here still feel baffled and betrayed by the international community.
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Defeating IS was considered a worldwide problem, but securing the region and preventing a resurgence of the group has mostly been left in the hands of ill-equipped local authorities.
"These prisoners come from 50 different countries," said Hassan. "But now they are with us, and many of these countries have turned their backs on us."
After repeated unanswered calls for countries to take back their nationals or form an international court, the regional government here said they were planning to start holding trials locally. And while it was never fully certain that the trials would be able to go forward as promised, now the region, like much of the world, is locked down because of coronavirus. The trials were postponed indefinitely.
A few days before the riot, a guard told us over WhatsApp that tensions were rising in the prison.
Prisoners said a judgment-any judgment-would be better than the endless wait.
"Give me a trial and sentence me to 100 years or shoot me in the head," said Abdellah Nouamane, a 24-year-old inmate from Belgium, when we interviewed him inside the prison in February. "But no more of this waiting."
Crisis after crisis
Most of the prisoners, like Nouamane, surrendered during the battle for Islamic State militants' last stronghold in Baghuz, Syria.
Since then, for accused foreign fighters, there have been no formal charges, no trials and no convictions.
As we crossed the compound from the offices to cells housing prisoners, soldiers told us not to photograph them without masks on their faces. "There are sleeper cells around. We cannot be known as the guys imprisoning IS," said one guard. "Our families could be killed."
The Kurdish military holding the men are the Syrian Democratic Forces, once backed by the U.S. in the fight against IS. But since the U.S. withdrew its support in October, the SDF has been struggling to secure its semi-autonomous region amid crises after crisis.
In the immediate aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal, many of the security forces across the region were moved to the northern border to fight with Turkey. In the al-Hol camp, where thousands of foreign militants' wives and children are detained, there was a near-revolution. Women burned tents, attacked guards and hundreds of them escaped.
Before we entered a makeshift cell block in the former schoolhouse, soldiers told us not to mention any of these crises or the death of IS leader Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi to prisoners. This information, they said, could trigger a riot.
SDF commanders have said repeatedly they alone cannot protect, guard and serve justice to the more than 10,000 suspected militants in their custody.
"The prisoners think we are protecting them because we are afraid of them," the prison director told us. "But if they have a chance, they will drink our blood."
Desperate for information
The "hospital room" was a large cell holding more than 100 men, crowded onto tight rows of cots or under military-issued blankets on the floor. Some had crutches, others had bandaged legs or heads.
A 26-year-old Syrian man named Bassel wandered up to the bars. He was soft spoken with a blue scarf covering his mouth and nose. He was an IS fighter, he told us, but he wasn't an extremist. Almost every accused militant we have spoken to in prisons over the past few years has said the same thing.
"But if we have trials, we will know who was just a cook or an ordinary member, and who has blood on their hands," he pointed out. "Then we will be judged."
In the building next door, guards flipped open the metal grating over a small square window of a thick metal door. Plastic bags with basic food items were taped to the walls, and every inch of floor was filled with men and grey military blankets.
One man from Egypt hurried to the opening. "Please give us information," he begged me in English. "Tell us something that gives us just a little hope."
Back in the hospital wing, Mohammed Demer, 26, from Germany, asked us if we had any information about European plans to repatriate accused fighters. We told him we did not.
"I know there is prison for me there," Demer said, hopefully. "I am not stupid."
Demer also said he never bought into Islamic State's extremist ideology. But then we asked him this: "If all the prisoners were all tried in what he perceives to be a truly Islamic Court, would they all be found innocent?"
He paused, and his eyes widened.
"Of course," he said.