This story originally appeared in The Daily Beast:
KOBANI, Syria — As a 14-year-old whom we’ll call Lawand sat in the jail cell he shared with 21 other teens, he could hear his friends screaming from what inmates called the “torture room” downstairs. The only thing on his mind was fear. His friends had been put in car tires, hung from the ceiling and beaten. He knew he’d soon be taken downstairs himself. Taking the kids from the 10-foot by 15-foot cell one by one, it took the jailers three days to interrogate them all.
Lawand is one of some 150 students from the northern Syrian city of Kobani who were kidnapped in late May by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, or ISIS as it was known, the al Qaeda offshoot that has declared a caliphate to promote its extremist brand of Islam. The teens had been on their way home from end-of-year exams in the Syrian city of Aleppo when they were abducted. Lawand was one of just nine lucky enough to escape after two months of captivity. The rest are still in the hands of the so-called “caliph.”
Kobani is in a Kurdish region of Syria, and although it is defended by an ethnic militia called the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, it is surrounded by ISIS on three sides. The fourth side is the border the region shares with a wary Turkish government. As the YPG battles ISIS, the extremists kidnap Kurds who venture from their turf. The small city’s population has meanwhile swelled with desperate internal refugees.
Lawand and the other students had to travel through territory vulnerable to ISIS when they left Kobani to take their exams in Aleppo. The militants warned them not to attempt a return. But the students chanced it, piling into three buses for the dangerous journey back home.They stopped for a rest at a small restaurant by the Euphrates River, and then they saw ISIS militants approach in two pickup trucks. The militants were nice to the kids at first, but Lawand was terrified–he’d never been in close contact with armed men in suicide-bomber vests. The kids were told they’d be released in three days, but that didn’t relieve their fear.