Exclusive Photos Show Life Inside One of Syria's Most Notorious Camps

The war in Syria has disrupted life on nearly every level and millions have left their homes, scores of them forced to stay in crowded, makeshift camps⁠—among the most notorious of which is Al-Hol.

Located in northeastern Hasakah province, Al-Hol was among the many towns seized by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) during its cross-border rise in 2014, and among the first taken by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mostly Kurdish militia backed by the United States, the following year. As Syria's war raged on, tens of thousands of displaced people—including the families of ISIS fighters— ended up in the town's southern outskirts, which already hosted a camp formerly reserved for those fleeing two U.S.-led wars against neighboring Iraq.

New photos taken by Danish freelance journalist Thea Pedersen and obtained by Newsweek show what life looks like inside Al-Hol. Pedersen told Newsweek she was the first journalist to access the heavily-restricted site since the Turkish led operation, and described the atmosphere there as "tense."

With an attack from Turkey-backed rebels on these same Kurdish fighters now threatening to destabilize the area, many have expressed concern not only about the well-being of the Al-Hol camp's inhabitants, but also regarding a potential ISIS resurgence fueled by angry, alienated residents of the sprawling city of tents. The site has increasingly become a second priority for local forces amid threats that the frontlines with Turkey and its allies could grow near.

Pedersen cited one local administrator as saying "It's out of control here, the only thing we can do is keep the prisoners inside these gates, but what's happening inside, we have no control."

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In an area of approximately only 1,5 square miles more than 70,000 people cramped together in estimated 13,000 tents are held behind a sparse fence constituting the remains of the once-was Islamic State Caliphate. Due to the Turkish invasion camp security has been reduced by two thirds. Thea Pedersen
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In al-Hol Camps special "annex" for foreign women, the detainees are upholding the religious rule of radical Islam. “They burn down tents and don’t care if people or children are still inside. They have their own guards, they continue religious teaching of jihad to their children and punish other detainees in the name of Islam for being infidels. They still raise their flag once in a while, made by their black burkas and white writing made from toothpaste,” sums up the camp management. Thea Pedersen
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As we walk through the main market street of al-Hol, we are closely followed by the camp management who fear for our security: Stone-throwing, attacks on guards and riots with prisoner escape attempts have been recurrent within the last couple of weeks. Thea Pedersen
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The current frontline along the Syrian-Turkish border is filled with heavy clashes and days of intense bombardments. But to some, the al-Hol camp is just yet another frontline: “Even Daesh (ISIS) themselves calls this place a small version of the crushed Caliphate. Whether I am fighting [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan at the border or I am trying to keep these people inside the fence is one of two evils. Thea Pedersen
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Over 71,000 people from 58 different nationalities are being held in al-Hol. According to the UN, 65 percent are under 12 years old and more than 20,000 under five and hence have been born as "true cups of the Caliphate." Now many of both women and children, some also orphans, are left almost stateless as their respective home countries are reluctant or purely refusing to take them home. Thea Pedersen
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“Who are they? What are they doing here?”, two women looking with suspicious eyes through the crack of their black burka ask as we enter the camp. A woman on the ground, also dress in the Islamic gown, tells us to go away showing a hammer-like tool in her hand. The atmosphere is indeed a hub for oppressed tension waiting to be released. Thea Pedersen
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Already dire conditions in the camp have deteriorated not least since the Turkish invasion as many NGO’s have pulled out international staff and temporarily stopped their projects in the region. According to the camp management, the situation has only sparked a flame of resistance and riots within the camp even more. Thea Pedersen
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“They don’t give us any gas. We don’t get any water”, a woman, stating she is from Iraq, starts shouting on the main street of the al-Hol camp. Her outburst is quickly assisted by another women who also starts shouting leaving the camp management nervous of our visit as tensions in the camp can evolve into real riots in only a few seconds, we are warned. Thea Pedersen
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“Only two kinds of women exist in this camp. First, the woman who are really tired of the situation. They just want to go home. Second, the women devoted to Islamic State and still strive for a Caliphate. Be not mistaken. These people are not mothers and wives, they are fighters”, tells head of "the Annex," Layla Rizgar. Thea Pedersen
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“Tell the Iraqi government to take us home,” women cramped together sitting exposed in sun at the side of the road cries to us, probably not knowing that it could constitute a death sentence in her home country if she returned. Thea Pedersen