LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
In northeastern Syria, tens of thousands of former ISIS fighters are being held in makeshift prisons. The conditions are terrible and are getting worse now that the U.S. has withdrawn from the area. NPR's Jane Arraf was given rare access to a new prison and some of the inmates.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: The guard unlatches a metal window in the heavy steel door. I look in and see more than a hundred men crammed into a windowless cell so small there's barely an inch of space between them. I'm allowed to talk to them from the other side of the door.
(Non-English language spoken). We're journalists. Anybody want to talk?
A prisoner named Omar steps up.
OMAR: I'm from Syria. We stay here about five months.
ARRAF: Five months without being able to stretch or see the sun.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SHUTTING)
ARRAF: The door clangs shut. Omar is one of 5,000 inmates in this prison, opened just five months ago. Many of them are former fighters in the self-declared Islamic State, the caliphate, which came to an end about 200 miles from here in the Syrian town of Baghouz earlier this year. Others say they never held a weapon.
The prison director isn't even sure who all the inmates are. Most of them haven't been interrogated. Syrian Kurdish forces are holding 11,000 ISIS prisoners. Most are Syrian or Iraqi, but about 2,000 are other foreigners. The Kurds were overwhelmed before. And with the Turkish invasion of their region two months ago, now they're desperate.
ROBAR: (Through interpreter) We planned many things, like making prisons condition better, making them a yard to get sunlight, an education program, rehabilitation to eliminate ISIS ideology from their minds. But all those plans stopped.
ARRAF: That's the prison director, Robar. He doesn't want his last name used for security reasons.
When U.S. troops withdrew from Syria near the Turkish border, paving the way for the Turkish invasion, a lot of prison guards here were sent to the front. Some died. Remaining guards are exhausted. The director describes the prisoners as a ticking time bomb.
ROBAR: (Through interpreter) These prisoners were our enemies. They raped our women. They killed our brothers and friends. But when they are in our hands, we must treat them properly as prisoners of war.
ARRAF: In the medical unit - part of a hallway - there's a single hospital bed. There are five doctors for the 5,000 inmates. We're shown inside a large room for wounded and sick prisoners.
It's just filled with guys lying on mattresses. Most of them are sleeping. There are a few of them in beds. And they're covered in these gray prison blankets. I'm going down the rows, and there's one guy with his head bandaged and his arm bandaged. There's another one with no eyes. They're all either sick, or they've been wounded in the battle.
There are more than 300 men packed into this hall. Apart from the sound of a generator, there's silence. No one talks. Some are still malnourished from being starved during the last days of the ISIS caliphate. Thin rays of sunlight creep in from a row of wire-covered windows. When we ask to see any American prisoners, two men are brought to talk to us.
So how are you?
Lirim Sylejmani says he's Kosovar American. He hobbles in wearing an orange prison jumpsuit. He says he and his wife and children were starving while living in the Islamic State. Sylejmani says he's an engineer who went from Canada with his wife and children to the ISIS caliphate.
LIRIM SYLEJMANI: They were saying, if you come, you know, like, you have free housing, free electricity, water free. So it sounded very good.
ARRAF: He says he refused to fight under ISIS and was punished for it. He doesn't know what's become of his children or his wife. He says the FBI has told him they plan to eventually bring him back to the U.S., presumably to face trial.
Another man, Abdul Hamid al-Madioum, says he was at community college in Bloomington, Minn., reading about Syrians being killed when he says an ISIS recruiter reached out to him on Twitter.
ABDUL HAMID AL-MADIOUM: So he kept talking to me and - you know, what are you doing in America? The Muslim nation, you know, needs help and support in this.
ARRAF: He says he's Moroccan American, in the U.S. since he was a year old. He's 23 now. He says a few months after he arrived in the caliphate, he was hit by an airstrike in Mosul.
AL-MADIOUM: I don't know if you guys saw my arm.
ARRAF: Madioum takes off the rough gray blanket he had over his shoulders. He's missing his right arm. Madioum says he's been interrogated twice in Syria by the FBI. He also says he was never a fighter, that he studied medicine under ISIS. Here, he's on a special ward that the guards tell us we can't see because we could catch a disease.
AL-MADIOUM: I sleep on my side. In one bed, there's three guys sleeping, you know, and all people with cut-off body parts. And it's all amputees in my room. It's very difficult.
ARRAF: It's impossible to evaluate their claims about not fighting under ISIS. At the very least, they could be prosecuted for joining what's considered a terrorist organization. If they're sent to Iraq, where they also lived under ISIS, they would likely be given the death penalty.
The FBI says it can't comment on Americans in custody in Syria. But like most countries where foreigners flooded in from to live under and fight for ISIS, it's in no hurry to take back its citizens. The Syrian Kurds in charge of this region say they've been left with other countries' burdens.
Jane Arraf, NPR News, Hasakah in northeastern Syria.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.