‘I’m still very afraid’
Iraqi boys were seized by IS and trained to be suicide bombers. They found freedom … but the scars will linger forever
KABARTO CAMP, IRAQ — They made the captive children, malnourished and weak from hunger, fight over a single tomato.
Then the Islamic State group militants told them, “In paradise, you’ll be able to eat whatever you want. But first you have to get to paradise, and you do that by blowing yourself up.”
The lesson was part of the indoctrination inflicted by the militants on boys from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority after the extremist group overran the community’s towns and villages in northern Iraq. The group forced hundreds of boys, some as young as seven or eight, into training to become fighters and suicide bombers, infusing them with its murderous ideology.
Now boys who escaped captivity are struggling to regain some normalcy, living in camps for the displaced along with what is left of their families.
After surviving beatings, watching horrific atrocities, being held for months or years apart from their parents, losing loved ones and narrowly escaping death themselves, they are plagued by nightmares, anxiety and outbursts of violence.
“Even here I’m still very afraid,” said 17-year-old Ahmed Ameen Koro, who spoke to The Associated Press in the sprawling Esyan Camp in northern Iraq, where he now lives with his mother, sister and a brother, the only surviving members of his family. “I can’t sleep properly because I see them in my dreams.”
Ahmed was 14 when the militants stormed into the Yazidi heartland around the northern town of Sinjar in the summer of 2014.
Tens of thousands of Yazidis were killed in the assault on Sinjar and neighbouring towns and the militants kidnapped thousands of women and girls as sex slaves.
The Yazidi minority, whose ancient faith combines aspects of Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Judaism, is considered heretical by the Islamic extremists.
U.S.-backed Kurdish forces drove IS out of Sinjar in November 2015, but few Yazidis have returned, and an estimated 3,500 remain in IS captivity.
“They looked like monsters”
It was the morning of Aug. 3, 2014, when the IS fighters descended on Ahmed’s village of Hardan. The family tried to flee, but their car couldn’t hold everyone. So Ahmed, his 13-year-old brother Amin, and four cousins set off on foot while his father drove the others to the nearby village of Khader Amin.
The boys were to wait for Ahmed’s father to pick them up at a roadway intersection outside of Hardan.
But his father never came: The militants seized him and the rest of the family, and his father was never seen again. IS fighters then captured Ahmed and the other boys at the intersection.
The boys were taken to the IS-held town of Tal Afar, some 48 kilometres away, where they were kept in a boys’ school along with dozens of other boys and teens. The adult men were taken away, leaving the women and girls.
“They chose and took the girls they liked,” Ahmed recalled. “I remember the girls were crying, as well as the mothers. They were dragging these girls from the arms of their mothers.”
“I was very scared. I’ve never seen such a thing. They were all very big bearded men, they looked like monsters,” he said.
Ahmed and the other boys were then moved to Badoush Prison outside the IS stronghold of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, where they were kept for 15 days. It was here that Ahmed noticed that every time the militants brought food, the boys would fall asleep immediately after they ate. There were, Ahmed believes, sleeping pills in the food.
The militants taught the boys Islamic prayers, instructed them in their hard-line interpretation of the Qur’an and forced them to say they had become Muslims.
“We were scared of saying that we were not Muslims because they would kill us,” he said.
Ahmed was among some 200 Yazidi boys sent to a two-month training camp in Tal Afar. Their days began with early morning prayer and military training exercises, followed by study of the Qur’an. They learned to shoot Kalashnikovs and pistols.
“My mother fell, I was hit”
Akram Rasho Khalaf was only seven when his town of Khidir Sheikh Sipa was overrun by the militants on Aug. 23, 2014. His family tried to flee, but the militants opened fire and Akram suffered shrapnel and bullet wounds to his abdomen and hand.
“They started to shoot at us. My mother fell and I was hit. These are the bullet marks,” he said, raising his Tshirt to show two large scars on his stomach. Akram was taken by ambulance to Mosul, seized earlier that summer by IS, where he underwent surgery.
Eventually, he was brought to Raqqa, the Islamic State group’s self-declared capital in Syria. There the militants would throw balls at the children’s heads, Akram said. If anyone cried, they were beaten. Those who didn’t cry were praised for being tough and told they would one day be suicide bombers.
“They were saying they are our friends, but the kids were scared to death,” Akram said, speaking to the AP in Kabarto Camp, near Dahuk, where he now lives with his uncle, two siblings and other relatives some 150 kilometres north of their home village.
“They were telling us, ‘When you grow up, you will blow yourself up, God willing,’ and some of the kids said, ‘We will not blow ourselves up,’” Akram said. “Then they asked us, ‘Which one of you wants to go to paradise?’ And the kids didn’t know what to say.”
“But they wanted all of us to blow ourselves up. They were saying, ‘You have to blow yourself up!’”
“We were almost dying”
Two years after Akram was taken captive, the boy’s uncle, Hasar Haji Hasan, received a photo on his Facebook page of his nephew dressed in black Islamic garb, along with an offer to smuggle him out of Raqqa for $10,500 — an increasingly common practice as IS militants seek to earn cash by returning the youngest of their captives for a price.
The family borrowed the money from a relative in Germany.
Eventually the boy was smuggled out and taken by motorcycle to a Kurdish peshmerga checkpoint. He was reunited with what remains of his family on Nov. 29 — two years and three months after he was seized.
For Ahmed, escape came sooner. On May 4, 2015, nine months after their capture, Ahmed, his brother Amin and a cousin managed to slip from the militants’ sight at the military training camp in Tal Afar. Their cousin was soon recaptured, but the brothers hid in a mosque until nightfall, then fled with a small group of other escapees.
“We were following the movement of the sun and continued walking at night,” he said. “We were very thirsty because we ran out of water … We ran out of everything. We were almost dying.”
But fear of IS kept them going, and after a nine-day 90-kilometre trek they reached the Sinjar mountains, where Kurdish peshmerga forces rescued them.
“Hide the knives”
Akram’s uncle says his nephew has been deeply affected by his time in captivity, suffering nightmares, anxiety, sleeplessness and bedwetting. The boy’s brother, eight-year-old Raiid, and five-year-old sister Jumana, rescued separately after ransom was paid, have similar problems.
“Sometimes they become very aggressive and they beat up other children or our children. They are not like other normal children. Their mental health is very bad,” he said.
Akram’s sleep is interrupted by the militants, who menace him in his dreams, the boy said.
“When I go to sleep I see Daesh in my dreams and they say, ‘Come,’” he said. “And I get very scared and I wake up and I can’t go back to sleep.”
Above: Akram Rasho Khalaf, 10, shows scars from wounds sustained when he was captured. “They started to shoot at us. My mother fell and I was hit. These are the bullet marks.” Left: Ahmed Ameen Koro, 17, and his sister, Manal, sit together in the Esyan Camp for displaced people in Dahuk, Iraq.
Left: Ahmed Ameen Koro, 17, stands in the door of his family’s tent in a camp in Dahuk, Iraq. He was captured by Islamic State at the age of 14. Right: Akram Rasho Khalaf, now 10, stands with other children at the Kabarto Camp in Dahuk. His sleep is interrupted by the militants, who menace him in his dreams.