‘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.

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