Surviving ISIS: Young Yazidi conscripts begin long path to healing
Confronted with a nephew who curls up into a ball and cries non-stop, Jihad does what many parents would do: loads him in the car, sits him on his lap, and allows him to “drive” down the roads of a dusty camp in northern Iraq in the pursuit of a fleeting moment of joy.
The internally displaced persons (IDP) camp became home to Jihad and his relatives after Islamic State militants attacked the Yazidi religious minority in the Sinjar mountain range in August 2014 – in what the embattled community remembers as its 74th genocide.
The boy crying unconsolably is Dilber. He reached what is left of his family in mid-March after fleeing Al-Baghouz, a speck of land on the banks of the Euphrates in Syria where ISIS suffered defeat at the hands of a U.S.-backed coalition of Kurdish and Arab forces.
“When he is in a good mood, he is a fun boy, you’d never believe he was held by ISIS,” explains Jihad, a day laborer who was away from Sinjar when ISIS attacked.
ISIS’s so-called caliphate may have come to an end, but the terror these jihadists inflicted on the Yazidi community is forever seared into the minds of boys like 10-year-old Dilber and his older brother Dildar, 15. The siblings each look a good three years younger than their age, except for their eyes.
They form part of a generation of Yazidis whose fathers were executed, mothers and sisters enslaved, and who themselves were so relentlessly indoctrinated and beaten that some ended their lives, taking part in suicide attacks. The journey of healing promises to be long, and help is scant.
Dilber and Dildar spent the final days of the caliphate in March sleeping in ditches, drinking leftover wash-water, and begging civilian families for one daily portion of rank soup. Both struggle to speak Kurdish after years of being commanded in Arabic.
“It took us just two days to learn how to use a rifle, but the Quran took forever,” says Dildar. “They beat us if we didn’t learn the religion quickly enough. I have memorized about a quarter of the Quran. The ones who failed to memorize the Quran would be beaten with sticks and water hoses.”
His cousin, Hani, is in better shape physically but is likewise familiar with the toll that life under ISIS can take psychologically. Hani spent more than a year in captivity before being rescued through smugglers along with his mother.
“It takes a long time to learn your language and get rid of their ideology,” says Hani. “Sometimes ISIS ideas pop into your head: Memorize the Quran! Forget your infidel family!”
As the cousins – dressed in matching Juventus outfits – compare notes, a steady stream of well-wishers pour into the white small caravan where they live to celebrate their arrival. Others inquire about still-missing relatives.
Rescuing the boys
Ziad Avdalo is a member of a team that has been rescuing Yazidi boys from ISIS for over three years. On the outskirts of Amuda in northern Syria, he runs the Yazidi House, which shelters survivors until they can cross back to Iraq.
The trauma and indoctrination of these boys, he says, renders caring for them a delicate task. “We have boys who have arrived here more fundamentalist than ISIS,” says Mr. Avdalo. “Those who are very dogmatic we deal with very lightly and simply; until their memories come back.”
Some survivors are housed among Yazidi villagers in Syria until they can make the journey home. For many it was tough to establish where that is.
“One six-year-old boy didn’t even know his own name, so we nicknamed him Judi,” says Mr. Avdalo. “Another didn’t know the name of his father.”
Mr. Avdalo, himself a Yazidi, slams the international community for failing to support the survivors, but firmly believes that Yazidi families – or what is left of them in Iraq – are the best-equipped to nurse them back to health. “If anyone cared about the Yazidi community this never would have happened,” he says flatly.
The Autonomous Administration, a proto-government operating in northeast Syria, grants the Yazidi House about $1,000 per month, but that barely covers costs. The Kurdish Red Crescent helps by providing basic medical treatment.
But with Syria already confronting waves of displacement since 2011, there was no targeted response focused on the Yazidis freed by the fall of Baghouz, humanitarian workers in northeast Syria say.
In northern Iraq, home to dozens of camps for displaced people, resources are limited. Dohuk has only a handful of psychologists who initially focused on helping Yazidi women but now provide help to boys as well. Their interventions are irregular, complicated by the fact that victims are widely scattered.
Many Yazidis have left Iraq, finding asylum in Australia, the United States, and Germany, among other nations. It is an exodus opposed by many community leaders.
“Once they are gone, they are [spiritually] annihilated,” says Mr. Avdalo. “It is better they stay in their land, among their people. We have a lot of experience now when it comes to healing.”
The remnants of Kocho
At the IDP camp in Iraq, photographs of the missing – especially women and children who had a better shot at survival – adorn the walls of every caravan. The camp is home to several natives of Kocho, one of the Yazidi villages ISIS attacked in the Sinjar mountains.
Kocho, a disputed territory claimed both by the Kurdish Regional Government and authorities in Baghdad, had a population of nearly 2,000 people before the rise of ISIS. Its exact size today is unknown.
A series of massacres unfolded there Aug. 15, 2014, after village leader Ahmed Jasso refused to succumb to the jihadists’ pressure to convert to Islam en masse. He was the first to be shot behind a school where ISIS had rounded up the Yazidis.
Hundreds of men were executed in quick succession – just one reason why so many of the boys who survived five years under ISIS are coming back to highly traumatized and broken homes, where women significantly outnumber the men.
Among them is 15-year-old Bassim, who found shelter in the Yazidi House before rejoining relatives in Iraq last month. Like other boys who underwent military and religious training under ISIS, he recalled being beaten with sticks and berated on a daily basis.
“We didn’t say a word about it, but through it all we thought of our families,” he says. “There are some who fought and some who blew themselves up. I always had hope I would get out. And every defeat that ISIS suffered raised these hopes higher.”
Bassim’s father, Qassim, is likewise a survivor. He survived the Kocho massacre – only one of 19 men to do so when ISIS took Sinjar. The fate of Bassim’s mother and older brother remains unknown – although there are reasons to be hopeful because Bassim spotted him in Baghouz.
“Many Yazidi children are mixed in with foreign ISIS families or even Syrian and Iraqi families, but nobody cares to check where they are,” says Qassim. “They’re scattered in IDP camps in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Some may have even ended up in the Gulf.”
It's a plausible scenario, says Mr. Avdalo. “The number of missing is in the thousands,” he estimates.
Cubs of the caliphate
At the Iraqi camp and Yazidi House in Syria, Yazidi teenage boys recount being forced to renounce their religion and assume a new identity as “Cubs of the Caliphate.” The staccato testimonies, glazed eyes, and malnourished bodies of those who left Baghouz in recent weeks hint at the depth of their trauma.
The massacres in Sinjar were followed by years of abuse and indoctrination. The pain of separation from their families was compounded by the hardships of war – many survived the sieges of ISIS strongholds Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.
Stunted growth tells the tale of years of hunger.
A lean boy with spiky black hair, Saadu, recalls fighting in 2017 on the front lines of Raqqa, the caliphate’s capital. Two of his peers – siblings from Tel Kasab – carried out suicide attacks defending Mosul that very same year. They were hailed as heroes in ISIS propaganda material.
“They showed us these videos and told us, ‘These are real Muslims, they are going to heaven,’ ” recalls Saadu, who lost a thumb to shrapnel. A more painful example of the group’s successful indoctrination hit closer to home: his sister. She snitched on him when he wanted to escape. He spent 10 days detained in a cell so small he could not lie down.
“Her ideology shifted,” explains Saadu, who channels part of his anger into online war games and believes ISIS is anything but over. “They have lost control of the ground, but they and their convictions remain.”
Saadu has the fortune of being with relatives in a comfortable apartment in Dohuk. Most of the returnees are living in basic caravans and tents in Iraq with impoverished families that struggle to cope.
Mazen looks no more than 10, but has already turned 15. With melancholy eyes and a soft voice he describes how hunger has been a constant companion – the heavy physical routine of military training under ISIS was coupled with the most spartan and sporadic of meals.
In Baghouz, he slept in a ditch under a thin tent along with another Yazidi boy in the hope of dodging air strikes. “I wish it had been a tent like this,” he says, sitting next to heater in a wet wool tent, unable to shake off the cold. “The rain poured in and you could not see anything.”
The boy has no knowledge of what became of his father – although other relatives presume him to be dead. “All I know is that Sinjar was attacked by ISIS and is now uninhabitable,” he says. “What happened to the Yazidis, I want to happen to them. I don’t want trials for them. When they slaughtered Yazidis, they did not offer them a trial. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”