In camps for internally displaced persons and in the war-torn towns and villages of western Iraq, there is one legacy of the so-called Islamic State’s brutal reign whose magnitude experts and authorities are only beginning to understand: traumatized children.
From the stateless children of ISIS members, to child soldiers and the tens of thousands indoctrinated in ISIS schools, a generation of young Iraqis has been traumatized and radicalized by the nihilistic jihadist group. They are at war with themselves and their own community.
In the words of one trauma specialist, many of these children have, as a result, lost their “trust in humans and humanity.”
Unless authorities and the international community work to help reintegrate these children into society, including by providing counseling and psychiatric care, experts warn that Iraq and Syria will face a generational “time-bomb” of extremism, deliberately planted by ISIS, that could one day again threaten regional stability.
Experts warn, too, of a lack of trained mental health professionals to deal directly with the children’s emotional wounds, but they hold out hope for one solution that may be more within reach: If enough teachers can be found, getting the kids back in a school environment could create the stability needed for some healing.
There are no precise numbers for the children of ISIS members or the number of children who were conscripted into the group as fighters.
Experts place the number of ISIS child soldiers at 3,000, while tens of thousands are believed to have received training and indoctrination in ISIS camps and schools in Iraq and Syria.
As the Iraqi military has liberated towns and villages, it has been confronted with the challenge of child soldiers. Hundreds of children as young as 13 are being held in prisons across Iraq on suspicion of being ISIS fighters and are facing a lifetime of imprisonment, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Iraqi government has also struggled with what to do with thousands of unaccompanied and fatherless children, so-called ISIS orphans, believed to be the children of ISIS members and fighters.
The Iraqi government opened a detention camp specifically for suspected ISIS families in Bartella, east of Mosul, in July, but closed the camp a few weeks later following an outcry from the international community that the government was expecting humanitarian funds to pay for what amounted to open air prisons.
Yet now Iraqi authorities are enacting a revised policy, allowing Iraqi families to leave internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and return to their liberated home towns and villages, except for the families and children with suspected ties to ISIS, creating de-facto ISIS family camps.
“As soon as you put these children in ISIS camps, they will be stigmatized for life as ISIS. We are talking about a stigma that will be passed down generations, rather than ever integrating into society,” says Belkis Wille, senior Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch, who has visited the camps.
“When you are talking about a child whose only sin was to be born to the wrong parents,” she says, “this approach of placing people in camps with labels is collective punishment – and dangerous.”
The indoctrination of children goes beyond the sons and daughters of ISIS fighters. Tens of thousands of children in Iraq and Syria have been forced to go to ISIS-run schools and training camps, radicalizing an entire generation.
The line between child fighter and student is blurred.
In ISIS-run schools, children count guns and tanks to learn math, while others are gathered to watch and celebrate executions, say experts and refugees. Children were used heavily in propaganda campaigns, both to threaten peoples and governments and to urge mothers and children to follow the so-called caliphate’s brutal laws.
The more talented children were conscripted into ISIS’s fighting unit, the so-called “cubs of the caliphate.” Other children were abducted and subjected to beatings and torture to persuade them to train as soldiers, experts say. Children took target practice, and were taught how to fight with a knife and perform beheadings. Some were forced to carry out executions – sometimes of their own family members – with their own hands.
It is a child radicalization process with few parallels in modern history. Nikita Malik, a senior research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society in London who has studied ISIS’s education system and use of child soldiers, likens it to the fascist Hitler Youth movement – an organized educational system coupled with, in this case, an extreme jihadist ideology.
“We have never seen these things come together before,” she says.
Experts say the level of radicalization and trauma has left an entire generation of Iraqis and Syrians in need of long-term counseling, psychological support, and reintegration support that very few are getting.
The Iraqi government has neither the resources nor expertise to provide counseling.
Aid organizations are attempting to step in to provide rudimentary psycho-social support to women and children traumatized and indoctrinated by ISIS in IDP camps across Iraq, but are struggling to find specialists well-versed in local language, culture, and traditions, experts say.
“Many organizations will hold their hand and ask how they are feeling, but they are unable to give a diagnosis, let alone treatment,” says Sherri Kraham Talabany, whose Kurdistan-based organization SEED Foundation has been providing psychotherapy for children traumatized and radicalized by ISIS across Kurdistan.
“A lot of these kids are going without services.”
The SEED Foundation says there is a shortage of qualified male psychologists with roots in the community to treat child-soldiers and radicalized young boys who were taught for years by ISIS that mixing with strange women – let alone receive treatment from them – is a sin.
A new psychological training center at the University of Dohuk opened this year, yet there are still only a handful of psychologists in northern Iraq who specialize in dealing with trauma.
Dr. Jan Ilhan Kizilhan, a German-Kurdish trauma specialist, has treated hundreds of children traumatized by ISIS, including child soldiers and torture victims, in northern Iraq. He says organizations are dealing with children who have been exposed to executions, jail, torture, and sexual assault.
The experiences have fundamentally changed the way these children view the world.
“These children have observed a man-made disaster, a human killing machine, and as a result they have lost a trust in humans and humanity,” Dr. Kizilhan says.
Multiple health-care and aid specialists operating in northern Iraq listed the same symptoms among children: post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), aggression, anxiety, fear, and depression. Human interaction is difficult. When faced with any challenge or stress, the children’s first instinct is to respond with violence.
The trauma children suffered under ISIS has had a destabilizing effect at home, leaving parents and relatives who are themselves traumatized unable to cope. Some distraught families have gone to SEED and asked the organization to “take their children.”
“They don’t have any trust in the parents because they have a feeling that their parents let them down and they were unable to protect them; they resent them,” Kizilhan says.
Relief in the classroom
Short of long-term counseling, experts say children traumatized by ISIS need a sense of stability and routine, a feeling of security that is nearly impossible in war-torn Syria and Iraq. But experts say they can find such stability in the classroom.
“School is psychotherapy itself; this type of daily ritual of waking up, having breakfast, going to school, and having homework provides a sense of stability for these children,” Kizilhan says
Experts say school also helps traumatized children to interact with peers and with adults, socializing with – and eventually trusting – others once again.
The Iraqi government and the international community are attempting to provide schooling for thousands of children in liberated areas and for the displaced, helping children catch up ahead of the start of the Iraqi school year in late September. For 600,000 children in Mosul, 500 schools have reopened, while several schools have been opened in camps for the displaced.
However, Iraq is reporting a teacher shortage in war-torn cities such as Mosul, classes are over-full with as many as 100 students per class, while many schools – including 30 percent of all schools in Mosul – are contaminated by explosive devices, according to the UN.
More than 1 million of Iraq’s children are out of school. In Syria, where the country’s civil war still wages, providing education to children in recently liberated towns and villages is all but an impossibility.
The stakes, mental health advocates and extremism experts say, are huge.
ISIS strategically exploited Iraq and Syria’s children as a “resource,” extremism experts say, using their indoctrination and training as a way to plant the seeds for ISIS’s return years after the inevitable fall of its so-called caliphate.
If former child fighters are not reintegrated into society, and if those with ties to ISIS are stigmatized by societies and governments, there could be an entire generation “ripe” for a return to violence.
“ISIS invested into children as a jihadism incubator, a future resource of trained fighters to tap into long after ISIS reverted from a state back into an organization,” says Hassan Abu Haniya, an Amman-based expert in jihadist groups.
“Without reconciliation, without support, and without reintegration of these children, this will lead to ISIS’s return as an organization in Iraq and Syria in the quickest way possible.”