Children of ISIS fighters struggle for survival in Iraq

Some of the most invisible victims of the Islamic State's caliphate are children of the fighters themselves. Traumatized, alone, and stigmatized by the actions of their parents, their lives reveal the long road of recovery ahead in sectarian-ridden Iraq. 

Maya Alleruzzo/AP
Dawoud Suleiman plays with a doll as his sisters Dawlat, (l.), and Omaima, sit with him in their tent at Dakuk Camp, near Kirkuk, Iraq, on April 15, 2018. Their father and other family members belonged to the Islamic State group.

A family of six lost children lives quietly in a small apartment among strangers in this northern Iraqi city. The "man of the house," an 18-year-old, heads out each morning looking for day labor jobs to pay the rent. His 12-year-old sister acts as the mother, cooking meals, cleaning, and caring for her young siblings.

Their home village is less than an hour's drive away, but they can't go back – Shiite militiamen burned down their house because their father belonged to the Islamic State group. And they fear retaliation by their former neighbors, so deep is the anger at the militants who once ruled this area.

So the Suleiman children are left to fend for themselves. Their father is in prison. Their mother died years ago. They are traumatized by deaths of loved ones in the war and by their own family turmoil. In their temporary home, they lie low, worried their new neighbors will learn of their family's ISIS connection.

"I am tired," said the 12-year-old, Dawlat, a slim girl whose face is almost unshakably solemn. "My mother visits me in my dreams. I get scared when the power is out at night. I would love my father and mother to be here next to me."

Thousands of children of Islamic State group members, many of them abandoned like Dawlat's family, are the innocent victims of the brutal rise and destructive fall of Daesh, the acronym by which ISIS is known. The stain they carry points to how thoroughly Iraq's social fabric was torn apart by the militants' nearly three-year-rule over much of the country's north and west.

When the Sunni Muslim ISIS took over those territories in a 2014 blitz, it massacred Shiite Muslims, Kurds, Christians, Yazidis, Sunni Muslim fighters, and members of the police or military who fell into its hands. And it drove out others, often either destroying or giving away their homes.

It inflicted a radical version of Shariah law on fellow Sunnis, killing many who violated it or those who opposed their rule. Some Iraqi Sunnis joined the group, either out of conviction or because of the economic benefits membership brought. Many more were its victims. Informants turned in neighbors, leading to punishments ranging from lashings to a bullet in the head in a public square.

Now that ISIS has been driven out of almost all its territory, many of its victims want vengeance.

A senior police officer in the northern province of Nineveh said he knew of at least 100 homes in and around the city of Mosul that have been demolished by tribesmen angry over ISIS members living there. Daesh-linked families have been shot at and had grenades thrown at their homes, he said. Members of the Yazidi religious minority – whom the militants singled out for some of their worst brutalities, massacres of the men and enslavement of the women – have retaliated by destroying homes in Arab villages in their heartland in the Singar area, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with his agency's regulations.

Thousands of Iraqis are in prison over suspected ISIS ties and an unknown number of Daesh members were killed in the war. That leaves potentially tens of thousands of children without male heads of households and often without female ones.

The stigma against the children is powerful.

Even extended families in some cases refuse to take in abandoned children of ISIS members, said a relief official with an international agency that has worked to find homes for such children. The relatives may worry about being tainted themselves or come under pressure from their tribes not to accept the kids, she said, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to talk about the agency's work.

Most children of Iraqi ISIS members live mingled among the hundreds of thousands still languishing in camps for those displaced by the three years of fighting that brought down ISIS. More than 1,000 live with incarcerated mothers in overcrowded jails or juvenile detention facilities.

A few dozen are in orphanages. One, in Baghdad, houses the children of foreign jihadis who came from abroad to join ISIS and are now dead or imprisoned.

Police have set up checkpoints on all streets leading to it. There has already been at least one foiled attempt to attack the orphanage.

The children at the center of this resentment are often profoundly traumatized, whether from their lives with the Islamic State group or from the war itself.

At another orphanage, in Mosul, a 9-year-old Iraqi girl named Amwaj said her father was killed fighting for ISIS. Then her home was hit by shelling, killing her mother and three of her siblings. She watched her mother's body being dug from the rubble.

The girl, whose name means "waves" in Arabic, looked haunted, her eyes wandering and often near tears, her voice barely audible. In the orphanage, she takes care of her three surviving brothers – Mohammed, Hashem, and Tahrir.

She said she remembers her father giving her money to buy chips and soda. She dreams of him coming to the orphanage to take her home. She dreams of her mother brushing her hair.

Dawlat, her brother Saleh and their siblings – Abdullah, 16; 8-year-old Adam; a 6-year-old sister, Umaimah; and 4-year-old Dawoud – carry on their shoulders the multiple tragedies they endured from the time ISIS took over their hometown, outside the city of Hawija, in 2014.

They suffered at the hands of Daesh, at the hands of Daesh's enemies and at the hands of their own father.

Their father joined the group and worked repairing generators for the militants. An older brother also joined and was killed fighting for ISIS. An older sister was killed by a roadside bomb as she tried to flee ISIS territory.

Family turmoil also tore them apart: It emerged that their father abused one of his daughters. Saleh confronted his father and they lived for months as enemies under one roof. They came to blows several times. Saleh said he even thought of killing his father at night – "but he was awake with his gun next to him."

In retaliation, Saleh said, the father turned him in to Daesh for selling cigarettes, which were banned under ISIS. The militants flogged Saleh.

The teen fled to Kurdish-held territory in March 2016, only to be held for six months by Kurdish fighters on suspicion he belonged to Daesh. Saleh said they hung him from the ceiling by his hands and beat the soles of his feet with a hose.

The abused sister was married off to an ISIS fighter, who was later killed; now 14, she is married again, the second wife of a policeman, and living in a displaced camp.

Meanwhile, Daesh found a new wife for their father, forcing a Shiite woman to marry him. The woman, whose own husband had been killed, brought her own four children with her.

Two months later, Iraqi forces overran Hawija. The father shaved his beard to shed signs of his ISIS allegiance and fled with his family, hiding among the tens of thousands of others escaping the city.

But his new wife turned him in, telling Kurdish fighters at a checkpoint that he was Daesh. The fighters beat him, then dragged him away – the last any of his family has seen him. The new wife left with her children. She was with them so briefly and wanted so little to do with the family she was forced into that Dawlat and her siblings don't even know her name.

The kids were shunted into a camp for the displaced, where they lived for nearly a year. Finally, the husband of another of their sisters arranged an apartment for them in an impoverished Kurdish neighborhood of Kirkuk.

Surrounded by neighbors belonging to a community persecuted by ISIS, Saleh fears being found out. At the same time, members of their extended family have warned them it's not safe to return to their home village, where other relatives might support them. The husband of another of their sisters was arrested a month ago after someone recognized him in the streets as a Daesh member.

"I'm often close to tears. I'm exhausted. I feel like I'm 30 after everything I've gone through," Saleh said.

Dawlat's childhood has been stripped away. At their apartment in Kirkuk, she cooks three meals a day; while the younger children are at school, she cleans the house, makes the bed, washes dishes and does laundry. She boasts she can now cook lentils and potatoes and chicken, though she admits she doesn't always get the rice right.

There are moments when a smile illuminates Dawlat's face, temporarily sweeping away her perpetual haunted look. She talks of how she once loved school and still hopes to become a doctor or teacher.

More immediately, she hopes to get married. In rural Iraq, marriage of young girls is common. Once married, she said, it would be religiously permitted for her to wear make-up. "I'd like to go to a hairdresser. I have never been to a hair salon," she said. "I like my hair long, but I would like to dye it a different color."

But then she reverts to the little girl she is – longing to play, regretting her burdens and, despite everything, missing her father.

"He is so dear to me.... I want him back with us," she whispered, so Saleh could not hear.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Additional reporting by Associated Press writer Salar Salim in Irbil, Iraq. 

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