Hundreds and potentially thousands of children have been left orphaned in the Iraqi city of Mosul and surrounding areas as a result of the Syrian war. Some however bear a second burden, the result of an ideology which has stripped them of their innocence.
To many in their own society, they are considered the “devil’s spawn”, stateless outcasts and unworthy of basic care. State welfare systems and aid agencies do not want to acknowledge them, reports The Guardian.
Army medic, Abu Hassan has treated the people of the Iraqi city of Mosul as they arrived from the war. Hassan said that soldiers, women and children often trembled in fear in front of him, but as he recounts, not nine-year-old Mohammed.
“He wasn’t a normal boy- he didn’t seem scared,” Hassan said shortly after treating Mohammed, one of the last to flee west Mosul earlier this month. “I chatted with him. I asked him normal questions, like: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ He said: I want to be a sniper’.”
“I was shocked,” said Hassan. “It’s not a normal thing for a child to say. I asked him: ‘What did your dad do?’ He said he was a sniper emir- the emir of snipers.”
Mohammed, is one of around 5,000 European men, women and children believed to have traveled to Islamic State territory since 2012 to fight with the Islamists or to live under the caliphate, writes the New York Times.
As a result of the terror groups’ occupation, the toll on the city’s residents, and especially its young, has begun to emerge. Now upon their return, most governments are focused on the short-term security, ignoring the needs of the damaged children.
Mohammed, who’s name the Guardian has changed in order to protect his identity, came home in early 2016 with his mother, a convert to Islam who is now on trial. He found himself in a world he had been trained to hate, where he trusted nothing and no one.
The boy had spent two years away from his European homeland in a place where counting was taught by the strokes of a whip across a torture victim’s back; where watching public beheadings was part of the school curriculum; where his only role was to be moulded into a future jihadi, reports The New York Times.
Fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, Daniel Koehler, said, “he felt surrounded by evil people… these children are put under constant stress, being told you will burn, you will be tortured if you do not do this, if you do not kill this infidel, you will end up in hell, you mother will end up in hell. It is a constant psychological torture.”
The children of Isis are hidden away in aid camps across northern Iraq. Many are in private homes in the liberated east of Mosul and in the Kurdish north. Family members, volunteer workers and a small number of poorly funded officials are assembling as much support as they can offer.
The head of the Office of Women and Children, Sukaina Mohamed Younes, received Mohammed from the Iraqi army medic and reunited him with an uncle in Ebril, away from the brewing revenge of locals in Mosul.
She said the scale of social problems facing families in post-Isis areas was overwhelming.
“We have received from Mosul [tens of thousands] of children who lost their mother and father,” she said. “You can say [75%] are from Isis families. We do not have an exact number, because some children don’t have an ID, so we don’t know who they are. I can tell you that 600 Isis orphans are in Hammam al-Alil [refugee camp].”
Sukaina added, “Until now there is no programme to deal with these cases. I gave a proposal to the government. We were thinking, before, to put all Isis orphans… in one high security camp. But I don’t know what happened with this. The problem is the people do not accept Isis families any more.”
Adding to this is the near total absence of psychological or psychiatric services in Iraq and an unwillingness to embrace therapy programmes that could treat the infinite traumas of war.
“We have a problem for Isis children… revenge. Do you think normal people affected by Isis will forget all of this? It will be much more difficult than Isis itself. Much more difficult than the military operation. When the east side [of Mosul] was liberated, I met a woman who lost all her family to Isis. She said: ‘I won’t forget my neighbour. He took my son to the mosque, and after a few days my son started telling me I was an infidel, his dad was an infidel.”
Senior Iraqi researcher at Human Rights Watch, Belkis Wille, said the children of Isis were treated as adults by the state judiciary.
“The only different is that a kid in Iraq cannot get the death penalty,” she said. “They don’t have this idea that if you were recruited by Isis as a kid, you’re a victim. They don’t understand that. And they don’t have any rehabilitation/deradicalisation programmes. The reason they don’t? They say what’s the point: they’re going to be locked up for ever or get the death penalty, so why would you bother rehabilitating them? That’s the same for kids. Why make the effort?”
“It’s not just the Iraqi government that needs to find a way to deal with this. The international community should also help us find a resolution for these people. Without their help it will be difficult, because it needs special people to deal with these children.”
For now, Sukaina believes rehabilitation is still possible for some of Mosul’s young people. A necessary first step is to disavow beliefs that were ingrained through dogma and trauma. She said, “I believe that between the ages of eight and 12 it is easy to help them return to normal. Teenagers are really difficult because they have a stronger ideology.”