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Iraq's lost boys: Former Islamic State child soldiers left without help

Hundreds of Iraqi boys, many of them Yazidis, were forced to become child soldiers by IS, but few are getting any support to help them move on from their experience

Before his rescue from the Islamic State group, Hani, a kidnapped Yazidi boy, had been sheltering for months in a tunnel in Mosul’s old city, hiding underground under constant aerial bombardment from the US-led coalition forces.

Water was so scarce, drops were given via a syringe and each person’s food allowance was just four dates per day. In the tunnel, he watched four other children die of thirst and multiple people wounded and killed in air strikes.

'All of us Yazidis with IS were close friends and always together, but they all died'

- Hani, former IS child soldier

Hani - not his real name - is now 13. He is one of the survivors among thousands of Yazidi and other children kidnapped by the militant group, now back with his family in northern Iraq after being rescued from Islamic State (IS) in 2017.

He lost the friends he had made in Mosul, saying sadly: “All of us Yazidis with IS were close friends and always together, but they all died.”

After taking control of extensive areas of northern Iraq in 2014, the Islamic State group abducted thousands of minority Yazidis, including young boys who were used as domestic slaves or trained as child soldiers. After indoctrinating them and training them with weapons, IS sent many to fight on the frontlines.

“IS took the young to brainwash them, and Hani had IS military training,” his father Mahmoud told MEE. “He can drive a car, he knows how to throw a grenade, he wore a suicide vest at all times.

"When the air strike hit the place where he was [in Mosul], he had only just taken it off to sleep. He was lucky. If he had been wearing it, it could have exploded."

Hani returned to his family with multiple traumas, physical as well as mental, being chronically malnourished, severely injured in an air strike, including bone breaks in both legs, and having partially forgotten his native Kurdish.

“We thought he needed psychological help when he came back, but I was the only one who helped him,” said Mahmoud, noting that the only external support received was an iPad donated by a Dutch NGO.

Lack of support

Although Hani has continued to exhibit some behavioural problems, especially outbursts of anger towards his mother, he physically healed and, now attending school near the internal displaced persons (IDP) camp where his family has lived for six years, lives as normal a life as possible.

Mahmoud said his son is gradually recovering, even without professional help, explaining: “He understands exactly what happened to him. He was forced to do it, and was not brainwashed. Thank God, he had a strong mind.”

Since the defeat of IS territorially in Iraq and Syria last year, almost 1,000 Yazidi boys, many of whom were former child soldiers, have returned to civilian life in Iraq, but most have received no de-radicalisation, psychological or reintegration support.

“It’s very dangerous - these boys have been brainwashed and their minds are still with IS,” said Yazidi negotiator Ali, who has spent the last four years working to rescue captive Yazidis from IS and other hardline groups.

“None of them want to go back to IS, but it’s still very dangerous. They’ve been brainwashed and trained to use all kinds of weapons, and I don’t know whether they may still blow themselves up.”

Ali said former IS child soldiers remained in urgent need of help.

“They need massive and sustained support - they need de-brainwashing and de-radicalising, and they also need help to forget about their experiences - but unfortunately no-one is providing this support,” he said.

“Even when we mention our religious things, it’s funny for them, because they’ve been brainwashed into Islam. There’s one child in a camp [in Dohuk] who still says: ‘When I grow up, I will kill you all.’”

Hani
Marwan, 15, escaped from Syria in March 2019 on the morning he said IS had ordered him to carry out a suicide car-bombing mission (MEE/Photo by Tom Westcott/Illustration by Mohamad Elaasar)

Hani is one of the luckier children who have returned to relatively stable families who have helped him recover from multiple traumas suffered during captivity.

Like others in this article, the names of Hani and his relatives have been changed to protect their identities.

Former child soldier Sufian, 19, who has also relied on family support since returning home, described a gruelling training schedule under IS, including intensive Islamic tuition followed by a month of military training in the Syrian desert.

“From 5am to 9am was sports training. Then we’d eat breakfast, and then it was weapons training and shooting practice. We trained with AK47s, PKTs [machine guns] and grenades,” he said. “After lunch we had training in military strategy.”

Sent to the frontlines to fight, Sufian only escaped from IS after a leg injury turned gangrenous and he was taken to a Kurdish-run hospital in northern Syria. From there, he eventually managed to return to Iraq.

A prosthetic leg, made in Iraq’s Kurdish region by an international organisation, is the only help he has received.

He was actively involved in trying to de-radicalise other Yazidi boys still with IS after his release, but told MEE: “No-one has talked to me about psychological support since I came back, or any kind of de-radicalisation.”

Those survivors fortunate enough to have supportive families seem to stand a better chance of reintegration than those returning to find themselves orphaned.

'I'd like to go back to school'

In the rural northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar, formerly controlled by IS, an estimated 120 young Shia women and children were abducted by the militants. Around 20 boys have returned home so far, many showing obvious signs of trauma, including brothers Ali, nine, and Ammar, seven, who spent five years with IS and returned to Iraq last summer.

“We’ve had nothing from the government and nothing from the hospital. No-one has offered us any help at all,” said their cousin Abu Haydar who, with the boys’ parents still missing, has taken charge of the brothers.

'We’ve had nothing from the government and nothing from the hospital. No-one has offered us any help at all'

- Abu Hassan, cousin of former IS captives, Tal Afar 

“At the beginning, Ali was very, very angry, but he’s getting better. He’s now only slightly angry. But there’s no psychological doctor here in Tal Afar anyway. If they had worse problems, to be honest, I don’t know what I would do.”

Ali, a shy, haunted-looking boy who avoids physical contact, is the complete opposite of hyperactive, smiley Ammar. Their youngest brother remains with an IS family, now living in Turkey, who the Iraqi government has been trying to repatriate, without success.

The brothers were treated as slaves, forced to wash and clean for IS fighters and given just one small meal a day.

“We couldn’t defend ourselves because they were big and strong and they beat us with a hosepipe,” Ali says quietly.

“Since we were taken by IS, we haven’t been to school. There was no proper school with IS, they only taught us about religion and fighting, how to use a knife and an AK [47]. I’d like to go back to school now but I should be in year five, not year two.”

Reintegration into family life is only one step, and the prospect of wider reintegration, such as returning to school, usually years behind other children their own age, is not enticing, especially for children who are traumatised from experiencing brutality. 

“I have received letters and requests from Tal Afar people, asking for help with children who have returned from Syria and have behavioural issues - they are brutal, they try to attack other children, and watch violent films,” said Dr Ali AlBayati, a member of Iraq’s High Commission for Human Rights.

“I receive many complaints about the lack of government support, psychological support or de-radicalisation support.”

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During a recent visit to Tal Afar, AlBayati met with two Shia former child solders, aged 12 and eight. Having lost their family and home, they live together alone in an abandoned IS family’s house, reliant on the local community and a small monthly stipend from an NGO to survive.

“Imagine their feelings, living in an IS home. They are still living through trauma to this day, but this is their only option,” he said.

“Such circumstances could push them to the wrong side in the future. Maybe they will be attracted to military groups or mafias, which is against the future stability and security of the country.”

With support so scarce and problems so profound, helping some of Tal Afar’s survivor children has proved beyond the scope of this impoverished rural backwater.

One young returnee was so severely traumatised that he was deemed insane and sent to an orphanage in Mosul, where the isolated Tal Afar community hoped better help could be provided.

Sufian managed to escape from IS after a leg injury turned gangrenous (Tom Westcott)
Sufian (L), 19, who had to have his leg amputated after being injured during his time as a forced child soldier with IS, sits with his father (MEE/Photo by Tom Westcott/Illustration by Mohamad Elaasar)

“There is no de-radicalisation support and this is a tremendous problem,” explained Haji Khalil Abu Muntadar, who heads the Hashd al-Shaabi [Popular Mobilisation] forces’ local security section, citing the case of another returnee who was sent to an orphanage in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala. 

“When I took him to Karbala, he told me: ‘I will return and kill you. You are Rafida' ["rejectors" - a pejorative term used by some Sunnis to describe Shias],” he said.

“In the Karbala orphanage he showed other children how to behead people, and kept looking at IS and al-Qaeda internet sites. Now he’s seeing a psychological doctor, but I don’t know how that’s going.”

Lack of programmes

Almost three years after Iraq declared IS defeated in the country, it still has no strategy for dealing with former child soldiers, according to AlBayati.

“We’ve talked a lot about Yazidi survivors, nationally and internationally, but, until now, Iraq has no national policy for this problem,” he said.

“This is now a new post-IS era, with different types of victims - IS survivors and former child soldiers - and we need to pass special laws, but it still hasn’t been decided which part of the government should be responsible for dealing with this.”

A proposed law supporting victims of IS, including reparation, efforts to locate survivors and offer financial support, has been awaiting parliamentary approval since spring last year but large-scale civilian protests, government changes and coronavirus have left the proposal on a back-burner. And, even if this law is passed, it is expected to be little more than a step in the right direction.

“We need special centres to help former child soldiers and we are working on this but, in general, psychiatry in Iraq is very weak,” AlBayati told MEE.

“At present, there is a total absence of programmes to deal with child soldiers, which is very dangerous for the future, as it’s possible they could have some future involvement with terrorism.”

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Although a new initiative is being started, with support from the International Organisation for Migration, to establish a telephone hotline for IS survivors in hard-to-reach rural areas, this is expected to be insufficient for the scale of the problem faced.

Iraq’s recent governments have also been criticised for exhibiting disparity in how they have treated young men who were trained or conscripted by IS, making unfair differentiations between former child soldiers of different faiths, especially Sunni boys recruited by IS on promises of money or power.

“All children recruited by IS should be seen primarily as victims, not criminals, but authorities are not treating Arab children as such, only Yazidi children,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“If you’re a Sunni Arab boy and were forcibly recruited, you’re prosecuted and sentenced for terrorism, but if you’re a Yazidi, you get to go home. It’s clearly a discriminatory approach.”

Wille also said the international definition of a child soldier - any under-18 year-old is not able to consent so is classed as a child soldier - was also not being followed in Iraq.

HRW estimated that, at the end of 2018, authorities in Iraq and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) were detaining approximately 1,500 children for alleged ISIS affiliation, with a 2019 report noting that hundreds of children, including at least 185 foreign children, had been convicted on terrorism charges and sentenced to prison terms.

“These child soldiers are victims, of course, and we need programmes for them. They need special rehabilitation, as well as education and future job opportunities. Leaving them sitting at home is not good because livelihoods in their areas have been lost, the land still hasn’t been cleared of IEDs and there are still IS sleeper cells,” said AlBayati. 

'Suddenly they have to be against IS'

The KRG is the only place in Iraq which, at present, has any kind of institution-led support for former child soldiers, but even the local health authority admits this remains inadequate.

“We do have a programme for children to combat brainwashing, but it’s not a sophisticated programme,” Dr Nezar Ismet Taib, director general of Dohuk’s Department of Health, told MEE.

The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Centre, established in 2001 to treat traumatised Kurdish children, has expanded to treat Yazidi survivors, but capacity is limited by funding shortages and the overwhelming numbers needing help for IS-related trauma.

“If they’re brainwashed, a multidisciplinary approach is needed, with doctors, teachers, psychologists and families also involved. It’s not an easy job. It’s very, very difficult to treat, especially with older children. They were part of the military, forced to kill, rape, and witness killings and beheadings,” he said.

“Before, they had to think and believe like IS, and then suddenly they have to be against IS. It’s complex for them, to keep changing their mind and beliefs.”

Only around 30 percent of Yazidi returnees have been registered for treatment in Dohuk, with the centre aware of 300 boys, out of 951 that the Office of Kidnapped Yazidis told MEE have been recorded as returning home.

Mosul
A tunnel under Mosul used by IS. Former child soldiers sheltered for months in the tunnels from airstrikes (AFP)

Survivors are often taken in by extended family and, with many of the Yazidi population in KRG areas still displaced and spread across 11 IDP camps, informal roadside settlements or borrowed homes, keeping track of their whereabouts is challenging. 

“New children are still returning but the difficult thing is to find them and bring them in for treatment. There are many kids who are ‘lost’ and going without treatment,” Taib admitted. 

“Some stay hidden, don’t say they were soldiers or even deny it, but sometimes we spot it in camps through symptoms,” said Professor Jan Ilham Kizilhan, the head of Dohuk’s recently established Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychotraumatology.

“[Former child soldiers] are aggressive, can exhibit bullying behaviour at school, and have no trust. Some still reject Yazidi culture or verbally attack family members. There are many psychological and social problems in families, if the child still has a family.”

Potential future threat

Not every former IS child soldier wants, or thinks he needs, psychological help. Yazidi survivor Marwan, 15, escaped from Syria’s Baghouz district in March 2019, on the morning he says IS had ordered him to carry out a suicide car-bomb mission.

“I haven’t had any psychological treatment. They offered it to me but I said no. I don’t need it. I’m fine,” he told MEE.

'We have to win back the trust, hearts and minds of these children but the IS brainwashing was very, very effective'

- Professor Jan Ilham Kizilhan, head of Dohuk’s Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychotraumatology

“The Yazidi community helped me with clothes but that was useless because they were too big. I was also sent to Yazidi religious school for four weeks. They talked about the Yazidi faith and how to pray and worship god, but I know this already and I don’t need to be taught.”

Now living in a remote rural village, 160km from Dohuk, in a house lent by another Yazidi family who fled to Europe, Marwan fills his days playing computer games. 

“Since I came back, I do nothing. I don’t want to go back to school. I’m not ready.” he said. “There are no jobs here and most of us Yazidis have been left in an impoverished situation with no-one to care for us.”

With Iraq lacking capacity to adequately address the problem of returning child soldiers, some international NGOs have made efforts to help. But, with funding shortages for long-term projects in Iraq, the long-term nature of trauma problems suffered by survivors of IS and the remote locations where needs prevail, their scope is also limited.

“NGOs usually offer only very short-term help and it’s not that effective,” said Kizilhan.

“We need long-term projects for child-soldiers. They have lost trust in humans and in humanity and this needs long-term, interdisciplinary help. We have to win back the trust, hearts and minds of these children but the IS brainwashing was very, very effective. According to my observations, it needs at least three years to change behaviour and thinking.”

Although supportive families can make a real difference, experts believe that orphaned former child soldiers or deeply traumatised survivors - failed by Iraq’s faltering systems and mostly lacking any meaningful psychological support - if left untreated, have the potential to pose a future threat. 

“IS’s aim was to break both personality and heritage. They turned [boys] against their parents and promised them a new life and perspective with IS, through torture and pressure.

"The aim now is to reintegrate children into a peaceful and normal society but integration is a great problem and Iraq has no facilities or capacity to deal with this problem,” Kizilhan said.

“But, if there is no help now, we may have the next generation of terrorists.”

Photo: Brothers Ali, nine, and Ammar, seven, who spent five years with IS, sit with Haji Khalil Abu Muntadar, the local security chief of the Hashd al-Shaabi (MEE/Photo by Tom Westcott/Illustration by Mohamad Elaasar)