PHOTO: Freed Yazidi boys with their mother inside a bus outside Kirkuk in northern Iraq (Bram Janssen/AP)
Florian Neuhof writes for The National:
In a bustling office in the suburbs of the Kurdish city of Dohuk, 11-year-old Raed quietly begins to recount his ordeal at the hands of the Islamic State. It does not take long for his eyes to well up.
The diminutive, soft-spoken Yazidi boy had been earmarked as a future jihadist and potential suicide bomber by the Islamic State, which is grooming the next generation of fighters for its self-proclaimed caliphate in camps set up for this purpose.
Hundreds of Yazidi boys have been forced to undergo the brutal training after being taken from their parents when ISIS attacked Iraq’s northern Sinjar region in August 2014. Raed struggles to hold back his tears as the memories come flooding back.
“I forgot about some things, but other things are more difficult to forget. I can’t get them out of my head,” he says.
Raed spent eight months in a camp called Farouk near Raqqa, the Islamic State’s main stronghold in Syria, where about a hundred boys were subjected to a gruelling daily routine aimed at forging the model jihadi. He says roughly half of them were fellow Yazidis who had been forced to convert to Islam. The others were children of ISIS members sent there by their parents.
The boys were woken at four in the morning for prayers, the start of a long day filled with military training and indoctrination. They were forced to watch videos of beheadings and other violent deaths, gory propaganda that has become a trademark of ISIS’s recruitment efforts. If they failed to memorise the Qur’an, they were beaten.
Snatched from their families and subjected to constant manipulation, the boys began to absorb the extremist group’s toxic ideology.
“I started believing the things they taught me. Many of the kids in the camp have been indoctrinated,” says Raed.
To turn them into effective fighters, the boys at Farouk camp were taught how to shoot Kalashnikovs and machine guns. Propaganda material that the Islamic State has released online shows boys dressed in combat fatigues brandishing weapons and practicing martial arts. Their hair is closely cropped and they wear black bandannas with the ISIS logo around their head.
The ISIS “Brainwashing” Camps
The cruel irony is that the Yazidi boys are being brainwashed into becoming loyal servants of the group that devastated their community.
Estimates vary, but the Islamic State is believed to have kidnapped about 5,000 people when its fighters stormed into Sinjar, seeking to eradicate the ancient Yazidi religion that they regard as devil worship. The women and girls were sold to ISIL members as sex slaves and servants in Iraq and Syria, while many of the boys ended up in the camps. The men were rounded up and shot.
The Islamic State reportedly has five training camps for boys in Syria. There are at least two such camps in Iraq, in Mosul and the nearby town of Tel Afar, according to a Yazidi teenager who was trained at both places.
Abu Shija, a Yazidi who helps smuggle members of the community out of ISIS areas, estimates that there are about 600 Yazidi boys in the camps in Syria, cut off from the outside world and closely guarded.
“We have only been able to rescue a small number of them so far, unfortunately. It has become very difficult to get these children back. Some of our people have died trying to rescue them,” he says.
According to figures provided by the Kurdistan Regional Government, only 13 of the 603 Yazidi boys freed in Syria and Iraq so far were snatched from the camps. Raed was lucky that he was granted leave to visit his mother, who was kept as a slave in Raqqa, and who was smuggled out with her children during his stay.
Efforts to rescue Yazidis began almost as soon as they were trucked off by the Islamic State in 2014. Men like Abu Shija with connections to Mosul and Syria established clandestine networks to smuggle captured women and children out. Others were ransomed by their families. Altogether, 2,379 Yazidis have been rescued or ransomed so far, according to the KRG.
The Office of Kidnapped Affairs, established by the KRG and financed by Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, co-ordinates the rescue efforts, and it is here that The National spoke to Raed.
The few Yazidi boys who have escaped ISIL’s camps struggle to rid themselves of the extremist ideology that was beaten into them, which makes it difficult for them to reintegrate into their community.
“When I was with them, I forgot that I was a Yazidi. I was ready to fight for Daesh,” says Raed, who made it out of Raqqa in November last year.
Typically, it takes at least half a year before the brainwashing is reversed, says Khairi Bozani, the representative for Yazidi affairs at the KRG’s Ministry for Religious Affairs.
The Yazidis from Sinjar now live in refugee camps in the Kurdish region, and many families have been shattered, making it harder for the boys to find their way back to normality.
“Most of the children that are rescued have lost their parents. When they come back we send them to their relatives, but some of them are only distant relatives,” says Mr Bozani. He cites the example of a rescued boy who was taken in by his uncle’s family, which already had 15 children to look after.
With no money to spend on psychological treatment, the Yazidi community is wary of these brainwashed boys who have been trained to kill, says Mr Bozani.
“Some of these kids still pray, and they still act as if they were with ISIS,” he says. When their picture is taken for registration, most of them instinctively make the ISIL hand gesture of pointing to the sky.
But not all are brainwashed. Ahmed, a 16 year-old who underwent jihadi training in camps in Tel Afar and Mosul, escaped ISIS’s clutches with his brother, aunt and cousin in May last year. Tel Afar is close to the Kurdish front lines, and several groups of Yazidi captives have managed to cross over.
Ahmed was captured along with his father and brother after they stayed behind in their village of Hardan because there were not enough cars for the entire family to escape. The jihadists beat him severely when he refused to reveal where he had hidden his mobile phone, and he endured nine months of hardship in the training camps.
“They told me that I am a jihadi and that I have to kill Yazidis because they are unbelievers,” he says.
Ahmed’s father is still missing, and the 16-year-old now lives in a refugee camp with his mother and brother. His slight frame and childlike demeanor belie his age. It is as if his development stopped the day the extremists upended his world almost two years ago. While his head is free of ISIS’s toxic beliefs, the trauma of his experience remains.
“I tried to forget what happened many times, but I can’t,” he says.