In Iraq, minority children haunted by ghosts of Daesh captivity

Many camps are hosting hundreds of thousands of minority Iraqis displaced by Daesh. (AFP)
Updated 14 July 2019

In Iraq, minority children haunted by ghosts of Daesh captivity

  • Dozens of Yazidi and Turkmen children were rescued in recent months as Daesh’s ‘caliphate’ collapsed in Syria
  • Displaced families rely on aid groups for food and medical care

KHANKE DISPLACEMENT CAMP, Iraq: Brainwashed and broken, the Daesh group’s youngest victims are struggling to recover from years of jihadist captivity as they return to their own traumatized minority communities in Iraq.
Dozens of Yazidi and Turkmen children were rescued in recent months as Daesh’s “caliphate,” notorious for its use of child soldiers and “sex slaves,” collapsed in Syria.
Many have been reunited with their families, but their mental recovery has been slowed by prolonged displacement, a lack of resources, and a milieu accustomed to fearing, not forgiving, Daesh members.
Lama, a 10-year-old Yazidi girl, has repeatedly threatened to stab herself or jump from a tall building in the few months since she returned to Iraq.
“I fear she’ll never be like other Yazidi children,” said her mother Nisrin, 34.
All names in the family have been changed to protect their identities.
Lama has spent half her lifetime held by Daesh, who forced her to convert to Islam and speak Arabic instead of her native Kurdish.
During AFP’s visit to her tent in the Khanke displacement camp in northwestern Iraq, Lama appeared engrossed in a mobile shooting game with her cousins Fadi and Karam, freed from Daesh around the same time.
Like the boys, Lama dressed in black and kept her hair short. The trio spoke Arabic to one another, switching to Kurdish when addressing her mother.
“They’re still brainwashed. When they’re bored, they start talking about how they wish they were back with Daesh (IS),” said Nisrin, saying no psychologist had visited them.
Virtually every generation coming of age in Iraq has been seared by conflict, presenting an “unprecedented” challenge, said Laila Ali of the UN children’s agency.
UNICEF does not know exactly how many children Daesh recruited, how many returned or where they live.
It estimates that 1,324 children in total were abducted by armed actors in Iraq between January 2014 and December 2017, when Baghdad declared Daesh defeated, but expects the real number is higher.
Of those freed over recent years, dozens live in orphanages or shelters in Baghdad, the former Daesh stronghold Mosul, and the Yazidi regions of Sheikhan and Sinjar.
Others accused of Daesh affiliation are in detention, with some access to psychosocial support in the form of religious re-education.
But the vast majority are growing up untracked and untreated in Iraq’s camps, which host some 800,000 children.
“There are no child psychologists in Dohuk,” said Nagham Hasan, a Yazidi gynecologist who has become an informal therapist for survivors amid the lack of resources.
The rolling hills of Dohuk are dotted with camps hosting hundreds of thousands of Iraqis displaced by Daesh, particularly from the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar further south.
Displaced families rely on aid groups for food and medical care, and there are even schools in the camps for children. But targeted psychological support for minors is hard to come by.
Hasan said a dozen groups were implementing generic psychosocial programs in camps with few results.
Yazidi cleric Baba Shawish demanded international agencies ramp up services.
“These organizations claim to provide mental support, but do you really think someone who spent five years under Daesh will be cured in five minutes?” he said.
“They need days and months to be rehabilitated.”
Forced recruits will need tailored treatments based on age, said Mia Bloom, a US-based academic studying child soldiers.
Abducted infants may be more easily rehabilitated as they have fewer memories of life under Daesh, while those taken as teenagers “have pre-conflict memories and can go back to their happy childhoods,” she told AFP.
But those recruited during formative years, like Lama and Fadi, were taught to despise minorities and may lack any positive recollections of their hometowns.
“They need to have their religious identities recharged,” said Bloom.
That will require some heavy lifting from the communities themselves, still terrorized by Daesh and often treating rescued children as jihadists-in-wait.
To counter that assumption, UNICEF hosts workshops with religious and tribal leaders to reiterate that the children are, first and foremost, victims of Daesh.
“One of the biggest challenges in rehabilitation and reintegration of children with perceived affiliations is not so much the children’s experiences, but the negative perception from the adults around them,” said Ali.
Five years after Daesh’s rampage across a third of the country, minorities are mostly facing the demons haunting their young ones alone.
Nisrin, herself held by Daesh for two years, said she was self-medicating to cope with her anxiety.
“We’re in this tent together day and night,” she said.
“If they were taken out for a few hours per day, I could rest and they could learn something.”


Airstrikes kill 19 civilians in northwest Syria

Updated 08 December 2019

Airstrikes kill 19 civilians in northwest Syria

  • The airstrikes on Idlib province have intensified over the past few weeks

AL-BARA, Syria: Syrian regime and Russian airstrikes on Saturday killed 19 civilians, eight of them children, in the country’s last major opposition bastion, a war monitor said.

The air raids in the rebel-run northwestern region of Idlib also wounded several others, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Airstrikes by regime ally Russia killed four civilians including a child in the village of Al-Bara in the south of the region, the Observatory said.

An AFP correspondent at the scene saw rescue workers pick through the rubble of a two-story home whose concrete roof had collapsed.

Rescuers carried away the body of a victim wrapped in a blanket on a stretcher.

Russian raids also killed nine civilians including three children in the nearby village of Balyun, the Observatory said.

Crude barrel bombs dropped by government helicopters killed five civilians including three children in the village of Abadeeta, also in the same area.

In the southeast of the embattled region, a raid by a regime aircraft killed another child in the village of Bajghas, the Observatory said.

The Britain-based monitor, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria, says it determines the provenance of an airstrike by looking at flight patterns and the aircraft and munitions involved.

The airstrikes on Idlib province have intensified over the past few weeks as the government appears to be preparing for an offensive on rebel-held areas east of the province to secure the main highway that links the capital Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest and once commercial center.

The Idlib region, which is home to some 3 million people including many displaced by Syria’s civil war, is controlled by the country’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

The Damascus regime has repeatedly vowed to take back control of Idlib.

Bashar Assad’s forces launched a blistering military campaign against the region in April, killing around 1,000 civilians and displacing more than 400,000 people from their homes. A cease-fire announced by Moscow has largely held since late August.

But the Observatory says deadly bombardment and skirmishes have persisted, with more than 200 civilians killed in the region since the deal.

Syria’s war has killed over 370,000 people and displaced millions from their homes since beginning in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-Assad protests.

Earlier, the Observatory and the opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense said four people, including a child and two women, were killed in airstrikes on the opposition-held village of Bara.

The Observatory said five others were killed in the village of Ibdeita and a child in another village nearby.

Different casualty figures are common in the immediate aftermath of violence in Syria, where an eight-year conflict has killed about 400,000 people, wounded more than a million and displaced half the country’s prewar population.

Syrian troops launched a four-month offensive earlier this year on Idlib, which is dominated by al-Qaida-linked militants. The government offensive forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee their homes.

A fragile cease-fire halted the government advance in late August but has been repeatedly violated in recent weeks.