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.”


Alexandra Najjar: The face of Beirut’s man-made tragedy 

Updated 42 min 45 sec ago

Alexandra Najjar: The face of Beirut’s man-made tragedy 

  • Death of three-year-old from injuries caused by August 4 explosions has brought grieving nation together
  • Outpouring of online tributes to Alexandra testified to the despair and anguish of Lebanese across the world

LONDON: In an ideal world, Alexandra Najjar should have been able to enjoy the rest of a pleasant Mediterranean summer with her family. Once the coronavirus outbreak in Lebanon had been tamed, she should have been able to experience her first day of school.

She would have made many new friends and begun to absorb all the knowledge that a three-year-old is capable of when they first enter kindergarten.

And as the days turned into weeks, which turned into months, which turned into years, Alexandra’s parents would have watched her grow into a young girl, enjoy life, dream big and perhaps achieve greatness in some field.

Alas, in the harsh real world of a crisis-wracked Lebanon, the dreams of Alexandra’s parents will remain just that.

Some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate haphazardly stored in a warehouse at the Port of Beirut exploded as Alexandra was playing with a friend on the evening of August 4, leaving her severely injured.

Shockwaves from that blast devastated Beirut, leaving its streets blanketed in debris and shards of glass — and many of its residents caked in grey dust and crimson-red blood.

Photos and videos of Alexandra were shared widely on social media and tributes poured in online. (Reuters )

Three days later, after being in a critical condition in a hospital and suffering internal bleeding in her brain, Alexandra succumbed to her wounds.

“You killed us in our own home, in a place where I thought I could leave my family, protect my family . . . where if crimes are happening and we don’t have anything in this country, then at least we have our home where we can be safe,” said Paul Najjar, Alexandra’s grief-stricken father, in a TV interview on Saturday evening, assailing Lebanon’s leaders.

“What you did is a crime at the cost of our family that is so very united and this for me, at the most, is a crime at the cost of love because if there’s anything I should believe in, it’s this  — which was the foundation of our family, it still is and will continue to be so.”

As the pain of the Najjar family’s loss sank in, photos and videos of Alexandra — or “Alixou,” the name by which parents called her — began to be shared widely via social media platforms and WhatsApp groups, both in Lebanon and outside it.

Tributes poured in online, testifying to the despair and anguish Lebanese across the world felt in the aftermath of the explosions. Alexandra’s untimely death had put a human face on Beirut’s horrible tragedy.

 

In one of the pictures, Alexandra is seen sitting atop her father’s shoulders as he took part in a march during last year’s October 17 “revolution,” demanding an end to Lebanon’s twin bane of corruption and sectarianism.

The protesters were calling for a better world for all Lebanese — and a brighter future for Alexandra.

The captions accompanying the photos point to the impact of the Najjar family’s tragedy on the Lebanese people and diaspora.

“This is a photo of Alexandra protesting for a better Lebanon to remove the corrupt government and no one listened and now she’s in heaven,” former Miss USA Rima Fakih wrote below a post on Instagram.

Another caption says: “Alexandra, you are in each of our hearts and prayers today and always. Your death will not be in vain . . . we will make sure of it!”

Alexandra was one of the youngest victims of the Beirut explosions, whose human cost so far includes 150 deaths, nearly 6,000 injured and another 300,000 homeless.

After citizens and residents independently organized and cleaned up the streets and homes of the areas most affected by the blast’s impact, shock turned to anger.

 

 

“My message to the Lebanese is a message of unity,” Paul Najjar said in the interview. “They killed us — they didn’t kill Christians or Muslims or politically-affiliated or not politically-affiliated. There is none of this anymore — a message to all the people who are still following these people.

“Please, enough. We need to stand together. We need to stand united so that we can make the change, so we can revolt for the sake of Alexandra and every child and every family that wants to live in this country like we had hope for.”

Paul Najjar said he and his wife returned to Lebanon and set up a company in an effort to help the country.

“We had hope that we would help the country. We also hoped that Alixou would grow up in Lebanon,” he said.

On Saturday, thousands of Lebanese made their way to Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square demanding accountability for the explosions, and the resignation of all government officials. Many of them carried nooses, which they used for symbolic hangings of Lebanon’s principal political actors, including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

The government responded by deploying riot police and the army, who used rubber bullets and tear gas to subdue similar protests in front of the parliament in Riad Al-Solh Square and the nearby Beirut Souks.

Lebanese Red Cross and the Islamic Emergency and Relief Corps figures showed that the clashes left 728 more Lebanese injured, of whom 153 were taken to hospital and 575 treated on site.

“For your information, rubber bullets could kill and cause permanent damage. If necessary, it should be aimed at legs only. Yesterday, and in one hospital, there were seven open surgical eyes and a ruptured abdominal spleen,” Mohammad Jawad Khalifeh, a former Minister of Health, said on Twitter.

Meanwhile, little light has been shed by the government on why such a huge quantity of a highly combustible chemical was stored next to the Beirut Port Silos building after being confiscated from a Russian-leased ship six years ago.

“The incident might be a result of negligence or external intervention through a missile or a bomb,” President Michel Aoun said on Friday.

Whatever the truth, UNICEF has warned that almost 80,000 of those displaced by the “incident” are children whose families are in desperate need of support. 

One children’s hospital in the Karantina area, which had a specialized unit treating critical newborns, was destroyed.

Across Beirut, at least 12 primary health care facilities, maternal, immunization and newborn centers have been damaged, disrupting services for nearly 120,000 people.

Against this grim backdrop, Paul Najjar and his wife are hoping that Alexandra’s death will not be in vain but will have a positive impact when the nation rebuilds itself.

_____________

Twitter: @Tarek_AliAhmad